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Take Boredom Seriously.

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My heart goes out to the kids that are met with patronizing retorts when they describe their experience of utter boredom in the classroom.

They hear, “Only boring people can be bored” or “Pay better attention, and maybe you won’t be so bored.” Or even worse, “Get used to it. Life is boring.”

Heartbreaking.

This came up for me recently on a conference call Jade Ann Rivera hosted about the intersection of Asperger’s and giftedness. A mother of a young gifted-Aspie revealed that her daughter felt bored in elementary school.

I detected the slightest timidity, as if “boredom” weren’t a feeling worthy of further reflection. This mother, an incredible advocate for her child, seemed to have partially internalized the school district’s position that wanting your child to feel engaged was asking too much.

Boredom is not a character deficit.

While sometimes boredom can be overcome by self-initiative, often a gifted individual needs an environment to inspire and compel their participation. Boredom is a valid feeling, and I urge caring adults to look for underlying needs including engagement and intellectual stimulation.

And it is particularly difficult for those of us that have intellectual overexcitability.

When one’s mind is on overdrive with thoughtful curiosity and questioning, it can be painful to sit with underwhelming stimuli.  It can lead to problematic behavior, including withdrawal or rebellion.

On the call, I declared “Take Boredom Seriously.” We have all kinds of groups and trainings on anger management, as if a kid flipping a desk over or cursing out a teacher is the most serious behavioral challenge in education.  I am more concerned with the immense loss that happens when creative minds stop caring.

When young eyes close with tired despair, eyes that could be eagerly engaged in their own projects, I rouse to near anger. This does not have to be expensive; sometimes a library card and leaving them alone is all it takes. Free these minds, inspire their inquiry, and watch what happens.

Let’s continue to work to support young people in having their needs for engagement and learning well attended to. In fact, anything less bores me.

I’d love to hear from you.  In the comments below, please share a challenge or a success story about how you’ve brought innovation and creativity to overcome boredom.

{ 21 comments… add one }
  • Vicki March 15, 2014, 4:59 am

    This post hits so close to home today. Just this morning I asked my son why he always took so long getting ready for school. He said that “because I don’t want to go. It is so boring and I don’t get to learn anything new!” He never gets to answer questions because the teachers “are aware he knows the answers” and he never gets to read in the full group because they “know he can read the material and need to give other kids practice.” He is being shut down and ignored, I fear, and it breaks my heart.

    • byamtich March 15, 2014, 3:16 pm

      Hi Vicki,

      Thank you for your comment. I feel inspired to try to offer something, even knowing that I don’t know the full story.

      Apart from whatever advocacy you can do with the school (or finding even radical alternatives), I’d encourage you to prioritize full empathy and self-expression to your son. Let him know, in your own words, that you are heartbroken. That you love him and you want his desires for learning and challenge to be met like a parade at sunset with fireworks. Let him know about your efforts to improve things. Let him know, that even if you don’t see a way to make adjustments at this moment at the strategy level, that you care so much about his feelings and needs at the need level.

      Yes, boredom sucks. Better to say “so sorry” than “suck it up”, even if you don’t have a solution.

      so sorry,
      Bob

  • Alex December 25, 2014, 12:29 am

    My two gifted kids were both so bored at school they would come home and ask me for “extra” work. My daughter was an excellent advocate for herself in third grade and finally got permission to bring in books from home to read during school when she had finished her work. The school did not have books at her reading level and her teacher was convinced she didn’t understand the books she was reading, but my daughter fought for it. That year she read over 4 dozen books from home, most of them were kids novels of at least 150 pages and among them were 4 Harry Potter Books and 3 Redwall books. That was when we realized HOW bored she was in school. They wouldn’t skip her a grade, so we pulled her out to homeschool her, she was never bored again until she chose to go back to High School two years ago.

    • byamtich January 21, 2015, 9:45 am

      I am sure the reasons were complicated and the options may have been constrained, but I love when kids have choice.

  • Marie December 25, 2014, 2:30 am

    Agreed. When we passed on our daughter’s descriptions of ‘boredom’, which were not what the teacher wanted to hear, we were told she was ‘unengaged.’ They were already differentiating her with the top students in the class, and even that wasn’t a challenge. But unlike some, she would not sit down and be quiet when bored, or when the teacher had went for hours without covering anything she considered new or interesting. From there it dissolved into ‘disrespectful’ and ‘behavior problem’. They decided she needed to learn social skills her peers ‘already knew’.. basically how to get the drift that the teacher was annoyed with questions, distracted by anything you did that wasn’t sitting quietly and to learn to zone out or face the consequences with removed recess and added time-outs. We chose to homeschool to allow her to follow her curiosity and project-based learning. It was a hard choice – lots to juggle and as she felt at first she did nothing wrong and was being punished. She forgot how mean some children were to her for being different. She forgot the confusion, and the hurt of missing recess nearly daily some weeks. She forgot how the teacher would not answer her raised hand even when she had to go to the bathroom, for fear of more questions. She was moving too fast at all times to realize exactly why some people were just exasperated with her – but it was having a psychological effect. She was starting to withdraw on particularly bad days, and lash out at home when school was mentioned or homework had to be done. At home she is in general much happier – and excelling at reading, math and ‘engineering’ levels a public school student would wait years for. She also understands that when she is bored – she can talk about it with us, make complicated plans and drawings for experiments and be supported instead of told to sit down and shut up. That is worth all we have to juggle to make this happen… we just have to take it one year at a time.

    • byamtich January 21, 2015, 9:43 am

      I am glad you introduced the term “exasperated.” I want all adults to have stronger skills at asking for, giving, and receiving feedback. Boredom is feedback. “Sit down and shut up” does not help anybody learn. At the same time, all people need to work on framing and stimulation management. I know that I struggle to focus when there are multiple sound sources. Imagine what it is like for a gifted or twice-exceptional kid to be in a room with multiple sound sources, none of which hold any interest. Tragic.

    • Helen January 17, 2016, 9:47 am

      This is so true for my son! Now in first year of high school. He “annoyed” teachers sometimes because he did know the answers or questioned the material. Started having behavioral issues in middle school- exactly as described above. He’s now in an IB program in high school, however, even that is not as stimulating as we had hoped. He’s lost some of that curiosity and willingness to learn. 🙁 I wish I had known better and pulled him from traditional public school earlier.

      • byamtich January 17, 2016, 11:21 am

        Oh! Very few of us were taught about the structural limits of school, and how unlikely it is for outliers to have their needs met in a system designed for factory work in a time with far fewer factories.

        I offer a wondering: might the curiosity return during independent projects? Could he have a meaningful internship to see how the world works? “Willing to learn” is different from willingness to participate in activities that other people designed on a timeline that other people chose. We all have a limit of how much of other people’s ideas, plans, and purposes we can joyfully cooperate with.

  • Chris Wells April 2, 2015, 9:32 am

    “When one’s mind is on overdrive with thoughtful curiosity and questioning, it can be painful to sit with underwhelming stimuli.” This is so true – and right away it made me think of the way that this is a legitimate problem for adults who spend time in psychiatric hospitals. The environment is designed to minimize stimulation, but I experienced that as torture. In reviewing my records/writing from those times, I find that it makes sense that created chaos sometimes – to create novelty. I could never stay still – I’d bounce a basketball up and down the hallway, pull (harmless) pranks on staff members, etc. But it was perceived negatively – as a character flaw. Boredom is real – I’m glad that you brought this topic up.

    • byamtich April 2, 2015, 9:56 am

      Totally! You can only play Connect Four for so long (thinking about “activity therapy” in psych hospitals). A lot of people are scared of intensity- this subtle bias and institutional discrimination leads to huge ripple impacts on those whose brains require challenge and adventure. “Sit down and shut up” has very, very different impacts on people than engaging conversation where they are met with such acceptance and empathy that they can also be challenged, if there is an aspect of their current reality which can be improved.

      I wish that people and structures could take in feedback, the “it’s about them, not you” really hurts both education and mental health work. Sometimes, it is about you. Perhaps the constraints of the place you work at prohibit creativity, but don’t be surprised when people protest.

      In gifted theory, the psychomotor overexcitability often pairs with the other OEs for interesting results (when met with dignity, choice, and all other relevant needs).

  • Kiwi Mum January 14, 2016, 5:08 pm

    Sadly, this was a major driver in our son’s early suicide attempts (before his sixth birthday). The boredom was eating him up, along with feeling painfully different, and not “getting” school like all the other kids around him. He was being forced into a teeny tiny box which was never going to fit him.

    I too am passionate about adults not pushing kids to tolerate such huge levels of boredom – if we had such a terribly unstimulating job, we would look for something more meaningful. Kids don’t have that option, they can’t just choose to leave school! We need to stand up for them and have their needs met. I refuse to see one more child’s soul be so broken. Luckily, our little guy has found his place and is the happy-go-lucky kid he had been prior to kindergarten.

    • byamtich January 15, 2016, 9:48 pm

      I am really getting how much care and protection you want for children. Needs for safety, choice, dignity, and hope arise for me reading your comment.

  • Denise Durrett January 14, 2016, 6:29 pm

    Perfect timing! My 5th grader had a horrible meltdown this morning because she is SO bored at school, even in the gifted cluster. I feel like we need to work on better differentiation, and my husband feels like she needs to suck it up and deal, which is what both of us had to do in school. A group of parents in my town is trying very hard to raise awareness and provide information to the school district on gifted and 2e kids, but it’s a long, uphill battle!

    • byamtich January 15, 2016, 9:47 pm

      Yes, differentiation often leads to self-directed learning. I’m glad you have a connection with other families in your community. Solitary battles are more draining on morale.

  • Lisa January 14, 2016, 10:30 pm

    Thank God for libraries. I was bored all through school, but I learned on the weekends. I sometimes spent an entire day at the library.

  • Paula Prober January 17, 2016, 3:02 pm

    Great topic, Bob. Well written. Well done!

    • byamtich January 20, 2016, 11:51 am

      Thanks Paula! I appreciate it. I’m curious about how adults respond to boredom as well. One adult friend of mine says she never experiences it.

  • Stephanie Ives January 20, 2016, 7:38 pm

    This hits home. My 5th grader is gifted and enjoyed school up until this year. His single day pull-out for the G/T program at our school isn’t enough. We requested a conference with his teaching team (5th rotates for all classes in our school) and the topic of boredom came up. Sadly we weren’t taken seriously by one of his teachers. She took umbredge at the term boredom. Unfortunately she missed the opportunity to explain how she differentiates instruction in the classroom and focused instead on the concept that there are things in life you just have to do whether you like it or not. Other teachers revealed that extension projects were available to students who demonstrated mastery of the subject matter. For our son, his prior teachers automatically incorporated and allowed extension opportunities to high achievers and made it engaging and fun- not perceived as “extra work” which is how our son sees it this year. This year is challenging to keep him engaged and not tuned out to boredom with the end goal of having the option to take whatever accelerated classes he chooses next year in middle school.

    • byamtich January 20, 2016, 8:42 pm

      Yes. The more he is supported and empowered to have choice over what he focuses on, I would expect, the more you will see positive results in engagement.

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