Sleep deficit – what to do? School in a healthy rhythm

By Gisela King, February 2020

Are you familiar with this? Anyone with small children will have little chance of sleeping in at the weekend because our offspring are already up bright and early. That is different with grandparents because their sleep rhythm often fits in well with younger children; they go to bed earlier and earlier as the years go by and get up earlier and earlier. Maybe they do a bit of (early) childcare occasionally so that the parents can have a lie in?

A few years later, as the children enter puberty, we will rarely see them in a waking state before lunchtime on days off. Any attempt at untimely contact as a rule produces an extremely ungracious reaction. Even the strictest demand to go to bed earlier at least during the week so that they can follow the lessons next day well rested and alert is in vain. The use of tablets, computers and smartphones shortly before going to sleep is suspected of preventing sleep. That may well be true to some extent but is it the whole story?

Change of location: in Tanzania, the Hadza people continue to live in groups to twenty to thirty people as hunter-gatherers, and they do so without artificial light, television, computers or smartphones. Researchers have observed that among the Hadza, too, older members of the group generally go to sleep earlier and also wake up earlier than the younger members of the group. The young people are thus the “night owls” at the camp fire while the adults are already asleep. The shift in sleep rhythm in young people described above is therefore clearly not caused by external influences – it is typically human. When young people cannot find their way to bed in the evening, they simply aren’t tired yet. And that is not their fault, it is completely normal at this age. Even if we can persuade our body through small tricks to come a bit closer to the desired sleeping habits, that only works within very narrow limits.

In recent years, increasing numbers of connections between sleep and health have been shown to exist. The cells in our body are renewed during the night, damaged tissue is regenerated, muscles grow, protein and new blood are formed.

Children grow at night – noticeable in some through the occurrence of muscle pain in the evening. The immune system, too, is highly active at night. That even goes as far as vaccinations only having their optimum effect if we sleep well before the vaccination and in the following night. If sleep is disturbed, our immune system forms clearly fewer antibodies. Our brain is flushed during phases of deep sleep, harmful metabolic waste, for example certain proteins, is transported away. These harmful proteins are suspected of being involved in the occurrence of diseases such as Alzheimer’s dementia. The regular nightly “wash cycle” thus as a huge effect on health in later life.

When owls have to become larks

The lack of sleep has many different effects. Thus our ability to think logically and take reasonable decisions suffers very considerably even after just one night without sleep. The effects are similar to the state we are in with a blood alcohol content of about 100mg/100ml without us noticing such impairment ourselves. People who are deprived of sleep additionally tend to be irritable and impatient and find it difficult to react to others appropriately. The ability to interpret the facial expression of other people also drops considerably. This can, for example, lead to neutral expressions being interpreted as being aggressive with the corresponding reaction.

This might also explain the behaviour of some sleep-deprived young people during puberty towards parents and teachers …

Rudolf Steiner calls on us to allow new information from a lesson to pass through the night before moving on the next morning to drawing conclusions and other thoughts. Neurobiologists confirm this: facts which have ended up in the short-term memory during the day are transferred to the long-term memory during the night where new links are also partly created. In order for this “move” of factual knowledge to take place, the nerve cells have to synchronise, certain connections between them are reinforced, less frequently used ones are broken down. These processes take place during the phase of deep sleep. There is no real learning without uninterrupted sleep with sufficient deep sleep phases. Learning thus takes place not during the day but during the night.

Pupils going through puberty are at a clear disadvantage here: since they are woken too early each morning, they are missing valuable phases of deep sleep. That has an effect on their performance. Thus studies in Baden-Württemberg have shown that in the university entrance exams there is a statistical difference of half a mark between owls and larks. That is equivalent to saying that the shape of your nose should influence the final mark.

The shifts in sleep rhythms during adolescence also have a clear effect on what happens in lessons. Although children from about the age of twelve develop from an early chronotype (larks) into night people (owls) at breathtaking speed, the school bell continues to ring at the same early time – including in most Waldorf schools. Our class teachers repeatedly observe also in the lower classes pupils who have not had enough sleep and are constantly yawning. In upper school, by contrast, we may as teachers find whole classes who are surprisingly quiet and peaceful – and that in the middle of puberty. Night owls don’t want to talk at all in the early morning, neither at home nor in school. As a rule, these pupils are not properly awake and thus mostly not ready to take in any lesson content, however fascinating it might be.

If they are tired enough, we can experience individual pupils in class 12 resting their head on their desk in deep sleep in the middle of lively group work. Previously I woke them up – meanwhile I let them sleep. A pupil in class 11 had perfected sleeping while in a seated position to such an extent that one had to look very closely to see whether their eyes were closed.

Sleep research shows more and more clearly: we cannot catch up on missed sleep. In a 15-year-old pupil the sleep deficit can add up to eleven to thirteen hours in a week. What consequences will that have on their future health?

Such considerations led our school to shift the start of lessons in the morning from 7.45 to 8.30 in the 2018/19 school year. A comprehensive evaluation is still pending; but there are individual reports from class teachers of the younger classes that the children are more awake and settled. From my own experience, I can say that the upper school pupils are clearly more awake and receptive than previously. In a class 12, the main lesson was put back to the old time on two days a week for organisational reasons at the request of the class. Not just for me as the teacher but also for the pupils a considerable reduction in the quality of the lessons was noticeable – they were willing, but couldn’t (yet) act with full attentiveness.

Beyond that there are undoubtedly further aspects which we will have to consider in the future. Thus one pupil sighed from the bottom of her heart in the oral examination at eight in the morning: “For me as a mega owl this is actually much too early!”

About the author: Dr Gisela King has a doctorate in veterinary medicine and has been an upper school teacher of biology and geography at the Karlsruhe Free Waldorf School since 2005. She is a founding member of the School Rhythm Delegation which has been in existence since May 2015. (this website provides information about the process leading to the decision on changing the starting time of teaching at the school.)