Getting their Zs: Helping students learn about good sleep habits

student sleep campaign

The Lee School in Dorchester launches its Sleep Campaign.

Boston Public School’s Joseph Lee School in Dorchester serves nearly 700 children in K-8. Many of them are missing a vital element in ensuring their academic success and overall health—sleep!

“We have many children coming late to school, and some are falling asleep in class. It’s clear that many children are not getting enough sleep the night before,” says Principal Kim Crowley. Elementary school-aged children need 10-11 hours of sleep each night; middle and high school students need 8.5-9.5 hours.

An early start time at the school—hours are 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.—may be a factor, particularly for older students. But the home environment also contributes. “Some children share a bedroom with a sibling or an adult who stays up later,” says Suzanne Costello, LICSW, a social worker who’s been at the Lee School for the past nine years through Boston Children’s Hospital’s Neighborhood Partnerships Program (CHNP), a community-based behavioral health program.

For the past 13 years, CHNP has partnered with Boston schools. Clinicians like Costello are placed in school settings to provide an array of comprehensive behavioral health services and support schools to better meet the needs of their students.

Costello has observed other reasons impacting sleep. “Some kids can’t get restful sleep until they hear a parent coming home from a night-shift job.”

Then there is the use of technology. TVs are on or music is playing in bedrooms, along with ever-present devices—laptops, tablets and smartphones—and the lures of gaming and social media. “Lack of sleep is a universal problem, but it has been exacerbated by the prevalence of technology and social media,” agrees Crowley.

To help students be more ready to learn in the morning, the Lee School has experimented with a number of options, including early-morning exercise, a nutritious breakfast and now a sleep campaign.

Sleep stealers

The school designated January and February as Sleep Awareness Months. Costello helped with developing materials and activities to raise awareness of the need for sufficient sleep and the “sleep stealers” that can sabotage it. Activities included in-class presentations, a poster contest and a “sleep stealer challenge” for students and teachers and a special event for families. Participating students were eligible for drawings to win prizes such as a comforter and sheet sets, pillows and white noise machines.

The sleep campaign is a natural for the school and Boston Children’s to support. “Lack of sleep is a problem for everyone in the school, including teachers,” says Costello. “A school-wide campaign, using existing channels of communication and classroom time, makes sense. For Boston Children’s, part of our mission is to support children in the community so they can be the best they can be. We know that behavioral health and physical health and academic success are interconnected. And we know that getting enough sleep is an important part of wellness, just like eating well and exercise.”

Even Principal Crowley took the sleep stealer challenge. “I am the poster child for poor sleep patterns,” says Crowley. Her biggest problem was checking emails during the night. So she challenged herself to remove her smartphone from the bedroom. “It took me a few nights to realize that reading emails at night isn’t essential!”

Why Sleep Matters

A 2014 National Sleep Foundation study of families found that, on average, parents reported their school-aged children were getting 1.5-2 hours less sleep than recommended.

A 2010 National Science Foundation study found that children, especially those who live in poor neighborhoods and come from more economically disadvantaged homes, tend to benefit more when they sleep better and tend to suffer more when their sleep is poor.

student sleep campaign 2

Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Adam Foss reads a bedtime story to Lee School students.

What’s the big deal about sleep?

Be smart: sleep improves concentration, memory and brain performance

Have a better mood: sleep restores the body and helps manage stress and irritability

Fight off germs: sleep helps your body fight off colds and flu

Avoid weight gain: lack of sleep weakens communication between your brain and stomach and you are more likely to overeat

Stay Awake: More sleep = less daytime sleepiness


The Lee School received funding to implement the sleep campaign from the Office of Community Health’s Community Partnership Fund.  For more information on the Community Partnership Fund, visit