How Counselors Help Students With Sleep Deprivation

sleep deprived student - featured image

While anyone with teenage sons and daughters may tell you their children seem to spend most of their time asleep, students often face stresses and challenges that actually harm their sleeping health.

Poor sleep health can lead to a variety of behavioral problems and even physical concerns. For students, getting enough sleep is vital so they can continue to perform their best in their studies and enjoy active social lives.

As a counselor, you don’t have any explicit powers as a sleep specialist, but you likely have ample experience in approaching students and young people one-on-one. 

For example, you may be adept at conflict resolution in schools, meaning you have a grasp on how to speak to students so they can actively hear you. Leading universities such as St. Bonaventure will help you build your skillset in school counseling, which can be used to address issues such as sleep health. 

Through a Master’s in School Counseling, students learn to empower primary, middle, and high school students to overcome challenges and achieve their goals. With online coursework, in addition to an in-person practicum and two internships, students are prepared for the licensed professional counselor exam. 

Let’s explore a few ways in which you can start helping students get the healthy amount of sleep they deserve (and so sorely need!).

Raise Awareness of Good Sleep Health

Sometimes, the best way to tackle a problem such as sleep deprivation head-on is to raise awareness. Many students will likely sacrifice sleep so they can cram in study time, attend gatherings, or spend extra hours completing coursework.

It’s vital to show your students that this is not a healthy process! You don’t have to dig deep into the statistics of sleep or even implore that they get their eight hours a day. Instead, discuss some of the negative effects of self-imposed sleep deprivation.

The key phrase here is self-imposed. Plenty of young people struggle to sleep for reasons beyond their control. So, as a first measure, don’t preach the values of healthy sleep unless it’s clear the student is sabotaging themselves.

Raising awareness of the benefits of healthy sleep is always worthwhile. Though you may not expect to resolve a sleep deprivation problem through suggestion alone, do make sure that students have the information they need to pursue healthy sleep in their own time.

Assess for Sleeping Disorders

If a student comes to you with a sleep deprivation problem, it’s wise to look into the tell-tale signs of associated sleeping disorders. While some deprivation issues may be quick to resolve with slight behavioral adjustments, there may be underlying issues that counselors are able to assess.

Common sleep disorders that can impact the quality and length of sleep we get include sleep apnea.

For example, where we find our breathing interrupted during a night’s rest. Other conditions may vary, from movement disorders such as restless leg syndrome to parasomnias such as sleepwalking and sleep paralysis, where a sleeper is mentally awake but unable to move.

Crucially, a counselor isn’t going to necessarily have access to all the equipment they need to formally assess a sleep disorder or underlying physical condition. That will be the role of a specialist who can perform detailed tests.

For example, specialists may use polysomnograms to measure brain waves or actigraphy techniques to measure body movements. Before they can perform these tests, however, they’ll need some preliminary details from the patient and their referrer.

As a referrer, counselors can interview students to gain insight into what’s happening while they sleep. Does it sound like they are experiencing night terrors? Are they sleepwalking frequently? Do they wake up gasping for air throughout the night?

If so, it may be time to refer your pupil to a specialist. In the meantime, you can continue to provide general counseling and use CBT techniques so that they can “manage their minds” with a little more confidence.

Help Students Manage Their Stress and Anxiety

School and college can be highly stressful for young people. Immediately, there’s a personal pressure to do well in class, to score top grades, and to study appropriately for quizzes and tests.

However, there are also peer stresses. Students may experience bullying, for example, or may struggle to make friends. They may even find it stressful managing friend groups regardless of their age or level of education.

This means it’s only reasonable to assume that stress and anxiety are major mental health problems for young people. If left untreated, excessive stress and anxiety can harm the quality of sleep a person gets.

Stress and sleep disorders in all forms are closely linked. Studies show that these links revolve around hormone release and management, which means the less stress a student experiences, the better night’s sleep they will enjoy.

A counselor can explore different ways to help their students manage stress and anxiety. Consider talking them through their worries, for example, and suggesting breathing exercises to help them lower stress during the day.

It’s also good practice to help students put things into perspective. We’ve all been there — teenage dramas and exam worries can seem like the end of the world from the inside looking out. However, things rarely transpire as badly as our younger selves suggest they will.

Counselors should encourage students to participate in meditative exercises and mindfulness practice too. Simply taking themselves out of a moment may be enough to help lower stress levels and prepare them for a better night’s sleep.

Beyond this, medical intervention, such as prescribed medication, may help lower stress and anxiety. Prior to pursuing medication, it’s worth considering therapeutic practice to help patients manage their mental flows in healthy ways.

Explore Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a counselor’s staple for helping people overcome mental pressures, stress, and anxiety, so it can be useful in ensuring sufferers retain a high quality of sleep from night to night.

CBT is the act of talking through therapy. It effectively helps people to recognize behaviors and thought processes that actively harm their mental health. It may help to quash intrusive thoughts and prevent self-destructive actions from taking shape.

Negative thought cycles occurring during the day may even affect how people sleep towards the evening. Students who perpetually worry or feel stressed about school or peer groups may find they are mentally exhausted and are unable to get to sleep and maintain it for a healthy amount of time.

Without CBT, students may also struggle to “switch off” at all at night, meaning they struggle to reduce mental noise that may be reverberating.

The cornerstone of CBT is the idea that our thoughts impact our feelings, and our feelings impact our behaviors. This means our behaviors impact our thoughts — taking things full circle. CBT aims to help people not necessarily break this cycle but instead introduce more positive thoughts, positive feelings, and behaviors.

By helping students remove automated negative thoughts from the cycle, they may benefit from healthier sleep hygiene and more refreshing nights of rest. This, in turn, could help to promote more positive behavior and can help students to manage their daily anxieties and stressors with more confidence.

Encourage Better Sleeping Hygiene

How we sleep can often be ritualistic. Whether or not you have a sleep ritual of your own, it’s always good practice to encourage students and other clients to manage their sleep hygiene in healthy ways.

But what is sleep hygiene? “Hygiene” is a word often used to replace “routine” when it comes to sleep. Good sleep hygiene can include setting clear bedtimes and waking up times and stopping the use of devices shortly before getting some rest.

Many experts suggest that setting sleep hygiene rituals is most effective when you act on them every night. Just because student(s) may feel like sleeping in on the weekend doesn’t give them an excuse to get lazy about their routines!

You may also suggest to students that they sleep in a space that’s comfortable for their specific needs. For example, do they prefer a room that’s cold or warm when at rest? Do they eat shortly before sleeping?

These are all elements to consider when helping students or other clients adjust their sleep hygiene. Again, while adjusting these behaviors may not support people who have deeper sleep deprivation problems, they can lay the groundwork for a more comfortable sleep in general.

That alone can help to move students lacking sleep in the right direction. From here, you can start implementing CBT principles or consider whether to encourage your students to head for alternative treatments.

We can all stand to improve our sleep hygiene, meaning that these practices may help you manage your own stress and anxiety.

Investigate Behavior Modification

Sleep ritual behaviors aren’t the only ones you can encourage your students to modify. As it happens, there are multiple lifestyle choices and behaviors we exhibit while awake that can harm our quality of sleep and which may lead to deeper problems with sleep deprivation.

For example, for adults, alcohol is proven to affect sleep quality negatively, as is nicotine consumption. Does the student smoke or use other substances? It may be that the toxins they’re ingesting are preventing their bodies from achieving a healthy amount of rest.

Substances, in this case, may also include caffeine, which is a staple ingredient in coffee and many energy drinks. In fact, energy drinks use more than just caffeine to help drinkers stay alert. Regular consumption of these drinks can prevent people from sleeping healthily over time.

Exercise and diet in general, directly correlate with sleep quality. A student who gets very little exercise is unlikely to sleep as well as someone who has burned off sufficient energy during the day.

A poor diet and associated obesity can also impact sleep quality. As a counselor, you may suggest to students that they consider their consumption in detail before encouraging any further techniques or modifications.

Of course, you may not feel like it is your place or responsibility to make such suggestions, and you are likely not a trained dietician or nutritionist, but simply providing pupils with these tools can help to point them in the right direction.

A final suggestion you may wish to make is that student(s) carefully manage the temperature. If they are either too warm or cold at night or go to bed at either extreme, their sleep schedules are likely to be affected.

Suggest Sleep Tracking

Technology is all around us, so why not suggest using it to help improve sleep quality? While sleep-tracking apps and hardware may not resolve deep-rooted sleep deprivation problems, you may want to recommend using gadgets such as Apple Watches or Fitbits to help track how much sleep your students are getting.

The data these apps and gadgets deliver will show you when sleep appears to be declining for your student(s) during the night. This information could help to identify specific problems, such as sleep apnea and sleepwalking, which a specialist may then remedy.

Sleep tracking apps shouldn’t give your students excuses to use their phones before bed, but they can help to examine a problem or two that may be exacerbating their lack of sleep.

Is Counseling the Best Option for Students With Sleep Disorders?

Students who are struggling with sleep disorders may find approaching a counselor to be a simple and cost-effective way to get help at short notice. In addition, physicians may suggest lifestyle adjustments and talking therapy, such as CBT, before trying medication or intensive treatments.

CBT and other therapeutic techniques can help to provide sleep deprivation sufferers with the tools they need to adjust their sleep cycles for good. On the other hand, sleeping pills may only provide a temporary solution and may become addictive if they resolve sleep issues immediately.

Students constantly battling sleep deprivation will likely find working with a counselor to be immediately therapeutic. While they may not see positive results from this type of therapy for some time to come, keeping a diary could help them put their daily struggles into perspective.

Talking therapy is immensely helpful for sleep sufferers as it can help people give context to problems they’ve been experiencing internally for some time. Additionally, CBT techniques can and will vary from person to person, and therapist to therapist.

It’s also well-documented that issues such as deprivation and insomnia are not always completely solved with pills alone. Many have harmful side effects too, which may exacerbate stress or anxiety, and may even cause depression.

Therefore, students should always consult a counselor or a physician about sleep worries before taking any form of medication.

As a counselor, it’s not explicitly your job to help students get good sleep. However, it is in your role to help support your patients as much as physically possible, and that can involve using CBT to ensure students get the rest they sorely need.

Why It’s Worth Helping Students With Sleep Problems as Soon as Possible

As a counselor, if you notice any of your students suffering from sleep deprivation or other disorders, it’s wise to take gentle action as soon as possible. As mentioned above, this may be as simple as suggesting adjustments to sleep schedules or making slight changes to behavior. 

This is all largely because sleep deprivation can, over time, lead to further physical problems later in life. 

Health conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes, for example, have links to poor sleep hygiene. Beyond these, mental health problems can worsen due to poor sleep, potentially leading students into vicious circles. For instance, anxiety and stress are two main reasons for poor sleep in the first place.

By addressing sleep concerns with your students, you’re helping to set them up for a healthier lifestyle for years to come. If they suffer from sleep deprivation at a relatively young age, it pays to address these issues before they worsen.


Student counselors often need to perform multiple roles at once to help ensure their pupils get the help and advice they need. While you probably won’t have to learn any sleep specialist skills to become a counselor, a healthy knowledge of how to support poor sleepers will likely benefit many.

As explored, CBT principles can help transform how we think, feel, and behave — all with a few simple changes to lifestyle and thought processes. As a counselor, you may already be familiar with the practice. If you’re not a counselor, it’s worthwhile taking a look at a few techniques to try in your own time. 

Students who are struggling with sleep should try to create a routine that prioritizes a healthy amount of rest, starting with a few lifestyle adjustments. For example, try not to take your smartphone to bed with you!