Boredom Is a Brain Turn-Off
Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed., author of Inspiring Middle Schools Minds

“I’ve always been in the fast math class where it has always been challenging but not impossible. That is when I pay attention best.” ~Austin (my math student)
Imagine having to spend your day on the bunny hill when you are an expert skier, throwing darts at a target two feet away, or doing a crossword puzzle made for children in third grade. You would feel frustrated or bored, just as a gifted child does when there is inadequate challenge to engage his brain in lessons at school or in homework. You know it would do nothing to promote your child’s interest in a subject or awareness of her gifts if she took a test on a topic she mastered years before, such as having your fifth-grade daughter score 100% on a math test of adding single-digit positive integers. Unless students feel that the achievement is a challenge, there is no intrinsic satisfaction from success.

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.

Achievable Challenge

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)


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