Circadian rhythms in the classroom

Starting the school day at 10am to better suit teenagers’ circadian rhythms is not a practical option. As such, Dr Nicola Davies looks at what we can do within the classroom instead, SecEd reports.

It is your morning class and you are faced by the all-too-familiar droopy eyes and sleepy yawns. Your students are struggling to focus and however hard you try to engage them, it is difficult to get them to wake up enough to follow the lesson, let alone actively participate in their learning.

However, with so many young people chronically sleep deprived, it is important to start recognising this not as a problem with teenagers, but as a natural part of being a human who is fighting their biology to make it to class. Some people tend to be more active in the morning, whereas others can’t get their brains into gear before midday. Our energy levels and mental alertness are controlled by the “circadian rhythm” – our innate biological clock, which regulates our sleep and waking cycle. Having different circadian rhythms is what makes an early bird and night owl so different.

However, regardless of our circadian rhythm, studies have found that we all have one thing in common – our sleep pattern shifts a few hours later during adolescence. This means that it is harder for teenagers to fall asleep and wake early.

Many parents don’t understand the importance of sleep cycles, or how it affects learning. If possible, schools and teachers should be looking to provide parents with information about promoting healthy sleep routines. For example, according to Helene Emsellem, director of the Center for Sleep and Wake Disorders in the USA, letting somebody (including teenagers) lay in by just 90-minutes on the weekends can disrupt their sleep cycle and perpetuate problems with daytime alertness.

So, now that we’ve looked at some external factors, let’s get down to the nitty gritty. When your students sluggishly file into your classroom, how can you try and improve alertness and thus the learning environment?

Dr David Sousa is an international education consultant who is considered an expert in brain function and learning strategies. He suggests that if you want to help stimulate children’s brains, there are two major changes that you can make to your classroom.

First, individuals who are experiencing some form of sleep deficit have high levels of melatonin – the hormone that regulates sleep and wakefulness. One simple way of decreasing production of this chemical is to make sure the environment is brightly lit – open the curtains or blinds and ensure the room has plenty of natural lighting to help make your students feel more alert.

Second, Dr Sousa suggests that by acknowledging that teachers will experience an early-afternoon lull in energy levels, while their adolescent students are still on their way to reaching peak alertness, teachers can try and tailor activities to match this. If you have a group project or computer-based task for your students to get on with, this will not only allow them to make the most of their energy but will also allow you to manage your waning energy levels better.

Read the full article and find out more about teenage sleep and how to you can help them and yourself in the classroom Circadian rhythms in the classroom

Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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