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Strategies for Dealing with Sleepy Students

Meghan Mathis

Strategies for Dealing with Sleepy StudentsWhether it is the third-grader with heavy eyelids whose head bobs sleepily any time you stop speaking, or the sneaky seventh-grader who thinks he’s fooling you by resting his head in his hand the minute you turn out the lights to show that video clip, we all have been faced with the dilemma of tired students. But how do we deal with those students in a way that stops the behavior without wasting a ton of class time or sending our students the message that we don’t care about them?

Wake Up the Tired Students

I was surprised by how many teachers I spoke with about this topic who stated that they just let tired students continue to sleep through their classes. While allowing students to sleep through your class means you do not have to interrupt your lesson to try to keep a student alert, the negatives definitely outweigh the benefit. It sends the message to other student that you don’t care enough about what you are teaching to wake the offender up, but also that you don’t care enough about the student to ask them to follow the rules. Additionally, your other students learn that if they don’t want to pay attention, they too can sleep with impunity. Finally, it leaves you wide open for an uncomfortable conversation with your administrator when she stops by your classroom for an unscheduled visit – only to observe you allowing students to sleep through your instruction. With all of this in mind, the best decision is to make it your policy to wake up any sleeping student. Every time.

Use Honey, Not Vinegar

It can be tough not to use the “old school” methods to rouse tired students. While slamming a textbook on their desk, loudly calling on them to answer a question we know they aren’t prepared for, or sending everyone else to lunch while they continue to sleep through the following period may appeal to the side of us that is frustrated or upset that a student is sleeping during a lesson we worked so hard on, it also embarrasses our students and makes them feel like we’re picking on them. This is definitely not the best way to encourage a safe, respectful classroom environment. Instead, getting the rest of the class started on an activity that occupies them while you quietly pat the sleeping student on the arm or shoulder to wake them lets them know that you have gone out of your way not to embarrass them. Beginning the dialogue not with a demand that they stay awake, but rather with a question about whether or not they are feeling well, if they need a drink or need to stand up for a bit lets them know that you understand they aren’t falling asleep on purpose. This method makes it almost impossible for students to respond in a rude, disrespectful manner – after all, you didn’t come over and kick their foot or drop a book next to their ear, you respectfully expressed concern about their well-being. This good-will will come in handy later when you remind them that sleeping in class isn’t going to be tolerated.

Work With the Tired Students

Sometimes, just asking a student politely to wake up, get a drink, stand and stretch will be enough. If a student is tired once in a while because a lesson has gotten boring (hey, it happens), they stayed up too late, or they aren’t feeling well, it might be enough to politely remind them that they need to wake themselves up and get back to work. Other times, however, you’ll encounter a student who seems to be trying to make a habit of napping during your class. During these times the positive rapport you have developed with your students will be an asset when you meet with them before or after class to discuss the problem.

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Begin by letting them know that the primary reason for meeting with them is not because you’re angry, but because you’re concerned. A young person should be capable of making it through a day without needing to sleep through a class period. The fact that he/she seems unable to do that indicates that something is wrong. Are they sick?  Are they staying up too late doing school work?  Working?  Playing video games?  Is something going on at home that is keeping them up?

Have a conversation with your student that centers around letting them know that you want to work with them to find a solution to the problem – but include the fact that sleeping in your class is not an acceptable option to whatever the problem might be. If the problem is very serious work with the student to reach out to the right people/agencies for support (i.e. the nurse, the guidance department, etc.). If it is a simple problem, like staying up too late playing video games, remind the student that being awake in class is an expectation for passing your class. Offer to allow your student to stand up and stretch when they feel sleepy, to go get a drink of water if they need to, but be clear about the fact that if it continues you will have to pursue consequences – notifying parents or the principal, issuing detentions, etc. Keep the conversation positive, but let them know that you fully expect the behavior to stop.

Consider What You Can Control

Since we’re asking our student to consider what might be going on in their life outside of class that’s making them so tired, it’s only fair to consider if something in class (or something we’re doing) might be contributing as well. Did we just start a particularly difficult (or boring?) unit?  Were we showing a video in a dark classroom?  While it’s a bit uncomfortable to admit that our lessons might have been a bit dry lately, self-evaluation is an incredibly useful tool. And it can never hurt to ponder whether we could add a bit more interest to our lessons – or even if we just need to include a few “out-of-their-seats” moments throughout the class period to get blood flowing to our students’ brains. Additionally, if our students’ continue to sleep and we have to move on to contacting their parents and possible disciplinary action, it will only make these decisions easier if we know that we have tried multiple interventions and considered several alternative strategies in our attempt to engage our student in active learning.

Teacher, Phone Home 

Ok, you’ve talked to the student, encouraging them to get a good night’s sleep, stand up and walk around a bit when they feel themselves growing sleepy. You’ve examined your lesson plans – perhaps adding in a few activities to get the students out of their desks. You’ve sent the student to the school nurse to rule out illness as a potential cause for their lethargy, and your student is still nodding off throughout your class. What next?  It’s time to reach out to your student’s parents or guardians. Make sure that this call or email includes several things:  1) Share exactly what you’re witnessing. How their son or daughter is falling asleep, how often and for how long before you wake them. If they fall back to sleep after you try to wake them up, include that information as well. 2)  How you have tried to solve the issue so far. What steps you have taken with their child, what their child has said/done to try to work with you – this shows that you aren’t calling after one class period, but because it has become a more serious problem. Finally, 3) express your concern, not your anger/frustration over their son or daughter catching zzz’s in your class. This puts parents on your side, instead of on the defensive. Let them know that you’re worried that there is a health issue that is making their student sleep through class. This way, they can address the problem at home and, hopefully, work with their child to fix it.

Consider a Positive Reinforcement Plan for Tired Students

If the student is still struggling, consider offering them an additional incentive to stay awake. For elementary students it might be a sticker chart leading up to a bigger reward, for middle-school and high-school consider what you can offer that is appealing but not over-the-top. I have made deals with sleepy students that if they can stay awake and alert for several days in a row I will end class 15 minutes early on Friday and show a funny YouTube video. It encouraged the student because he knew he could earn something that would make the entire class happy. (We made sure not to let any other students know this – I didn’t want them getting angry if my sleepy student didn’t meet his goal.)  Whatever positive reinforcement works for you and your student, it’s one more way for you to let your student know that you care about them, want to help them, and are not just out to punish them.

Institute Discipline, but Fairly 

After we have tried to deal with sleeping students in kind, understanding ways, there may come a time when it is appropriate to issue negative consequences. It is important, however, to do this fairly. Let the student know up front that you feel you have been very fair in helping them deal with this problem. Review the steps you have already taken: giving them strategies for staying awake, giving them opportunities to get out of their seat during class, speaking to their parents, etc. to keep them awake. Be clear about what the consequence will be the next time they doze off in your class. What you choose is entirely up to you – working with you during recess or before/after school to make up work, a detention, etc. Remind them that they can use those strategies that you’ve given them (standing up, getting a drink, etc.) but that it’s time for them to accept responsibility for their actions. It’s also a good point to include their parents in this decision so that everyone who cares about helping the student succeed is involved and on-board. When the moment arrives that you have to issue punishment do so firmly but fairly.

Back to the Drawing Board

I’ve only gotten to this step once in my entire career. In all of my other experiences with sleepy students the steps illustrated above were more than sufficient to solve the problem. But it does happen that a student has something larger and more problematic going on – and they do not respond to any of your interventions. When this happens, you need to get a team of people from school and home together to help your student. Include the student, their parents/guardians, your school nurse, guidance counselor, principal, other teachers who work with the student and anyone else who might be part of that student’s educational team. Bring documentation of every intervention you’ve made and how it was received. Work together with all of the people who care about the student to find a solution to the problem. With the data you will be able to provide, you’ll be half-way to finding an answer that will help that child return to the classroom successfully.

We all plan our lessons carefully and try diligently to make them interesting and worthwhile to our classes. Because of this, it can be difficult not to take it personally when a student tries to doze off during our lessons. If we want to address the sleepy behavior in a positive way that builds a sense of trust between our students and ourselves than we need to make sure we work with the students to give them strategies to deal with their sleepiness rather than punishments that don’t solve the problem.