You know the image from TV and movies — the delinquent, defiant slumped over his desk, fast asleep in class. But some teachers today are making waves on social media for letting their students snooze in class, arguing sleeping in class isn’t always the mark of a lazy, disrespectful student, and instead it could be an indicator of more serious mental health issues at play.
TikTok user @bcholeman garnered 7.4 million likes for a video he posted about cutting students some slack when it comes to sleep.
“Sometimes the nicest thing a teacher can do for a student is let them come in, lay their head down and go to sleep,” he said. “Life can hit hard, and we all need some grace.”
User @ms.old says she also lets her students sleep in class sometimes. She believes if a student takes a nap in the morning, they tend to be “more refreshed for the rest of the day… less likely to have an attitude problem (and) more likely to be motivated to do the next activity.”
Experts agree sleeping in class doesn’t always stem from laziness, and instead it could be an indicator that something more serious is going on.
“We think about children as happy human beings that are just completing their homework at school and living a happy life, but sometimes we can see that depression can be actually diagnosed or seen in children as small as 5, 6 years old,” says Cynthia Catchings, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist at Talkspace.
Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, psychologist and CEO of Omega Recovery treatment center, says sleep issues are “a red flag for depression.”
“People who suffer from clinical depression will have a sleep disorder (or) sleep dysregulation, so either sleeping too much or too little,” he explains.
Other factors that impact sleep
Children aged 6 to 12 should sleep nine to 12 hours in a 24-hour period, and teenagers aged 13 to 18 should sleep eight to 10 hours, according to The American Academy of Sleep Medicine. But many don’t get that much sleep.
A 2015 analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that about 58% of middle school students didn’t get enough sleep and neither did 73% of high schoolers.
Why? Catchings says stress and anxiety may play a role since both can affect sleep.
“Just thinking about ‘I didn’t complete the homework,’ ‘I’m afraid to ask this question’ and (students) cannot sleep (or are) waking up in the middle of the night worried about it,” she says.
Catchings says she also encounters adjustment disorders in teens.
“Is the child going back to school after being at home? Is it that they moved? Divorce or arguments at home? That can… create the adjustment disorders that we diagnose sometimes,” she says.
On TikTok, @ms.old said she’s learned from a few of her students “the only reason they’re sleeping (in class) is because it’s the only opportunity that they have to sleep.”
“I’ve even had some students share with me that it’s the only place they feel safe enough to sleep.”
Catchings says adults should be mindful about the bigger picture when they are questioning a student’s tendency to sleep in class.
“Maybe there’s some domestic violence; maybe there is alcoholism or other issues at home, so that means that maybe the child is not going to be sleeping properly.”
The pandemic’s impact on mental health, sleep
“Kids are living in an uncertain world right now so that in itself is depressive,” Kardaras says, adding fear and anxiety surrounding COVID-19 has also caused an increase in depression rates.
On top of that, an uptick in screen time due to Zoom classes and an overall shift in typical home structures can mean even more upheaval.
“Kids were already adversely impacted by too much screen time pre-COVID,” says Kardaras. “(As) Zoom learning became the preferred delivery system of education, you essentially doubled young people’s screen time.”
Kardaras says studies have shown an increase in screen time puts you at higher risk for depression.
“There’s this sort of misconception that you can actually form meaningful connections through screens, Facebook and social media, and the research shows the opposite,” he says. “Screen time essentially devastates physical activity and devastates interpersonal interaction, and those are the two main drivers of depression.”
Screen time can also make kids more tired.
“The circadian sleep cycle gets really affected by the blue light of screens,” he explains. “So they’re staying up later because their sleep cycles are dysregulated.”
What can teachers, parents do?
Catchings says the teachers who are letting their students sleep in class may have the right idea.
“What we see from teachers recently in allowing them to sleep classes is ‘let me see what the concern is. I can let them sleep. I can always communicate with them or try to investigate what is going on and then help the child.'”
She says the next important step is to involve a parent, counselor or both.
Teachers should lean on their schools resources, especially if a student’s sleep issues are beginning to impact learning. Kardaras suggests reaching out to the school’s medical or mental health team, who may be able to provide assistance.
Parents who want to help their kids sleep better can consider stepping in to reduce their child’s screen time. Kardaras suggests parents aim to enforce a rule of no screen time 3 to 4 hours before bed, including television.
And lastly, he encourages parents to talk to their kids, especially as some start to transition back to in-person classes this fall.
“Encourage your kids to talk about… what they’re feeling, what their apprehensions are, what their fears are,” he says. Be sure you’re “not just ignoring the issue and putting their backpack on… and sending them off to school without at least having the opportunity to dialogue about that.”