Often teachers move through the curriculum at a set pace, regardless of students’ individual levels of mastery. Even students who are not negative about school in general will become bored when lessons are at a level they already have mastered.
For students to be engaged in their learning, they need relevant, achievable challenge. It is only from authentic achievements that students experience the reward of their competence, effort, and perseverance. This is when the neurotransmitter dopamine is released from a brain structure called the nucleus accumbens. When the brain solves a satisfying problem with appropriate challenge, the increase in dopamine release is associated with feelings of pleasure and intrinsic satisfaction. Because the brain is a pleasure-seeking organ, it will look for more opportunities to get that same satisfaction and pleasure.
Students who have these satisfying experiences develop perseverance and tolerance for even greater challenge. They are engaged and focused on learning activities that are meaningful and challenging. They see themselves as learners and regard learning as pleasurable. They build the confidence, curiosity, and willingness to persevere, even after making mistakes. Gifted students need achievable challenge to grow as learners and reach into their gifted potential. These challenge experiences are vital while they develop the skills they need to use their gifts to the fullest, such as flexibility, perseverance, interest, and inventiveness.
Challenge is a powerful motivator when students take on a challenge they find meaningful. Intrinsic rewards are powerful, and the dopamine-pleasure reaction encourages subsequent similar pursuits. However, because the brain’s emotional filter, the amygdala, blocks learning when students are bored, gifted students need teachers and parents to provide opportunities for success at an individual challenge level appropriate for their mastery and background knowledge.
If learning opportunities are not compatible with a gifted child’s level of intelligence, background knowledge, and development, his brain drops into a stress reactive state. This part of the brain functions at the reactive, involuntary, unconscious level. The brain’s only options at this operating level are fight/flight/freeze, which manifests with reactions such as low participation, failure to complete homework and other assignments, disruptive behavior, or simply zoning out (and sometimes missing important material because their brains are no longer paying attention).
If your gifted child is losing interest in school, not finishing homework, doing poorly on tests, or coming up with excuses not to go to school, consider the possibility that the lack of challenge is a powerful brain stressor. Start a dialogue with your child to find which subjects are the most “boring,” and create extended opportunities for more in-depth independent study at home, such as with interactive Internet websites in which the levels of challenge increase as mastery increases. There is a list of these at the end of this article.
When you have some samples of your child’s independent, advanced work, schedule a meeting with his teacher, bringing the work your child has done. Use the meeting to collaborate with the teacher to work with you to raise the bar with appropriate challenge. See if he or she can offer your child more guided independent work, as well as evaluating his mastery before a new unit and eliminating the repetitive drill and homework that is the boring, frustrating, turn-off, like throwing darts at that target only two feet away. Unless the negative association with boredom and school is eliminated, it gets more difficult with each passing year for your child to become reconnected with the joys of learning.
Your intervention in the school negativity that is the consequence of your child not being engaged at his appropriate achievable challenge level can make the difference in his attitude, not only about the value of school, but about the joy of lifelong learning.
Interactive Internet Resources (some are free)
- Dimension M: math games by Tabula Digita, such as work to stop a biodigital virus from taking over the world, while learning about functions and solving equations: www.dimensionm.com
- Knowledge Matters: business simulations that allow students to manage sports teams or stores: http://vbc.knowledgematters.com/vbc/sports/about
- Picture memory sequencing match games: www.prongo.com/match/index.html
- Pattern matching: http://primarygames.com/patterns/start.htm
- Maze puzzles to build patterning skills:
- Mathematical Association of America Digital Classroom Resources: free online learning activities, elementary through middle school levels: http://Mathdl.maa.org/mathDL/3