Exam blog 7 – Sleep and exams – by Nicola Morgan

smudge-sleep-timeSleep is such a tricky issue. We know how important it is to health, mood and function, but we know that worrying about it makes people more likely to have sleeping troubles. Add the fact that teenagers commonly have biologically different sleeping patterns (needing more sleep and not feeling sleepy till later) and the fact that exam stress is likely to hinder easy sleep, and you have a major potential problem.

Luckily, most young people are so keen to get better sleep that they are open to advice about it. Sleep education becomes a valuable part of helping them prepare for exams.

I’ve written a lot about sleep, and there’s a whole section on it in the Study Skills book that I’m working on with Collins (and Leckie in Scotland) but let me pull together some core advice and add some activities.

A. The three main keys to better sleep:

1. Good “sleep hygiene” – the term given to things we should and shouldn’t do in the hour before bed.

  • Say YES to: snack if hungry, eg sandwich/fruit and milk/herbal tea; gentle exercise, eg yoga; make list of tasks for tomorrow; shut curtains; bright lights off; bath/shower; lavender scent; reading for pleasure
  • AVOID: caffeine; fast music; bright lights and daylight; computer games; screen-time/internet/phone; arguments; strenuous exercise; excitement (eg scary film)

2. Trick the brain into thinking it’s later at night – close curtains; switch off phones, computers, tablets etc (because their light mimics daylight.)

3. Create pre-bed routine and do exactly the same each night. For example:  1. Turn OFF screens and close curtains 2. Play relaxing music 3. Get things ready for morning 4. Have a shower and then get ready for bed 5. Spend 2 minutes deep breathing 6. Get into bed 7. Read then turn light off.

B. How to deal with lying awake at night

  • Try not to panic – the occasional bad night will not affect performance in any noticeable way.
  • If a particular worry is keeping you awake, write it down; then put the paper away.
  • Use positive visualisation: picture a perfect place (real or imaginary). Add details and imagine yourself there. Build stories about that place, creating a world in your head.
  • If your mind is racing and you can’t stop worrying, get up and do something to take your mind off it – avoiding screens or bright lights. Reading is fine. Then go back to bed and try positive visualisation again.
  • Tomorrow evening, make sure work and stress is dealt with an hour before you want to go to bed so you can spend that hour winding down.
  • Remember: this is normal and will not happen every night. You will survive!




  • Discuss Sleep Hygiene
  • Discuss challenges and solutions
  • Discuss strategies for turning off phones/internet particularly…


Using what has been learnt about sleep hygiene, each student creates a personal pre-bed routine, using 6-10 steps. They need to work out the best order for them and it needs to be something they believe they can do.

Extra tip: Smell is a strong brain trigger – the very act of smelling particular scent every night before sleep could trigger brain to feel sleepy.



Pupils will keep a sleep diary for six days.

  • Download this Sleep Diary template. Print 3 copies of PAGE 1 for each student – one single-sided and two on a double-sided sheet, so they each have two sheets of paper. Get them to create fold the pages into an A5 booklet, with the blank side on the outside.
  • Each student decorates the cover, with his/her name and anything else.
  • On the back, each student writes his/her pre-bed routine (from previous activity.)
  • Ask students to record their answers each day for 6 days. Go through the booklet checking understanding.

Follow-up: print out page 2 for each student and use as the basis for discussion and activity.

There is also a printable sheet of tips here for your use in school.

Nicola Morgan

Other posts by Nicola:

Exam Tips 6 – Questions about the brain

Exam Tips 5 – Good strategies to deal with stress

Exam Tips 4 – Anti-panic strategy

Exam Tips 3 – Asking for help

Exam Tips 2 – Feed Your Brain

Exam Tips 1 – Creating a revision timetable

Copyright © Nicola Morgan 2014

Nicola Morgan is an award-winning writer for teenagers and the author of Blame My Brain and The Teenage Guide to Stress. She offers training on aspects of adolescence and has created Brain Sticks™, teaching resources about the brain and mental health. Nicola is proud to be a co-author of Collins GCSE Study Skills publishing September 2015.



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