I loved school so much when I was little, I played “school” on the weekends.
In my elementary school days, I’d set up my teddy bears, Grizzle and Grizzlette, and teach them how to read. I’d make up math tests for the My Little Ponies and quiz them with flashcards. When friends came over, we’d write stories and take turns being the teacher, grading them.
In my naïve mind, I thought all students loved learning as much as I did.
It wasn’t until middle school that I realized that there were a large group of my peers who thought school was “boring,” and they couldn’t wait for it to be over.
Wait…not everyone got excited to color-code their planners and knock out their homework? Who knew?!?
My deep love of learning evolved into a career studying the psychology of learning, as a school psychologist. In this role, I tend to work with kids who tell me they hate school and find it boring. Kids get referred to me when they are underachieving or struggling, and my job is to figure out why.
One of my first activities I do with students is give a sentence completion task to find out how they think and feel about school and themselves as learners. I provide the beginning of the sentence, and they complete it for me with the first thing that comes to mind:
The thing I love about school is…
The thing I hate about school is…
Many of the students who are struggling will say the thing they love is “nothing,” the thing they hate is “everything,” and school is “boring.”
My first instinct is to “Pinkie Pie” them.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with My Little Ponies, Pinkie Pie is the uber-positive pony who has only one setting: “Yay!!!” She falls down a treacherous waterfall and after a split second of fear, shifts quickly to “Wheeeeee! This is fun!” Hitting an iceberg with her boat? Pinkie Pie gets excited that she has shattered ice cubes now for her drink.
When kids say they find school boring, I so badly want to convince them that School! Is! Awesome!
Others may have an instinct to dismiss the claim, by offering up that boredom is common and to be expected at school. Well-meaning adults may try to normalize that boredom is something that is just part of school and life—some things will be boring from time to time.
However, both of these instincts assume that the challenge is actually boredom.
What “boring” really means
I’ve learned over the years that “boring” means something very different to each student, and I need to dig deeper. “Boring” is the tip of the iceberg—it’s what the student says on the surface, but the underlying reasons can be more complex.
A recent study by Michael Furlong and his colleagues sheds some light on what students may actually mean when they report boredom at school. Instead of viewing boredom as being limited to a particular subject or classroom, they studied students who report broader unfavorable school attitudes, or a “School Boredom Mindset.”
The researchers found that one in eight middle and high school students expressed strong negative beliefs about school, describing it as boring and of low value. According to their review of the literature, school boredom may be a signal of internal mindsets, external situations, or a deeper emotional challenge:
- Trouble with the subject matter or task demands (being over-challenged)
- A need for more or new sources of stimulation (being under-challenged)
- Limited interest or motivation in a particular subject
- A mismatch between a student’s ability and the skill required to complete a task
- A low perceived value of what is being taught
- Disengagement and dissatisfaction
- Helplessness and sadness
- Depression, anxiety, apathy
The researchers also draw a distinction between experiences of boredom being a temporary state (this class/subject/situation is boring) and a more stable trait (a general pattern of experiencing boredom in school and in life). This is important, as the latter is associated with lower well-being and school disengagement. Furlong and his colleagues found that students who fell into this category had substantially lower overall well-being than their peers. They were more likely to report lower satisfaction in their lives, less school belonging, and less social-emotional assets like believing in themselves.
How to help with “boring”
What can adults do if they suspect that boredom is a sign of a chronic issue that is impacting a student’s well-being? Here are some ways to gauge the seriousness of the problem.
- Instead of assuming that you know what “boring” means, ask open-ended questions like, “Can you explain what you mean by ‘boring?’” Or simply say, “Tell me more.”
- See if the boredom is pervasive or situational by asking if the boredom is an “all the time problem” or a “sometimes problem.” For instance, you could ask, “Are there any times during the school day when you are not bored?”
- To find out if this is a recent problem or an ongoing one, ask, “When did school first start feeling boring to you?” Oftentimes, students will report that school became “boring” at a certain grade level, when it got harder, which can be an indicator that “boredom” may be a protective mechanism (in other words, it’s easier to say something is boring than it is too hard and you need help).
It’s also important to remember that behavior is communication. When you see the “tip of the iceberg” behaviors like repeated complaints about school, head on the desk, absenteeism, or disengagement, it’s important to “check below the waterline” for other social-emotional functioning challenges. It is possible that “I’m bored” is not a cause for concern in and of itself, but a pattern of strong and negative attitudes about school and life in general may warrant further intervention with a school-based mental health professional.
So what can parents and educators do once they’ve peeked below the waterline to see if boredom is a passing feeling or a sign of a bigger challenge?
If boredom appears to be a passing or superficial state, adults can reframe the discussion from boredom as a “negative emotion” to a “natural emotion” that we all experience from time to time. In fact, boredom can have positive outcomes, such as enabling creativity and problem-solving, and flexing a student’s ability to persist in the face of a mundane task (as adults can attest to, an important skill!). Indeed, as Furlong and his colleagues suggest, conversations about boredom can be embraced to educate students about motivation, engagement, and coping strategies. These conversations can in turn tap into students’ self-awareness and enhance engagement.
If the boredom seems to be a symptom of a deeper problem, know that even the act of connecting with and listening to a student’s concerns with warm positive regard alone can be protective. Research finds that connecting to one positive adult can be protective against stress for kids. Having an empathic conversation and trying to understand a student’s perspective can build their resilience and comfort with reaching out for help. These conversations can also lead to connecting a student with a school-based mental health or learning support professional, like a school psychologist.
It’s my sincere hope that we can inspire students to thrive at school through a process of listening, empathizing, and problem-solving feelings of boredom. Maybe they won’t end up loving school so much that they play school on the weekends like I did as a kid…but a Pinkie Pie school psychologist can still hold on to the belief that all students can find the joy in their learning.