The Role of School Leaders in Sleep and Student Wellness

The Role of School Leaders in Sleep and Student Wellness

By Jim Davis Ed.M., MA

Have you ever felt “hangry” or experienced the legendary “runner’s high” after a good workout? A growing body of research aligns affect with physiological states.

Sedentariness, for example, has been connected to major depressive disorder (Schuch et al., 2017), while exercise is regularly linked to improvements in mood (Reed & Buck, 2009); poor nutrition has been linked to children’s academic performance (Chinyoka, 2014); and sleep has been identified as a contributing factor in student mental health (Davis, 2021).

In recent years, sleep has fallen under an increasing level of scrutiny. While great strides have been made to improve exercise and nutrition on campuses, less has been done about student sleep opportunities. The average school start time is 8:03 am, despite the CDC’s recommendation that schools start no earlier than 8:30 am.

To support the understanding of school leaders in alleviating this concern, we conducted a series of surveys supported by direct communication with students in an east-coast high school from February to November, 2020. The most compelling data came in regard to sleep patterns in the form of bedtime, wake time, and total sleep quantity. 

 Field Research in Quarantine

 During the month of February 2020 – pre-quarantine – surveys were distributed to gain understanding of student wellness. Participants were juniors or seniors in high school, participating in a field-research survey approved by the school’s Internal Review Board. Thirty-one (31) students participated in the survey. Some of those questions appear below, with emphases (in bold) as they appeared in the original survey. 

  • What time do you wake up on a school day? __________
  • What time do you go to bed on a school night? __________
  • When you have had poor or insufficient sleep, briefly describe how you feel the next day.

These survey questions were influenced by the psychometrically validated Pittsburgh Sleep Survey (Xiong et al., 2020), and adapted for a high school audience. Originally, the results intended to enhance the curriculum of health classes and on-campus interventions to improve sleep quality, sleep quantity, and sleep habits of students. There was no way of predicting how much the system of education – the entire world – would change over the coming months.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the school to shift to a remote-learning structure. About three weeks into the quarantine, when it became clear that remote learning would be the new norm, another survey was conducted. There too we asked about bedtime, wake time, and total sleep quantity. This time, we had a bigger sample size. One hundred twenty-seven (127) students completed the survey and in order to gain further insight into the results, follow-up conversations were had with students via Zoom and in-person, once students were permitted back on campus (June and July, 2020). The identities of those students will remain anonymous.

In the fall of 2020, students returned to school with a well-articulated reintegration plan. Teachers had time to prepare remote lessons and students report increased comfort in the remote environment. Once again, surveys were distributed to improve understanding of student wellness habits. This time, ninety-eight (98) students completed surveys and follow-up conversations were had with selected participants.

Comparing these three data sets revealed something that all school leaders should know.

 What We Learned

 Before the quarantine, students in a small sample were not sleeping well. Their average sleep duration was approximately seven hours and six minutes (7:06) per night. While that might not sound bad to an adult, note that the CDC recommends adolescents sleep 8-10 hours per night. These students had an average bedtime of 11:29 pm and woke at 6:35 am. That first round of students was – on average – sleep deprived.

 Sleep deprivation plays an important role in student wellness. A 2021 comparison of CDC data revealed that students who slept fewer than 8 hours per night were almost twice as likely to report mental health concerns than their well-rested peers (Davis, 2021).

 When asked how they felt on nights when they were sleep-deprived students responded with comments like “headache, very very fatigued, angry/irritable,” “crummy, lazy, disengaged,” and “I can barely stay awake in class. I feel slow sad and sluggish.” Students know that sleep deprivation is no good, so what’s standing in their way? The next two surveys shed some light on the idea.

During quarantine, student sleep improved dramatically. They slept an average of nine hours, four minutes per night (9:04) – in other words, without additional instruction, students slept for exactly as long as the CDC recommends.

 In educational circles, there was fear that the lack of structure would create opportunities for students to mess around late into the night and sleep the days away. In our sample, that was not the case. The average student bedtime stayed about the same: 11:48 pm, about nineteen minutes later than pre-quarantine, on average.

 While bedtimes were fairly consistent, there was a significant difference in wake times. During the early days of the quarantine, students slept in until 8:54 am.

 The third cross-sectional survey of ninety-eight (98) students once again revealed relative consistency in student bedtime. Students reported feeling more prepared for the second round of remote learning (while they were taken off-guard in March 2020, they knew what to expect by fall of the same year). The average bedtime among surveyed students was 11:21 pm. Unfortunately, total sleep quantity dropped to seven hours and fifty-four minutes (7:54) per night – better than pre-quarantine, but significantly worse than during quarantine.

Although school start times did not change from standard schooling to remote, the post-quarantine hybrid structure meant that students did not have to prepare for school and commute in time for first hour. With a little less on their plates, students sleep in until 7:21 a.m. 

Across these three surveys, student bedtimes remained surprisingly consistent but total sleep time changed in a noticeable way – an artificial wakeup call seems to be the culprit.


What Can We Do About It?

These results should be considered alongside an understanding of adolescent circadian rhythms and a concept referred to as sleep drive. Sleep drive, the pressure that makes one want to fall asleep (think sleep hunger or sleep thirst) is a physiological process which aims for balance. Sleep drive is the signal which bodies send to achieve sleep/wake homeostasis. The more waking hours are accumulated, the greater the sleep drive becomes (Klose et al., 2021).

 Complementing this drive is one’s circadian rhythm, which is an internal sleep/wake regulation system centered on a 24 hour (circadian) cycle. In adolescence, changes occur in the circadian rhythm, causing teens to feel alert during the evenings while their adult counterparts are heading toward their first circadian dip. In adolescents, melatonin, a hormone which sends signals to the body indicating that it is time to sleep and recover from the day, is not produced until after 11:00 pm, while adults are getting groggy around 10:00 pm (Suni & Rehman, 2021).

 So, what happened during quarantine, when there were fewer impediments to the student sleep opportunity? Students went to bed around when their circadian rhythm told them to (around 11:45 p.m.), and they stayed in bed until they received about nine hours of sleep, which is exactly what their bodies (and brains) need.

 The American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC both recommend school start times begin no earlier than 8:30 am Schools are not listening. The average school start time in the United States is 8:03 am. The CDC claims that sleep deprivation leads to depression, heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes (CDC, 2020). If that is not alarming enough, consider that sleep deprivation is linked to the top two leading causes of death in adolescents: accidents (namely, car crashes) and suicide (Tefft, 2018; Lee et al., 2012).

Does Our Behavior Match Our Goal?

Leaders, we have followed the CDC’s directions when dealing with the COVID-19 epidemic – first shutting down schools, then requiring masks, pre-screens, and a standardized degree of social distance. It might be wise to adhere to the CDC’s advice when it comes to school start times as well.

How many disciplinary actions have been assigned to students who were late to school in the morning? How many teachers have driven themselves to the brink of burnout trying to teach students nodding off at their desks? 

Schools should consider that perhaps this is not a matter of discipline, but a matter of biology. Maybe those adolescents are not lazy. Maybe they are just adolescents, equipped with adolescent biology, which includes sleep drives and circadian rhythms for which the previous system was not built. 

Student health and its associated repercussions can be influenced by designing structures which align with adolescent biology, including a structure which allows for sufficient sleep opportunity.

Leaders, what should we do about it? What do you think the main hurdles to adjusting the school day might be? We are genuinely interested in your feedback, reach out HERE.



Chinyoka, Kudzai (2014). Impact of Poor Nutrition on the Academic Performance of Grade Seven Learners: A Case of Zimbabwe. International Journal of Learning and Development 4 (73).

 “CDC – Sleep Home Page – Sleep and Sleep Disorders” (2020). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CDC, 15 Apr. 2020.

Davis, James D. (2021). Sleep and Mental Health in Students. Harvard Public Health Review Online.

Klose MK, Shaw PJ (2021) Sleep drive reconfigures wake-promoting clock circuitry to regulate adaptive behavior. PLoS Biol 19(6): e3001324.

 Schuch, F., Vancampfort, D., Firth, J., Rosenbaum, S. Ward, P., Reichert, T., Bagatini, N.C., Bgeginski, R., Stubbs, B. (2017). Physical activity and sedentary behavior in people with major depressive disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders, 210, 139-150.

 Suni, E. and Rehman, A. (2021). Sleep Drive and Your Body Clock. Sleep Foundation:

 Reed, J. and Buck, S. (2009). The effect of regular aerobic exercise on positive-activated affect: A meta-analysis. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 10(6), 581-594.

Tefft, Brian C. (2018). Acute sleep deprivation and culpable motor vehicle crash involvement, Sleep, 41 (10), 1-11.

 Xiong, P., Spira, A.P., and Hall, B.J. (2020). Psychometric and Structural Validity of the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index among Filipino Domestic Workers. Int J Environ Res Public Health 17(14): 5219.

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