Tag Archives: sleep

Notes from a 6th grade session on Stress

There are three 6th grade sections at the school where I currently teach. These sixth graders have an enlightened and passionate Science teacher who makes study of the brain their main focus throughout the year. Among the many topics explored, she guides the students to learn about how they learn – metacognition in real time! She invited me to do a session with each section about stress and relaxation. Below are my notes.

If anyone has suggestions for improving this session, please leave a comment. Thanks!


Room Setup – this was done in the Science classroom where all the furniture was movable. We moved the tables to the perimeter of the room and placed the chairs in a semi- circle (a large C shape) on the inside of that perimeter, facing the board. We tried to have equal room between the chairs to facilitate movement activities. My chair was part of the circle and near the board for easy access.

The movement portions were accompanied by music played on my laptop using external speakers.

How’s everyone feeling? Introductions

Talk about how there are butterflies in my stomach due to: not knowing any of the students and being excited to teach a topic of huge interest to me. Further note that, due to nervousness and excitement, I will likely not remember everyone’s names.

Nonetheless, to try and help me recall names, please introduce yourself and tell me something about you. (Depending upon the time – for the first two groups we had 45 mins, for the third group we had 90 mins – have the kids also make a movement with their arms or body as they introduce themselves.)

Synovial Joint Warmup to music (Wade in the Water – about 4 mins)

  • toes & ankles
  • shoulders
  • gentle neck roll – avoid dropping head back
  • wrist rolls
  • squat knee circles
  • hip circles
  • empty coat sleeve twists
  • hokey-pokey right arm, then left arm
  • hokey-pokey right leg, then left leg
  • mouth & eyes
  • whole body

What happens inside your body when everything is pretty much feeling fine?

  • HOMEOSTASIS (homeo = same; stasis = stable) – a fairly stable balance in your body between the energizing & calming chemicals inside you
  • the SYMPATHETIC (activates “fight or flight”) & PARASYMPATHETIC (activates relaxation response) nervous systems are in synch with one another

Stress, anyone? What happens in your body when you fall out of homeostasis? i.e. out of balance –> you experience STRESS

  • “fight or flight”
  • release of CORTISOL
  • confusion
  • a sense of learned helplessness
  • a sense of feeling threatened

What’s the deal with CORTISOL?

  • a little bit is helpful for energy
  • helps enhance long term memory, i.e. learning
  • LIMBIC system is the Drama Department of your brain – memory & learning are enhanced when there is an emotional component
  • however, too much emotion in either direction results in more cortisol, which is detrimental towards learning b/c too much cortisol can kill neurons in the hippocampus, which is a major player in forming memory i.e. in learning
  • insufficient sleep can increase cortisol

Long-term effects of too much cortisol include:

  • decreased immune system, i.e. more likely to get sick
  • reduces memory ability, i.e. ability to recall existing memories & form new memories
  • impacts social skills & creative skills

What can cause stress? (below is a generic list –> rather than share these, do the BALANCE ACTIVITY listed below) 

  • lots of excitement
  • deadlines (school work, being late)
  • intense competition
  • hectic environment
  • really fast music
  • strong feeling of impending failure
  • surprises
  • being held accountable
  • feeling out of control
  • trying to accomplish something but not having what you need
  • an unusual challenge
  • insufficient sleep

Positive and Negative Stress – BALANCE ACTIVITY

  • talk about the Balance Scale (like the scales of Justice – one cup on either side of the center) – discuss what the balance represents
  • hand out index cards to each person and have them write down the negative stressors in their lives and the feelings associated with those stressors
  • ask the kids to each share one item from their list, and explain that it is quite possible that some kids will have the same or similar stressors
  • have the kids come up and place their Negative Stressor index cards on one side of the scale – what happens to homeostasis?
  • leave the cards in place on the balance and hand out a second set of index cards to each person – have them write down the positive stressors in their lives and the feelings associated with those stressors
  • ask the kids to each share one item from their list
  • take the negative stressor index cards off the balance and place them to the side – have the kids come up and place their Positive Stressor index cards on the other side of the scale – what happens to homeostatis?
  • kids will often quickly comment that the negative stressors need to return to the scale in order to return to a balance – discuss what this means in terms of themselves

How to deal with stress  (below is a generic list –> rather than share these, do the SUGGESTIONS ACTIVITY listed below) 

  • exercise (but not if it’s 4 hours or less before sleep)
  • eat a light, non-spicy dinner
  • get sufficient sleep
  • drink plenty of water –> there’s more water in your brain than anywhere else in your body (followed by muscles, then kidneys) and the stress response kicks in if access to water is restricted; within 5 mins of drinking water there is a noticeable decline in corticoids
  • lack of water is #1 reason for daytime tiredness –> hits your muscles and your brain
  • and try these relaxation techniques (we did a yoga session that includes various poses, breathing techniques and guided relaxation AFTER we did the SUGGESTIONS ACTIVITY noted below)

Dealing with Stress – SUGGESTIONS ACTIVITY

  • go around the room and have kids share what they do to destress
  • keep a running list on the board
  • do not judge the ideas (for instance, if they resort to eating comfort food that is filled with sugar)

Follow-up activities

  • using the list of kid-generated destressors as the basis, discuss positive ways to deal with stress
  • go further into the LIMBIC system
  • lead into a discussion/lesson on the Teen Brain

Pod Naps and Sleep Benefits

Two days ago the New York Times published the article We’ll Fill This Space, but First a Nap. In addition to covering the EnergyPod, which looks like it could, if this were in the work place, quite possibly help induce one to nap during the day, the author reminds us of some of the benefits of sleep, not the least of which is the impact on our creative process. Some of the benefits of sleep include:

the connecting of unrelated ideas and memories

enhancing performance

cementing learning

jelling memory

providing an incubation period for the brain to process ideas

allowing the brain to switch gears and change paths

Combinations of the above benefits can foster creativity by leading the brain to consider alternative pathways, which can then generate more creative solutions.

I’ve often thought that kindergartners were a creative lot by nature. Perhaps it’s not merely that we teach the creative process out of kids (as Ken Robinson has on occasion commented), but that we also take napping out of our daily lives as we progress through childhood – at least in the U.S. – and pay the price of less creativity finding its way into our lives. If you live in a country or work at a company where napping is part of the culture, please tell us about it by leaving a comment below. Thanks!

CAIS: LeAnn Nickelson on Food & Sleep

I usually have no difficulty falling asleep…the first time. It’s the second time that’s tough…after I’ve woken up at 2 or 3 in the morning thanks to rumblings in my stomach from something eaten hours earlier. Perhaps the most personally practical session I attended at the CAIS brain institute was LeAnn Nickelson’s Brain-Smart Foots That Maximize Learning.

Yes, the session was about brain-smart foods, but as you may have read in my previous post, a sound night’s sleep helps to consolidate memories and, hence, learning. Therefore, it comes in handy to understand how what you eat can impact how your sleep.

Here are the sleep and nutrition tips shared by LeAnn. (Most of this is either direct-quoted or paraphrased from page 30 of her information packed handout.)

  1. Melatonin and serotonin are utilized in bringing about and maintaining sleep. Carbohydrates help produce serotonin, so try eating 1 to 1.5 ounces of a low-fat carb about 30 minutes prior to sleep. (9/1/08 I’ve been having an email exchange with a reader and have decided that this needs to be clarified. The snack should consist of complex carbs as opposed to simple carbs.)
  2. Avoid drinking caffeine after late afternoon.
  3. Exercise produces a surge in sleep hormones but be sure to finish with your exercise at least 4 hours prior to falling asleep. Exercise is beneficial for a number of reasons, including helping to work off stress, which may otherwise be a factor in promoting poor sleep.
  4. Alcohol and REM (the portion of sleep when you dream) are not compatible. Less REM is associated with more night awakenings and more restless sleep, so be sure to have your last drink more than 2 hours prior to bedtime, and keep overall alcohol intake to a low quantity.
  5. Those large dinners filled with fatty foods should be avoided, especially if eaten later in the evening. Heavy meals stimulate prolonged digestive action, which will make for a wakeful sleep. If you like large meals, try having them at breakfast and lunch, instead of at dinner.
  6. Spicy foods, which have been my sleep nemesis, and gas-forming foods can wake you up in the middle of the night if you have them at dinner. Again, try having them at lunch, instead of at dinner.
  7. Check that your body is getting its required quantity of vitamins and minerals.
  8. Set a bedtime ritual that helps program your body to expect sleep.
  9. And if the first tip doesn’t suffice, try a cup of warm milk at bedtime.

CAIS: David Eagleman on Sleep

Most of us will spend about one-third of our lives sleeping. Have you ever considered that sleeping is actually the flip side of being awake and is very much an active state? It turns out that REM brain waves resemble awake brain waves or, as David Eagleman says “just like you’re conscious except you’re not moving.”

REM is the Rapid-Eye Movement portion of sleep when you dream, and accounts for twenty percent of sleep time. According to Eagleman, during REM your “heart rate goes up, respiration speeds up, your body can twitch, there is heightened cerebral activity, and paralysis in the major voluntary muscle groups.”

It turns out that everybody dreams, though not everybody remembers that they dream. Perhaps you have engaged in lucid dreaming, a state where you are aware you are dreaming and are able to then take control of the dream.

All mammals and birds sleep but the duration of that sleep varies considerably. Eagleman says there is “no relationship between sleep time and activity level” and that although sleep is essential, it is “not a special higher order function.” If that’s the case, the question then becomes:

Why do we sleep?

Probably most of us would answer that we sleep to rejuvenate our bodies and minds. Given the title of Eagleman’s talk, Why is Sleeping so Important to Learning?, you may not be so surprised to learn that sleep has other functions. As Eagleman described it:

We sleep to consolidate memories, which in turn consolidates learning.
We also sleep to forget – to take out the trash – to rid our brain of the stuff we do not need. (This is based on Crick and Mitchison’s “reverse learning” hypothesis.) I particularly liked the image evoked by Eagleman’s comment that sleeping is an “offline practice session”.

If sleep is so important to learning, it may be useful to have a quick summary of how we process information. Typically, data gets sent to the hippocampus where it is filtered and then sent off to various parts of the cortex. As Eagleman reminded us, the hippocampus decides what to keep on the basis of relevancy to our goals and frequency of occurrence.

The areas of the brain that appear to be involved in sleep include the hypothalamus and the reticular formation, which is responsible for maintaining our sleep and wake cycle. Most of us have probably seen the impact on ourselves of insufficient sleep. We are more tired the following day, perhaps a bit irritable, and less attentive.

Do you ever have difficulty falling asleep? LeAnn Nickelsen addressed this issue in her session on brain nutrition, and that will provide food for thought in my next post.

For more about why we sleep:

CAIS: David Eagleman on Naps

Do you take naps? In his talk, Why is Sleeping so Important to Learning?, David Eagleman mentioned his colleague Sara Mednick and her book Take a Nap? Change Your Life! If you visit her site you can get the gist of her research by listening to her Google Author Talk or reading this sample chapter The Nap Manifesto. Simply put, to paraphrase Eagleman, Kindergarten and the Europeans got it right, but what about the rest of us!

According to Eagleman, a twenty minute nap will:

  • increase alertness
  • speed up motor performance
  • improve accuracy
  • improve perception
  • help us make better decisions

In addition to the above benefits of power naps, research shows that napping helps improve retention of information. Eagleman stated that the closer sleeping and napping come to the information to be learned, the greater the consolidation. This is why studying before sleep works.

However, staying up late to study or cram is not going to be useful, especially if the studying is for a test the next day. This is because a sound night’s sleep is important to consolidate memories and hence to consolidate learning. Obvoiusly, there has to be a balance. In my next post we’ll move from napping to sleeping.

Still want to be convinced about the power of a power nap?

Greenleaf Presentation.5 – Neat Sleep

This is the last of my posts about Bob Greenleaf’s talk presented on the afternoon of opening faculty meetings. Bob had a lot of what I consider valuable insights and practical applications to share, and limited time in which to share them. Perhaps that brings home all the more the importance of two of his comments.

Both comments focus on “R”s – reflection and repetition. The Reflective Network takes new input, checks it against what is already known, and remixes the combination of the two. One manner of engaging your reflective network is to pause to discuss or explain what it is you are trying to understand. This reprocessing helps to make meaning out of the new information, and enhance the paths by which the information can be recalled.

Repetition is a common approach to trying to get someone to remember something, but repetition alone is insufficient. The brain has to find meaning in what is being repeated; the information must have a context and then the likelihood of recall is increased. One way to increase the usefulness of repetition is to find patterns in the information.

But all of this digresses from the title of my post: Neat Sleep. How many of you are neatniks? And how many of you have been asked countless times to pick up your room or your work area? Greenleaf made a pithy statement that made my son smile:

Although neat is more orderly, it is not necessarily better.

Bob did not elaborate on this comment, but it’s easy to follow the train of thought that we all have our own systems of ordering and organizing, and just because neat may look more orderly, it may not actually be the best system for everyone.

I close with Bob’s last pithy point, and it is one that applies to all of us regardless of age or occupation.

Sleep is as much a learning function as paying attention.

In case you did not know, much of what we are exposed to during the day while trying to learn, is cemented during sleep. Insufficient sleep means incomplete learning, let alone a tired person come the next day.