What’s Keeping Students Up At Night?

Monwabisi, a 12th-grader at COSAT, nods off during an awards ceremony for a chemistry competition in China.



This blog post is part of a year-long series, School Year: Learning, Poverty, and Success in a South African Township. Read more on the School Year Blog.

As part of this School Year series, my colleagues at The World recently conducted an informal poll of student sleep habits around the world. Here’s what they asked:

A new study from Boston College shows that sleep deprivation is a significant factor in lowering the achievement of school pupils. The World wants to hear thoughts on the amount of sleep students get across the globe. Do you feel your students get enough sleep? What are the factors that contribute to a lack of sleep where you teach?

We’ve been getting some interesting responses, mostly from the developed world.

I thought it might be fun to draw comparisons between those perspectives and what I’ve seen in a much different context, here at COSAT.


In answering our survey, a teacher from Tucson, Arizona (USA), wrote: “Students stay up until all hours of the night on their smartphones. Parents do not seem to be regulating time on technology or bedtimes.”

This is also a big problem in South Africa – including in some of the country’s poorest neighborhoods.

A few weeks ago, I spoke with a COSAT 10th-grader named Sikelela. She lives in a high-density urban township near Cape Town. She said she hasn’t been doing well in school. I asked why.

“This obsession of wanting to be all over my phone,” she said.

Sikelela said she had been staying up late, chatting with friends, and not doing her homework. It got so bad that she loaned her phone to a friend. She’s hoping that a few weeks of cold turkey will cure her addiction.

The problem of cell phone attachment may be more common in the US than in South Africa. But with the number of smart phones rising sharply in Africa, and with the cost of accessing the internet falling, that gap is likely to shrink – and students’ nights may become more sleepless.

Too Much Homework

A student from Melbourne, Australia, gave this reason for his (or her) lack of sleep: “Too much homework.”

I thought this response was hilarious. It sounded like a student who really hates homework doing some good old-fashioned complaining.

But he or she has a point. Homework can contribute to sleep deprivation – in Australia and South Africa.

Earlier this year, I spoke with Tandie, a COSAT 12th-grader. She said she sometimes stays up until 3 o’clock in the morning finishing her homework. Often, it’s because she has to do a lot of chores. But sometimes, it’s about the volume of work.

I’ve also noticed a bitter irony to the problem of sleep deprivation at COSAT. Often, it’s the students who care the most about their grades who end up the most sleep-deprived – and therefore the least able to learn.


A teacher from Hillsboro, Oregon (USA), wrote this about students’ lack of sleep: “Anxiety is also a huge factor – students have a hard time sleeping and stay up worrying about many different things.”

What’s true in Oregon is perhaps even truer at COSAT.

Many students here come from uneducated, unemployed families. Often, they are the family’s only hope to escape poverty. That’s an incredible amount of pressure – and can provoke anxiety.

Students here also live in unsafe areas. As I recently reported, many students here have been mugged, often multiple times. House break-ins are common. Physical and sexual abuse are rampant.

And the school has no counselor to help students cope.

Considering all of that, it’s hard to believe that anxiety isn’t more of a problem. Or maybe it is more or a problem than anyone realizes.

Third World Problems

I don’t want to downplay sleep deprivation in the US. But I do want to highlight a few challenges that are unique to the developing world.

High-density urban areas (what some people call “slums”) are not very conducive to good sleep. For starters, you often have multiple people sharing the same bed. One COSAT student I visited lives in a one-room shack with five other family members — four on the bed, and two on a mattress on the floor. Needless to say, there’s a lot of waking up during the night.

The conditions of peoples’ shacks can also make it hard to get a good night’s rest. When it rains, water sometimes trickles down the walls or through the cracks of shack walls, and people often wake up on damp mattresses. When the wind howls – as it often does in Cape Town – the metal walls flex and make a loud metallic bang. Especially severe storms can tear roofs and doors off of shacks. And when it’s really hot or cold outside, it’s really hot or cold inside.

There’s also the problem of population density. In townships like Khayelitsha, the shacks are packed so close together that you can hear your neighbors loud and clear. And when there’s a party or a church function (there are many of both), kids are often kept up until the wee hours.


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