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Imagine that you – yes, you! – are taking a course. Maybe it’s a course in how to fix a bicycle.

• If you already know a lot about bicycles and this is a basic course, you’ll be bored. You won’t be learning anything new and you’ll wonder why you signed up.

• But if you don’t know anything at all about bicycles and this is the advanced course in building a racing bike and people are talking about gear ratios and suchlike, you may be bored because nothing you’re hearing makes sense to you. You’re lost and you wonder why you signed up.

• Or… maybe you don’t ride bicycles, you don’t want to know how to fix them, and you find your mind wandering as the instructor drones on and on. You’re not even listening and you wonder now why you signed up.

Your child, of course, didn’t sign up at all for fourth grade or seventh grade or whatever, and he can’t really just pack up and go home. He has to sit through this class till the end of the term and you don’t want his lack of attention to get him in trouble. What can you do?

It depends on the source of the problem.

1. If your child is bored because the class is too basic and she already knows everything, then she needs more depth. A skillful teacher knows how to differentiate the curriculum to fit the same material to the level of each child in the class or to create more depth in a subject for the advanced students while the rest of the class learns what’s on the surface. Talk with your child’s teacher and see if he’s noticed this problem with your child. Ask him what he can do to provide more depth.

In addition, you can provide depth yourself. If the class is still mastering multiplication while your child is ready for long division, go ahead and teach her long division at home. Or find math puzzles and tricks to expand her understanding of number concepts.

2. If your child is bored because the material is way too difficult for him, talk to his teacher immediately. Find out if she’s noticed this problem and what she’s doing about it. Ask what you can do at home to bring your child up to speed.

Failure and fear of failing cause children to act bored and dismissive. Most kids seem to think it’s better to be called a lazy slacker than labeled a dummy. The kid who’s not sure he’ll be a success at something hides by being “too cool for school.” Obviously, not-knowing the material well enough to feel confident at school is something that won’t go away by itself. Take action to help your struggling child feel stronger and more capable.

3. If your child is just not engaged at school, even though the material is at her level, find out why. Children who seem bored may really be distracted by problems at home, problems with friends, or other worries. What looks like boredom is really a desire to pay attention to problems that seem more important than school stuff. The worried child needs help with whatever is bothering her. Get professional help, if your child or even the whole family need it.

Some children are distracted by Big Ideas, instead of by worry. Children who are obsessed by a topic, who eat and sleep it on the weekends, just can’t turn their obsession off during school hours. They may spend their time in class daydreaming about their Big Ideas and may find school topics too trivial and uninteresting… and boring… to capture their attention.

The child consumed by an obsession needs some motivation to pay closer attention in class. You and the child’s teacher might set up some sort of record-keeping system, even a rewards system, to help your child break the habit of ruminating off-topic during school hours.

We all know that paying attention in class is important. But being bored at school isn’t so simple as it might seem. If your child complains about how boring school is, figure out why.

Knowing the roots of boredom will help you and your child make school interesting again.

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.

As the year winds down and final exams loom, you might be tempted to remind your teen of the consequences of failure. It makes sense, it seems like,  to motivate a kid by pointing out that he’ll not graduate on time if he goofs off, or won’t get into a college, or will be kicked off the team if his grades are low.

Seems like, but not true. A new study reveals that reminding a teen of negative consequences is less helpful than reminding her of the positive consequences.  Saying “If you fail this exam, you’ll never get a decent job” actually causes kids to feel less motivated and do worse on tests than saying “If you do well on this exam, it will be easier to get a decent job.” Same message. A more positive spin.

The study was conducted in England and involved 347 students, evenly divided between girls and boys and about 15 years old. The students were enrolled in an 18-month program designed to help kids pass a major exam required to earn the British equivalent of a high school diploma. Twice over the 18 months, students were asked about their experience, first about the teacher’s use of scare tactics to motivate them and then, three months later, about their own reason for prepping for the exam. At the end of the study, students’ scores on the exam were compared. Students whose teachers used scare tactics were indeed motivated by fear of failure but also did less well on the test than students whose teachers used success images as a motivation technique.

This fits with your own experience, when you think of it. You know that when you try hard to just avoid failing – at cooking dinner, finding your way to a strange location, or completing a task at work – you are less likely to do a truly excellent job than if you work hard to do things well. Fear of failure has long been recognized as a barrier to success. It makes no sense to inspire teens using scare tactics. It’s very likely to backfire.

So, as final exams loom, support your teen.

Thinking positively is almost always more effective than thinking negatively. Scare tactics rarely work in the way we hope. Stay upbeat and see if things don’t work out well.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Join Dr. Anderson in an online conference for teachers and parents. Find out more at Quality Conference for Early Childhood Leaders.