Teach is dozing too

Remember those magic moments in class when the teacher pulled down the blinds, lowered the lights and fired up the VCR or movie projector? For a certain percentage of students, K through grad school, movie days are more likely to turn into naptime.

But kids who find themselves dozing off in class might be surprised to learn their teachers are often just as sleep-deprived, according to a recent survey.

The online poll done by HarrisInteractive found that 51 percent of 1,350 kindergarten-through-12th grade teachers from around the country reported being drowsy or falling asleep while at work, and 43 percent said they’ve been so tired that they changed their lesson plan to show a movie or had the class do “busy work” because they didn’t feel they could handle the day’s instruction.

Eighty-eight percent of the teachers in the survey, sponsored by the drug firm Sepracor, said they have trouble falling or staying asleep at least some of the time, but just one in 10 think they have insomnia.

“Those numbers for symptoms of insomnia are all pretty high for any adult population,” said Dr. Thomas Roth, director of the sleep disorders program at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. Studies suggest that about a third of the population suffers from sleep disruption and about 10 percent have some degree of insomnia.

On the other hand, teachers in the survey appreciate the value of a good night’s rest, with 97 percent saying it’s important to their ability to focus and concentrate and do their best at work. A similar proportion said they encourage their students to get a good night’s sleep before a test or competition.

Roth said he hasn’t studied teachers specifically, “but one of the biggest factors that predisposes people to sleep problems is stress, and I think a lot of teachers do work under a lot of stress and bring that stress home with them at night.”

That’s been the case for Brigid Adams, a first-grade teacher at the Golden Door Charter School in Jersey City, N.J. “Last year was just crazy for me. There was not a night for months that I got a full night’s sleep, three to five hours a night was typical,” she said.

Last year, Adams classroom was used for an after-school daycare program, “so I had to take everything home with me, and then I’d forget things that I needed and be worrying all night that I wasn’t completely prepared and just felt overwhelmed. This year, I can stay late at school and work, so the stress level is down a little bit.”

Like many people with trouble sleeping, Adams, 28, hasn’t discussed the problem with her doctor (72 percent of those in the survey hadn’t either), and rarely takes anything to help her sleep because she’s concerned about side effects and feeling groggy the next day.

“You just need to be on top of your game so much as a teacher, it’s so physically demanding to be alert and patient at all times, particularly with the younger ages,” said the five-year veteran.

Although he’s a sleep specialist, Roth says he believes primary care doctors ought to be able to handle most patients’ sleep difficulties, if they’d just ask people about it during routine visits. “There’s a lot of different things people can try, different therapies and medicines, and it doesn’t take any more time to talk with a patient about sleep than it does to discuss their diet,” he said.

Of course, that’s true for kids, too.

“If we don’t ask about sleep and try to optimize sleep patterns in kids struggling academically, then we aren’t doing our jobs,” said Dr. Gahan Fallone, lead author of a recent study that had teachers rate a group of 74 elementary and middle school students. after they’d gotten as little as six and a half hour s sleep a night and again after they’d gotten at least 10 hours sleep.

Although the teachers didn’t know who had been kept up late, they had no trouble seeing the difference in recall, learning and attention to tasks, according to Fallone, who did the work at Brown University and is now at the Forest Institute of Professional Psychology in Springfield, Mo.

“Even in the first grade, I’ve had kids that I had to call their parents about because they’re falling asleep every day in class,” Adams said.

Fallone said, “There’s a pretty steady decline in the amount of sleep kids get once they start school, and it’s scary to look at how little sleep kids actually get once they become teenagers.”

Roth said while developing good sleep habits should come from parents first, he also thinks schools need to reinforce the importance of sleep in health classes. “How are kids supposed to find out about good sleep habits? In my daughter’s high school hygiene book, there’s like 400 pages on nutrition and about two on sleep. They need to balance that a bit more.”

On the Net: www.sleepfoundation.org


(Contact Lee Bowman at BowmanL(at)SHNS.com.)