It was hard for Johanne Boursier to ignore the tired faces looking back at her from her vantage point at the front of the classroom.
The Grade 10 French teacher at Heritage Regional High School, south of Montreal, had noticed a downward trend in recent years unlike anything the 22-year veteran had seen before.
So when she heard of the “Sleep for Success” study undertaken at her school board, she jumped at the chance to incorporate good sleep habits into her teaching. The study is examining how teaching children sleep awareness can improve their well-being and their academic performance.
“I had been noticing a shift in my students in the past two years, how tired they were, how anxious they were,” Boursier said in a recent interview. “A lot of the patterns were changing drastically, so I was hoping to find some answers by involving myself in the research.”
Boursier always suspected poor sleep was an underlying factor, but she was astounded when she asked students in one of her classes for a quick show of hands and found that just three of 32 students reported having no sleep issues.
The impact is plain to see, Boursier said.
She’s seen a spike in anxiety in recent years — panic attacks to the point where students would pass out in class, necessitating an ambulance. Boursier also noted the number of suicide attempts at her school has increased. And students display a serious lack of reading comprehension.
“They read but they can’t retain the information, because they’re not focusing properly,” she said. “Their brain is so tired they can’t retain what they’re reading.”
The educator said lack of sleep is top of mind for her colleagues, and she suspects the same is true elsewhere in the country.
According to the Canadian Paediatric Society, children between the ages of six and 12 should be getting from nine to 12 hours sleep nightly, while teenagers need between eight and 10 hours.
But Reut Gruber, a clinical child psychologist and pediatric sleep expert at the Douglas Research Centre in Montreal who designed the project taught by Boursier, said it’s no secret that many kids fall well short of those guidelines.
“Depending on numbers and what surveys you look at, one-third to one-half of Canadian students do not get what we consider to be the recommended amount of sleep,” said Gruber, who is also a McGill University medicine professor.
Gruber said students observed at the Riverside School Board in recent years exhibited serious sleep woes: 50 to 75 per cent had difficulty either falling asleep or staying asleep, and a significant number couldn’t function during the day because they were too sleepy.
“We all know it’s prevalent, but this was more extreme, to be honest, than what we expected,” Gruber said. “We were quite astounded by that — this was the kind of factor that contributed to the sense of urgency that we absolutely have to do something about it.”
Students in Boursier’s class fill out an extensive survey and wear a watch for a week that registers their sleep patterns.
After that, Boursier will incorporate some discussion and tips into her teachings about what affects their sleep positively and negatively and the difference between good sleep and bad sleep.
One major factor that’s arisen is the misuse of such technology as smart phones and tablets.
“They can’t get to sleep, so they’ll start watching a movie on Netflix instead and only go to bed two hours later,” Boursier said. ”They’ve lost those sleep hours, and they can’t make it up.”
Class discussion centres on keeping electronic devices out of the bedroom, the impact of phone lights on melatonin levels, maintaining a regular bedtime that doesn’t deviate on weekends and the pitfalls of napping.
Students are tested after the lessons to measure any changes.
“What she (Gruber) found out (over the years) is that some of the students who made changes to their habits, their marks actually went up,” Boursier said.
Boursier’s class is the only one taking part this year, but there are hopes of extending the program to other classes.
“What we hope is that if we can at least address some of the issues on the side of sleep, maybe this will allow us to see some improvement in the mental health of the students,” Gruber said.
She said sleep should be a part of the classroom discussion much like healthy eating or physical education.
“It really depends on policy-makers, but we really hope it will be extended and implemented in other places, either here in Quebec or other places,” Gruber said. “We’re kind of paving the way for this.”
Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press