Planning Lessons Around Circadian Rhythms

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Picture your body as a tiny planet. Each day it passes through distinct seasons: summery times of productivity and growth, low, quiet points of hibernation, and the rises and falls in between. These daily cycles are called circadian rhythms, and they affect bodily functions such as temperature regulation, respiration, digestion and the ability to process new information – which can have a major impact on the efficacy of your lessons.

It’s well documented that adolescents have different circadian rhythms to the rest of us. They require more sleep, are slower to focus and reach both their cognitive peaks and lows later in the day. This has prompted some middle and high schools to look at pushing back starting hours to accommodate the needs of their students.

Fortunately for elementary school teachers, the daily cognitive cycles of pre- and post-adolescents (that is, your students and you) tend to align. For both younger children and adults, the morning – from around 7am to noon – tends to be the most productive period, with a major slump hitting just after midday. Concentration rises again in the afternoon, but it never reaches the same heights as in the morning, and trails off steadily until evening.

Many educators will have noticed that teaching after lunch can be a hard slog, with children unsettled and unfocused. It’s a trend that’s almost impossible to combat: after all, it’s hardwired into our bodies. But by understanding the daily cognitive cycles of your students, it’s possible to work their rhythms into your classroom planning and ensure that no minute of the school day is wasted.


Mix it up

Try not to teach the same subjects at the same time every day. By mixing up the schedule, you’ll avoid boredom and lack of focus in subjects taught during periods of low concentration – and hopefully improve achievement across the board.


Keep it short

Break up longer assignments into smaller, simpler tasks – especially in the afternoon. Ask frequent questions and have your students regularly report on their progress. This will keep their attention honed and ensure the lessons are actually sinking in.


Take a break

For pre-adolescents, 12:30 to 1pm is the least focused part of the day. Don’t fight the slump: it’s important for students to relax, recharge and have a few moments to themselves before afternoon learning. 


Don’t blame yourself

Remember that your own circadian rhythm runs along the same lines as those of your students. You’ll experience the same peaks and low throughout the day. It’s easy to grow frustrated with yourself and your students during the difficult slumps – it can be like hitting your head against a brick wall. Don’t let it get you down. Their lack of focus has nothing to do with your abilities as a teacher: it’s just biology!