Hanna Beech, Deputy Head, Ramsgate Arts Primary School; Trust Teaching and Learning Lead, Viking Academy Trust, UK
Identifying poor sleep as a negative influence on pupil wellbeing
I first identified a lack of sufficient sleep as a barrier to pupil wellbeing and learning during a pupil progress meeting. As my senior leaders queried the progress of a child in my class and I discussed my concerns out loud, I realised that the problems I had encountered with the child – a lack of focus, drive and stamina for learning – were not necessarily sources of the issue but outcomes of a barrier: a lack of sleep. The child was lethargic and often had emotional outbursts. Put simply, they were exhausted.
Following the meeting I decided to search for more information, which proved easy as the science is clear on the fact that we need sleep to help us function, both physically and mentally. Among other sources, the Sleep Foundation (Pacheco, 2022) makes a strong case for ensuring that children get enough sleep by drawing from a wide range of research indicating that sleep directly impacts a child’s:
- mental wellbeing
- alertness and attention
- cognitive performance
- vocabulary acquisition
- retention of learning.
Through exploring research, I began to draw similarities between what I was reading and what I was witnessing first hand in the classroom.
Is this a problem across the school?
Whilst I had identified that this was a significant problem for one child in my class, it was important to discover whether this was a more widespread issue across the school. Initially, I met with the pupils on our school council to discuss issues around sleep, providing insights into their experiences.
I set up a pupil survey, including questions around pupils’ views, routines and experiences of sleep, as well as their knowledge about the importance of sleep, including:
- Why is sleep important?
- What time do you usually go to bed?
- What do you do before going to sleep?
I took the survey questions to my senior leadership team (SLT), who agreed we should explore the issues further. We decided to complete the survey with around 10 per cent of pupils from each class to reduce impact on workload whilst still gathering sufficient information. We selected pupils from a range of groups to ensure a varied sample and parental consent was gained via a letter home explaining the purpose of the survey. The selected pupils were given the choice to opt in or out of the survey (although all selected parents and pupils agreed to take part).
Results from the survey showed that many children had poor sleep hygiene, defined as ‘the lead-up and routine around a child’s bedtime’ (GOSH, 2020) and most lacked an understanding of the importance of sleep. Sharing the outcomes with staff during a meeting revealed a consensus of experiences and concerns – a lack of sleep impacting learning and wellbeing. This was most often associated with those pupils whose behaviour and wellbeing were already a concern. To address this, I aimed to:
- increase pupil knowledge and understanding of the impacts of good/poor sleep
- provide pupils with strategies and routines to improve their sleep hygiene
- support parents and carers in helping their child develop good sleep hygiene.
To meet these aims, I developed an action plan using the EEF’s ‘Putting evidence to work: A school’s guide to implementation’ as guidance.
Identifying and navigating around barriers for improving sleep
The impacts of poor sleep provide a clear purpose for supporting young people to get the sleep required, however, there were clear barriers to consider.
Barrier 1: ‘It’s not our job’
With schools seemingly taking on many duties perhaps previously considered the role of the parent/carer, it may be perceived that supporting young people’s sleep simply isn’t our job. However, the physical health and mental wellbeing statutory guidance from the Department for Education - a ministerial department responsi... outlines duties to teach about good sleep (DfE, 2021) and Ofsted’s latest Education Inspection Framework highlights that schools should develop pupil’s knowledge about keeping physically and mentally healthy.
Developing pupil wellbeing is a key responsibility for schools, and sleep can play a huge part in this. We needed to draw our team’s attention to this responsibility and ensure that they see the link between pupil sleep hygiene and outcomes.
I ensured that teachers had the time and resources to teach pupils about sleep by providing presentations to reduce teacher preparation time and carving out time across the term to educate classes about sleep hygiene. For example, teachers were provided a 30-minute lesson slot per term dedicated to learning about sleep. This meant that pupils’ knowledge could be increased without impacting negatively on teacher workload.
Barrier 2: Sleep happens at home
One obvious barrier is that sleep doesn’t happen on our watch. We are reliant on parents and carers to do the heavy lifting when it comes to ensuring good sleep hygiene at home. This brings much complexity. Do they understand and value the importance of sleep? Do they have the time and ability to ensure good sleep hygiene?
To tackle this barrier, we shared the overall outcomes of the pupil survey. There were features about sleep on the newsletter and I created and shared an information poster with links to key websites and research. We hosted sleep workshops for parents and carers to explore the importance of sleep and how much sleep children need. We included tips about developing good sleep habits and offered parents the chance to share their own successes and challenges with managing their child’s sleep.
Barrier 3: Good sleep hygiene relies on habit change…and habit change is hard
Another barrier to improving sleep is the fact that it rests heavily on the ability to change one’s habits. Research into habit forming shows that much of what we do is already habitual (Wood et al., 2002), which means we first must break habits to set new ones. This is no easy task.
Although habit breaking and forming is challenging, studies indicate that habits form when we repeat an action in a specific context using cues (Gardner et al., 2011) and that habits can take 66 days to form (Lally et al., 2009). To make use of this research I set up a school ‘Sleep Challenge’.
The Sleep Challenge was set across the school. This involved leading an assembly and including a feature about the challenge on the newsletter. The concept of the challenge was for parents and carers to work alongside their children to set sleep intentions for a period of six weeks. This included agreeing school-night routines and timings for each step. The challenge included a signed agreement by the child and a daily sign-off area for the parent to confirm that the child had met their intention. As part of the challenge, children had to identify their perceived benefits of following their routines.
Throughout the challenge, classes would hold informal conversations about how they were finding the habit formation and what successes or barriers they experienced. At the end of the period, pupils returned their completed challenges to school. Pupils were awarded with certificates of completion and entered a draw to win a bundle of sleep goodies (including a duvet set, teddy, PJs and bubble bath).
As part of the Sleep Challenge, there was a section for parents to write an evaluative comment about the experience. This, for me, was the most rewarding part of addressing poor sleep habits using the challenge. Many parents wrote comments of gratitude for the structure around sleep hygiene and stated the ongoing focus over time had made significant differences to their child’s wellbeing, as well as their own. One parent commented that by the end of the challenge, they felt better connected to their child. These unexpected outcomes drove me to continue the challenge annually.
Whilst there were success stories, we had a much higher participation from pupils in Key Stage 1 and lower-Key Stage 2. Aiming to increase engagement from pupils in Years 5 and 6 is the next step, especially as these pupils tend to take more ownership over their sleep hygiene.
Impact: Is it worth it?
Taking action to tackle the impacts of poor sleep led to:
- increased pupil, staff and parent/carer knowledge and understanding of why and how to get good sleep
- shared aims and actions to achieve better sleep hygiene.
- improved sleep habits leading to reports of increased wellbeing, focus and therefore overall progress for some pupils.
It is important to note that poor sleep could be an indicator of an underlying physical or mental condition. It is necessary to ensure that teachers, parents and carers understand that poor sleep, and the associated symptoms of exhaustion and/or behavioural issues, might be the result of something other than poor sleep habits. From here, staff will need to take the appropriate action to identify underlying issues and support the child in question in line with safeguarding policies.
Overall, I would recommend considering how poor sleep hygiene might be impacting the children, families and educators in your setting. Whilst there are many incentives, priorities and ideas for improving wellbeing, a good night’s sleep is something that makes a difference for us all.
Summary of actions to improve good sleep hygiene
The actions below may help you to get started on your journey to better wellbeing through improved sleep:
- Identify common issues and barriers with pupils, staff and parents/carers in your setting
- Create a clear plan of action, including increasing knowledge and buy-in for all parties
- Provide staff with sufficient resources and time to educate their classes about sleep hygiene
- Provide parents and carers with information, guidance and resources to support their child with sleep hygiene
- Consider providing incentives and challenges
- Evaluate the impact of your action through surveys and informal observations of key pupils
- Remember to act if a child might have an underlying health condition
- Ensure sustainable change by repeating a focus on sleep hygiene annually.