Are You Putting Your Students to Sleep?

Sleep DeskIt may sound odd, but sitting down is exhausting.

After graduating in May, I can safely say the bulk of my time in high school was spent sitting. For seven classes a day, each 47 minutes long. Some students even have to endure 90 minute classes – I can hardly imagine their suffering.

In a blog post published by the Washington Post, veteran teacher Alexis Wiggins wrote about her experiences shadowing a high school student for two days. “I literally sat down the entire day, except for walking to and from classes. We forget as teachers, because we are on our feet a lot – in front of the board, pacing as we speak, circling around the room to check on student work…,” Wiggins wrote. “But students move almost never. And never is exhausting.”

As kids grow up, school becomes more sedentary. Teachers tend to make more of an effort to get kids up and moving in elementary school, probably because there are more opportunities for hands-on activities and fun games.

High school students are the ones who need to get up and move around the most. They have to deal with dense subject matter and, according to, only 15% of teens report sleeping for at least 8 and 1/2 hours on school nights. Sedentary lectures combined with sleep deprivation are a recipe for boredom.

There is also scientific reasoning behind the need to get out of your seat. In a Ted-Ed Talk titled “Why Sitting is Bad for You,” Murat Dalkilinç investigated the dangers of being sedentary. He says, “The longer you stay put, the more agitated your body becomes. It sits there counting down the moments until you stand up again.”

Even if our bodies are built for movement, how does being sedentary affect learning?

“Being stationary reduces blood flow and the amount of oxygen entering your blood stream through your lungs,” Dalkilinç explains in the video. “Your brain requires both of those things to remain alert, so your concentration levels will most likely dip as your brain activity slows.”

As a student who spent many classes willing her eyes to remain open, the science makes perfect sense. The most memorable moments of my high school career were spent standing – whether I was working on a lab assignment in chemistry, or acting out the function of the phospholipid bilayer in biology.

After her two days shadowing students, Wiggins wrote out a few things she would immediately change about her classes. She recommended a mandatory stretch halfway through the period, and a few minutes of play time with a Nerf basketball hoop at the beginning and end of class. She even wants to include at least one hands-on activity per class.

“Yes, we would sacrifice some content to do this – that’s fine,” Wiggins wrote. “I was so tired by the end of the day, I wasn’t absorbing most of the content, so I am not sure my previous method of making kids sit through hour-long, sit-down discussions of the texts was all that effective.”

For many teachers, taking a few minutes to stand up and move around may feel like a waste of precious time. There are only so many minutes in the day to prepare students for their exams, after all. However, taking a few minutes to ensure students are alert and more focused is far better than spending the whole period on a topic that is not absorbed or grappled with at all. And while changes may not happen overnight, any small step toward making the classroom a more active, engaging environment is a good one.

Bio Pic_Leah Yared

Leah Yared is a freshman at Harvard College. She worked with the American Physiological Society as a 2015 summer intern for the LifeSciTRC.


20 thoughts on “Are You Putting Your Students to Sleep?”

I enjoyed reading your post. I teach middle school and have recently begun using stand up desks and a pedal desk to help provide the students with opportunities for movement, which has increased their levels of engagement in class activities.

Very interesting. This article reinforces what I have observed in my Science classes wherein my students’ understanding appears to be more in-depth whenever physical activity is incorporated in the lesson.

I do see how sitting can be detrimental to a students learning, in fact several years ago I had a student who would pace in the back of the room while we were doing lecture. It wasn’t that the student was being disruptive she just needed to move in order to focus. It is terribly exhausting to sit for hours at a time and as educators we need to find ways to make learning more”active”

WOW. I know that I try and get my students up and moving around as much as I can, but this is something that I need to work on. Are there any resources for simple activities in secondary classrooms to keep students engaged and moving around?

I agree with your observation about the need for movement in the classroom. As a teacher at an all-boys school, Army and Navy Academy, I and other teachers focus on boys’ brains and use teaching methods designed specifically for them. Using the Gurian’s Institute’s research, we develop the most effective classroom practices for boys. These include hands-on lessons, brain breaks, classroom movement, and competition based learning activities. It truly works and both students and teachers benefit.

I think we often forget what it is like to go through a school day like our students do day after day.

This is such a good read. I teach high school and our classes are 90 minutes. I fuss all the time for my students to stay seated not realizing they need to get up and move around after completing labs and reports. I will definitely do something different in the classroom maybe a brief exercise where we are required to move around.

I agree with you completely, I am a teacher and I find that my students do better when they are forced to move or interact every 15 minutes or so. I also find that working hands-on seems to be better for students than a boring lecture. Thanks for the insight!

As a high school teacher I am deeply aware of how the all-day sitting affects student motivation. Fortunately, science classes can incorporate lots of movement in the form of lab activites and other ways of getting students out of their seats. As a teacher I must learn to be tolerant of students who need to move, allowing them to get up, stretch, sharpen a pencil, get that kleenex, etc.

This was a very interesting idea! I do try to let students sharpen pencils adjust seating, use the bathroom, etc. I am a “Yes” man in that department. It is an art form however to balance that with maintaining a learning environment in a middle school classroom. I imagine you can give more freedom at an older age level. I will keep this in mind this week as i teach and see how I can accomadate the idea more than I do.

This was a very interesting idea! I do try to let students sharpen pencils adjust seating, use the bathroom, etc. I am a “Yes” man in that department. It is an art form however to balance that with maintaining a learning environment in a middle school classroom. I imagine you can give more freedom at an older age level. I will keep this in mind this week as i teach and see how I can accommodate the idea more than I do.

I wonder how effective “gallery walks” are in getting students off their seats and actively engaged in learning inside the classroom.

Great article on the importance of keeping kids engaged by keeping them active. I read a study about having students sit on stability balls at their desks instead of chairs and also having no stools at the lab tables and having the students stand and move around as they work on experiments. Seems worth the try.

What are your thoughts about later start times for high school students?  My school starts at 7:10 am and many of my students have to be at their bus stops before 6.

Thanks for the article! I will take this into consideration going forward!

I absolutely agree with Leah. Sitting for long periods of time from a metabolic perspective does not foster cerebral activity. In fact student who sit for most of the day tend to fall asleep during there last period class.

I totally agree with this! In the lessons I teach in which my high school students are not confined to a chair I clearly can see a difference in attitude and learning!

I enjoyed reading this. I struggle with how to get kids up and moving.  I work at an alternative school and my students learn from an online program.  I am there to assist them and pulled them for interventions.  They only have 50 minutes to work online ( 50 minutes a class period) and if they get behind it lowers their grade.  They get bored sitting there yet they don’t want to be away from the computer.

We started inquiry circles at the beginning of class and that seems to work.  Student take turns talking about the learning target they are learning about and have an opportunity to ask classmates questions.

I like the nerf ball idea.  That would be a great exit ticket strategy.

I completely agree with this article. I just attended a 5 hour workshop, and found it extremely difficult to pay attention the longer I sat in my seat. I see a huge difference in the classroom when students read in their textbooks as opposed to participating in a lab activity.

This article was great!

I have noticed that the students start putting their heads down towards the end of my class. Perhaps that can change if I gave a little stretch break in the middle.

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