As a wellbeing and mental health lead within a school, you sometimes find yourself offering advice that you would do well heeding yourself. I regularly highlight to staff and students the importance of following Martin Seligman’s lead, focusing on activities that make you feel positive, engaging with the things and the people that you love, building purpose into your life by contributing to the lives of others and celebrating achievement. It is important to model positively and I have worked hard over the years to align myself to this expectation.
Most recently, I was particularly happy to contribute to our school-wide collaboration to collectively run/cycle or swim the distance from DLD College in London to Jakarta, where our furthest away online learner was dutifully logging into her lessons each day.
Over the period of eight weeks, as a school, we did what we could around the four corners of the globe to build up our total and celebrate each other’s achievements. Terrific, I was on my bike, I was contributing and supporting connections in the school and beyond. Martin would be proud I thought. This isn’t always the case though, and in particular there is one area that I find hard to model – sleep.
Over a number of years, I have made the terrible mistake of taking my phone to bed. Ostensibly, I like to listen to podcasts as I drift off, but have increasing checked social media and emails in the middle of the night – not good. In addition to this, work would be on my mind and I would roll out of bed to get ahead of the work and find myself at 4.00am writing up a presentation to be given later that week.
“Over a number of years, I have made the terrible mistake of taking my phone to bed.”
I then decided to do some research. What I found was shocking, and on one of these sleepless nights found that there was a sleeplessness epidemic taking place with teenagers around the world. In a recent academic journal, Agarwal et al.’s (2020) article on ‘Adolescents Sleep Quality and Internet Addiction’, they highlight that according to the family technology education group, teens are spending more than one third of their days using media – nearly nine hours on average. This was impacting their sleep patterns and interfering with the learning process. Lack of sleep has been proved to affect memory and performance and can contribute to mental health difficulties (Wong et al., 2021). Teens need at least eight hours’ sleep on school nights. I was feeling that I did too.
After researching (during working hours) I made contact with Vicki Dawson, the CEO of the Sleep Charity in the UK, to organise staff training with the hope of raising awareness of the importance of sleep. I hoped that this would help support the young people (and staff) in the college to foster better sleeping habits and improve on wellbeing. As part of the support, Vicki also undertook a sleep audit of the boarding house, producing recommendations to improve the sleep environment and enhance the boarding space.
“Teens are spending more than one third of their days using media – nearly nine hours on average.”
Over the next six months DLD College invested in bed linen and equipment to support the boarders. This included the production of a wellbeing pack for each boarder with ergonomic sleep masks and ear plugs. In each of the common rooms of the boarding house a sleep station was set up with varying activities to encourage greater melatonin levels, from teas to drawing pens and patterns. Lumie alarm clocks were sourced to support the waking times of students to replicate natural light and allow gradual waking.
Over the course of the past 12 months, three members of staff have trained as professional sleep practitioners and have undertaken sleep clinics with students both online and face-to-face. This in conjunction with educational coaching training has empowered staff to support students, through the Covid-19 response, to evaluate their own patterns of sleep, develop sleep diaries and understand how their feelings and thoughts affect their sleep performance. In conjunction with the Sleep Charity, DLD College London have promoted a professional qualification in sleep training for boarding staff which will be launched in the coming months.
“Three members of staff have trained as professional sleep practitioners and have undertaken sleep clinics with students.”
During a time of incredible stress and anxiety for many, we have tried to support the staff and students to develop a greater depth of understanding about the contribution that sleep plays toward their own mental health and wellbeing and how to improve on the quality of sleep.
I also hope that this has made me a little more reflective of my own behaviour. I still occasionally take my phone to bed but am now more mindful of leaving it outside the bedroom and celebrating the importance of sleep.
The training has, more broadly, made me aware of the impact of good sleep hygiene. Encouraging the increase of melatonin with low lights and the right foods including kiwis, nuts and fish has helped in the preparation for sleep. Also the environment has been important to evaluate with the ideal temperature of 16-18 degrees and breathable bedding and nightwear. And finally, the importance of a regular and consistent routine around bed has helped me celebrate sleep and understand the impact that it has on mind, body and spirit.
This article first appeared in the latest edition of Wellbeing in International Schools Magazine, out now.