Research suggests that students are bored from a third to half the time they spend in school — significantly more than at home. And that can have serious consequences: One survey of high school dropouts found that almost half reported giving up on school because of boredom.
Most adults see boredom as a lazy, low-motivation state, but experts say the opposite is true. “When you are bored, you have a desire to be engaging with the world in some way that is meaningful,” says James Danckert, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo in Canada. Failing to satisfy that drive is what produces boredom’s itchy feeling.
Erin Westgate, director of the Florida Social Cognition and Emotion Lab at the University of Florida, describes boredom as “a really useful signal … that whatever is going on right now isn’t working.” Indeed, research ties boredom to decreased academic achievement.
Although levels of boredom are different in different individuals, researchers have identified patterns. Students with high ability are more likely to be bored, and so are those with worse reading skills. Younger kids tend to be less bored than adolescents. Boys report being more bored than girls (though there are many reasons to suspect socialization, not innate difference, Westgate says). Personality traits impact how often and intensely we get bored.
Still, boredom in school isn’t primarily about children being boredom-prone. Rather, research indicates that boredom is most likely to occur when an environment is out of sync with one’s needs and interests. In fact, “the effect of the situation swamps those individual differences,” Westgate says. Boredom research in the K-12 setting is still in its infancy, but experts are gaining insight into why boredom happens, how to recognize it and what to do about it.
Why Boredom Happens
One of the things researchers haven’t nailed down is why, precisely, boredom happens in school. Sandi Mann, author of “The Science of Boredom,” contends that modern “whizzy whizzy bang bang” entertainment overstimulates kids from birth. That leaves them with a lower boredom threshold and fewer skills to “un-bore themselves,” she says.
This theory makes sense, and experts warn against indiscriminate screen use and overscheduling. But Westgate says, “There’s not good evidence that people are more bored today than they were in the past.”
Yet there is good data pointing to two classroom culprits for boredom: too much or too little challenge and content that doesn’t seem meaningful.
In “Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom,” Danckert and co-author John D. Eastwood say boredom is likely when things are too easy or too hard: “We see a Goldilocks zone where the match between the challenge level and our own skill set is just right.”
It makes intuitive sense why easy material would be boring. Westgate explains the flip side: “If I’m not understanding, I don’t know what’s going on.” There’s no way to access what’s interesting about the material.
To be optimally challenged is to sit right at or above your competency, Danckert says, and that’s what makes avoiding boredom in school so hard: “You’ve got a room full of 25 kids. That might be 25 different optimal skill levels.”
Boredom also arises when “we’re not finding a way for students to understand how (what they’re being asked to do) is meaningful,” Westgate says.
That happens more often with rote tasks. In their book, Danckert and Eastwood give the example of a toy top, comparing it with modeling clay and saying, “Any situation that leaves no room for us to shape meaning is quickly felt as meaningless and boring.” When there’s only one way to complete an assignment, boredom is more likely.
Though we don’t have definitive evidence, Danckert says it’s probable that kids who are boredom-prone are just more sensitive in both respects: They have a narrower Goldilocks zone than their peers and a higher bar for considering something meaningful.
There’s also a negative feedback loop when you have lower self-efficacy: Danckert says a student whose past experiences make them think, “Well, I’m no good at anything,” is less likely to think engaging will be fruitful.
How to Recognize Boredom in Students
Boredom “can look very different for each child,” says Natalie Gwyn, a certified school and mental health counselor who teaches counselor education at Walden University, an online university, but there are age-based trends. With young kids who are bored, “teachers are constantly having to redirect them, they are constantly getting up out of their seats, and they can also have issues with social interactions.”
Studies back her up. Boredom has been connected to increased sensation-seeking and risk-taking, both of which can lead to disruptive classroom behavior. Bored older students also distract their classmates and check their phones, but Gwyn says at that age it often shows up as “school avoidance” — anything from wandering the halls to truancy. Bored students also tend to procrastinate, and that’s true at all ages.
But boredom can be confused with other issues. For example, it is highly correlated with ADHD. Gwyn says she has seen students who are on the autism spectrum or have sensory processing disorders treated as bored when what they really need is an assessment by a trained professional. On the other hand, what’s seen as disrespect or defiance can in fact be boredom, and Black and brown children are more likely to be mislabeled. She says exhaustion can look a lot like boredom, and boredom can mask anxiety and depression.
Students are biologically programmed to run a sort of attentional triage: “If they have something going on at home,” Westgate says, “that affects the relative feeling of how meaningful what they’re doing is.”
So it’s important not to rely on the accuracy of, “I’m bored,” Danckert says. A child might not have the insight or words to express what’s really going on.
[READ: Should Kids Get Homework?]
What Parents Can Do
If children complain of being bored at school, don’t simply insist they engage. As Danckert and Eastwood write: “We would not tell someone who is drowning and unable to swim to simply swim to shore.”
What else doesn’t work? “Asking them why they are bored is not going to be helpful,” Westgate says. Instead, try asking, “When do you feel bored?” Is it usually during group work? Homework?
Gwyn recommends the question, “What did you do in school today that was fun?” She says parents can approach teachers with this same sense of curiosity, asking what they’ve noticed about a child’s boredom. Looking for patterns can get at the root of boredom.
What doesn’t work is distraction. “It makes what you’re feeling go away for the moment, but it doesn’t solve the underlying problem,” Westgate says.
Indeed, in research studies, distraction and avoidance — think iPads and games — don’t snap people out of boredom. That’s one reason Danckert is skeptical when he hears doodling and fidgeting suggested as boredom fixes: Maybe these activities work to channel that extra cognitive capacity somewhere, he says, “but you also have taken your mind away from the thing you are supposed to be learning.” (He says there’s no reliable evidence that being bored spawns creativity either.)
Rather, strategies that help kids meet boredom head-on are the ticket. Westgate recommends teaching them to say, “O.K., I’m feeling bored,” and then reframe what they’re doing: “Are there any upsides to this? Are there any silver linings?”
Researchers have found that people who practice this sort of mindfulness experience less boredom. We can also give kids tools to enhance self-control. Danckert recommends waiting for a calm moment and then encouraging children to come up with four things to do the next time they’re bored. Westgate says kids can learn to “gamify” tasks that aren’t intrinsically meaningful by, say, adding time challenges or pretending their assignments are spells.
You can also help your child find the “why” behind school requirements, Westgate says. “It’s not going to turn into a ‘Wow, I want to do that some more,’ but it does provide a little bit of meaning.”
Ideally though, addressing boredom in school would be less about coping with it and more about prevention. Ask your child’s teacher what you can do to help boost what one study called the five C’s: “control, choice, challenge, complexity and caring” in the classroom. Having more volunteers on hand might enable a teacher to offer more open-ended activities and differentiated learning.
If you see that your child’s work is too easy or complex, ask how you can team with school staff to improve scaffolding. Consider hiring a tutor, requesting a change in schedule or suggesting a more strengths-based approach. Finally, support teacher-led efforts to create a culturally responsive curriculum, affinity groups and clubs — all things that increase the sense of connectedness that decreases boredom.
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Why Your Child Might Be Bored at School and What to Do About It originally appeared on usnews.com