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Boredom at school: Is stress the cause?

Boredom at school might be a symptom of troubles outside of school.
Boredom at school might be a symptom of troubles outside of school.

SALT LAKE CITY — Conventional wisdom tells us kids feel bored at school because they are under-challenged, under-motivated or poorly taught. A 2012 report from the Association for Psychological Science Association says the classic signals of boredom might be telling a different story, according to an Education Week blog by Sarah D. Sparks.

When a child gazes out of a classroom window, fidgets and acts out at school, or heaves a sigh that says "I'm so bored!", the real problem might be outside stressors that can interfere with schoolwork, and even health.

"I think teachers should always try to be relevant and interesting, but beyond that, there are other places to look," Sparks was told by John D. Eastwood, an associate professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, Canada (author of the study). "By definition, to be in the state of boredom is to say the world sucks out there in some way. But often that's not the case; often it's an interior problem, and [students] are looking in the wrong place to solve the problem."

Kids have any number of reasons to feel stressed — disharmony at home, high expectations from parents and teachers, or difficulty getting along with friends are a few that come to mind. A new report by the Urban Institute suggests another: poverty.

Children in poverty are more likely than others to experience poor pre-natal and early childhood care, poor nutrition, lack of intellectual stimulation, frequent moving, and the ramifications of parental unemployment and depression.

Such chronic stressors link childhood poverty to lower levels of working memory and can lead to permanent changes in brain function that hamper later learning, said Urban Institute's "Child Poverty and Its Lasting Consequence" report. Poverty and low school achievement are closely linked within a multi-generational cycle that is difficult to break, the report said.

One possible contributor to school boredom might affect privileged kids as much or more than their poorer peers. An Education Week article by Stanley Pogrow theorizes that easy access to on-demand entertainment makes it increasingly difficult for teachers to hold the interest of the YouTube generation.

"The old standbys of telling students they have to know it because it will be on the test, or making it 'authentic,' that is, trying to convince students they will need to know it as adults, have little effect on many students," Pogrow wrote. "They are not adults, and may be rebelling against adult ideas."

Students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder report feeling bored more often than students with normal attention spans do. Discouragement, depression and emotional trauma also cause students to disengage and feel bored, the study said.

Teachers can engage students with ADHD by substituting hands-on learning for passive listening, keeping eye contact and giving just one instruction at a time, according MayFlor Markusic, a writer for Bright Hub Education, a clearinghouse for education information.

"The appearance of boredom in ADHD students is the result of the symptoms of their medical disorder," Markusic wrote. "The teacher can help the students perform better in school if the presentation of the lessons and tasks takes into consideration the easy distractibility and frequent inattention that beset these students."

Treating poverty, home environment, poor teaching styles and disorders such as ADHD have all been considered as possible cures for student boredom. A study from Germany's University of Konstanz suggests another tactic: Students can take responsibility for their own boredom and cure it themselves.

Nearly 1,000 students were asked to work a math problem considered difficult and boring. Some students didn't try the problem, others asked for more interesting work. The most successful students reappraised the situation, found ways to make the problem relevant, and figured out how to combat their own boredom, wrote Sparks in her appraisal of the study.