From the Archive

This article, written by former Chief Executive, Denise Yates, was originally issued in the Spring 2013 edition of Focus on Potential.

1. Introduction

“I’m bored!”

How many times as a parent has your child said that? Whether it is at the beginning of the holiday season, after a school day or at a weekend? What is your reaction? More often than not, we jump to attention and either find our children something to occupy them or we rush into school and ask for our children to have more challenging work to occupy their thoughts. But are we right? What I want to do in this article is to try and understand what could be going on when our children say they are bored and to look at what our responses could be to the whole issue of boredom.

The average Briton, according to an online survey, endures six hours of boredom a week. Another survey, this time from the New Economics Foundation ( found that Britain is the fourth most bored nation in Europe (I wonder which is the most bored nation?). So when our children increasingly complain of being bored, it is against a background of growing boredom rates in general.

I would like to begin this article with an understanding of our children and what is going on when they say they are bored, our own response and also those of the professionals, if any, who support our children and how we should respond when we hear that dreaded ‘B’ word.

2. What does boredom mean to our children?

Let’s start with our children. When they say they are bored, is this what they really mean? Rather than start in the most obvious place for our high potential learners (that they are complaining because the work is too easy or because they ‘get it’ once the teacher has explained it once), I want to dig at little deeper to explore other reasons for this ‘boredom’. Let’s first of all look at their approach to learning. Could saying something is boring be a mask for something else?

i) Is it the learning that is inherently boring?

With the best will in the world, we can all think of some things that most of us would find boring (learning spellings, handwriting, learning dates) or that we are simply not interested in learning. I’m talking about things that no teacher at home or school, even the most inspirational, could make more appealing. There are just some things our children have to learn and get on with practising. Obviously, there are ways to reduce this boredom and move onto more interesting challenges when our children ‘get it’. However, we need to make sure that the high potential learner does have the basic building blocks in place that so much of education is based on and that will be needed as they move up the skills ladder.

ii) Is the teaching different from the way our children learn?

Many of our children, particularly the boys, are kinaesthetic learners; they learn by doing and want to be up and off as soon as they understand a concept. The problem with high potential learners is that they may only need to hear the concept once or twice before their need for action kicks in. Force them to sit on the mat or listen without trying out what they have learnt and the result is boredom, particularly where the teacher’s (or parent’s) learning style is different and there is an expectation to sit still and listen or read.

iii) Is the work too hard?

Our children may not find everything easy and there may be things they cannot do or where they have to work a bit harder to learn. It could be that they then find it much easier to say ‘boring’ than ‘frustrating’ or ‘difficult’ or ‘hard’. ‘Boring’ removes them from being the potential issue and makes the focus of the problem someone or something else.

iv) Is it because they don’t know what they don’t know?

When they say they are bored, could our children actually be misinterpreting what they are expected to do or looking at the learning on a different level, perhaps of because of their maturity or even what they have learnt already? If they don’t know what they don’t know, they may interpret an assignment incorrectly as being too easy (boring) or too difficult (frustrating)?

v) Boring means ‘Go away I need some chill out time!’

Your child comes home from school or another learning environment. Innocently, you ask “What was school like today?” Back comes the reply “Boring!” Or you might ask “What did you learn at school today?” and the reply comes “Nothing!”

Is this a reflection of what your child has been doing for the past six or more hours? Or could it be that, just like the rest of us, they need chill out time when they come home and want to close down their conversation with you as soon as possible? Why not wait until they have chilled out and then ask them a specific question; e.g. “Name three things you learnt today”. If they continue to say they are bored, sympathise and then asked them questions; e.g. “How did you feel about that? What did you do? Which lesson was that in? Why? What was the difference between those you thought were great and those you were bored in?”

vi) I want you to pay attention to me

A common concern from parents is about children who are on the go all the time; and expect their mum or dad to be there with them, reading, playing games or talking. As parents, don’t forget we also need ‘me time’ (without the guilt!) as well as time to get on with household tasks and work. Yet many of our children, if we aren’t attentive 24/7, will tell us that they are bored, when what they really mean is they want company or help in structuring what they do.

vii) Life in the fast lane

This issue isn’t helped by the high-tech, fast-paced world that we are increasingly living in, which may make our children less able to cope with boredom. Whether it is playing with the X-Box or Wii or (depending on their age), chatting on Facebook and Twitter, or watching television, we’re all living life in the fast lane and our children may feel bored when they are not given something to do every minute of every day.

Going back to learning, not every lesson can be high-tech, fast-paced or even as exciting as a game on the computer or X-Box and, if that is what our children expect, then they may be disappointed.

viii) I don’t like what I am doing and don’t know how to do anything different.

Do you remember getting your child an expensive present for their birthday or Christmas, which they promptly ignore to play with the box it came in? For some children ‘I’m bored!’ means ‘I don’t like what I am doing and don’t know how else to structure my time more productively’. For these children, we need to give them the tools to be able to do this by making suggestions and then giving them time to use their imagination.

ix) I’m bored because it’s cool

As your child gets older, they may increasingly need to ‘fit in’, to be one of the ‘popular crowd’ and to play down their gifts or talents. This can be common for teenagers or the kind of children with high learning potential whom Niehart and Betts term ‘underground’. These children can coast or even underachieve in order to fit in and may say they are bored by learning for the same reason.

x) I’m not bored I’m tired

Before we leave our search for other reasons for our child’s boredom, I am going to mention one issue that may be interpreted by our children as boredom, fatigue. Many of our children are on the go from morning to night. Others may have low energy levels at certain times of the day. Whether the cause is lack of sleep or iron or water, could increased levels of fatigue be interpreted by our children as boredom? This can happen especially if they are failing to concentrate in lessons.

Let’s finish off with the reasons most often attributed to our high potential learners

xi) I’m bored because I learn faster than you are teaching me

Life in the fast brain means that our children only need to hear a concept once or twice and they understand it and want to move onto the next topic or stage of their learning. When you have eliminated all other reasons for your child’s boredom, this may be the only reason left.

In the right learning environment, the teacher will keep up with the child and differentiate work (easier to do at home when you are personalising their education), giving higher level work that challenges the child rather than more of the same which is seen as a punishment for the child who wants to fly.

xii) My brain can think of much more interesting things to think about 

Some of our children were born thinking and easily drift off into their own imagination. It’s not that the subject is boring per se, it is just that what they have to think about is much more interesting. These are the ‘absent-minded professors’ who forget to brush their teeth or to turn up on time, and who have poor organisational skills for no other reason than their own thoughts and ideas are self-absorbing.

3. Could boredom be a good thing?

Ask your child what they say they do when they are bored; you might be surprised by the answer!

“ my mind is thinking all the time, it’s like a squash ball bouncing off
the walls, going from one thing to another.”

“I think about what I would do if I were a teacher, how I would work with the
children in my class to teach them.”

“I invent things or write new songs.”

Thus there is a view that our children need to be ‘bored’, to stand still and just think, so that they can become creative and use their imaginations. Certainly, executive training courses for adults make a big thing of ‘leopard time’ or time for the senior executive in a company to stand and think to help them strategise and plan, or just think of ways to improve the business in the future. It may be the same with our children.
In fact, unlike some may think, certain areas of the brain are not dulled by daydreaming to cope with boredom, but actually become very active. The more daydreaming our children do, the more they think, the more active their brains become.

4. The negative side of boredom

All emotions, even anger, have their place (if anger is not vented it can turn in on itself and become depression). However, repeated or long term feelings of boredom can lead to:
• stress
• anger
• depression

These can ultimately be a threat to health. What your child needs to do is to learn how to handle the emotion of boredom and to develop a response to it that works for them within their environment.

5. Does our response help?

Some of us will have children who say they are bored at the drop of a hat, and expect us, as parents, to drop everything in response to structure their lives for them in the minutest detail. If we don’t do this, it can result in negative behaviour ranging from ‘making mischief’ to anger and frustration, causing further problems when these issues spill over into the classroom at school. However, do we do our children a service by responding to this boredom?

As parents, we need to remove the temptation to solve every problem our children have. Whilst, obviously, there has to be a balance, as I’m not talking about neglecting our children in any way, we may feel very guilty when we are not doing our utmost to take away every frustration or problem our children experiences in life. However, by giving them the tools to solve their own problems, you may, indeed, be doing them a great service.

We need to give our children the coping mechanisms to recognise boredom and to provide a response that works for them. This needs to be done, I would argue, as early as possible or they may always walk away from the problem and respond negatively, at home, in school and, later on, in work.

One of the phrases I often hear is that our children need to know how to play ‘the rules of the game’. It is either that or we need to change the rules in one way or another. Our role as parents is critical in helping to secure an environment for our children in which they are able to ‘play the rules of the game’, and in creating a positive framework to teach the rules that are seen as important at home and in their learning environment.

6. Boredom is an emotion

Think of boredom as an emotion, like anger or fear or guilt. If our children came to us because they were afraid, would we tell them to get on with it or take the ownership of solving their own problem away from them? No, we should:

• clarify what they are feeling
• acknowledge how they are feeling
• listen to how they are feeling it
• help them to problem solve how they are going to cope with it (including giving the tools to analyse and address the problem if need be).

This could be the same with boredom. Rather than rushing in to sort the problem out, perhaps we should listen to why our children feel bored, we should acknowledge that they feel bored and we should help them problem solve what they are going to do about it and then help them to develop an action plan.

This can be done at any age although we may need to help our children in different ways at different ages. For example, with a younger child, you could play a game to give them the tools they need to problem solve their own solution. With older children, talk to them when they are more relaxed, perhaps out of the home environment, to discuss how they feel and what they would like to happen.

Practical suggestions could include:

• building in ‘me time’ for every member of the family to carry out their own personal projects
• having a structure in place at school for work on their own project once their class work has been completed (to the required standard!)
• getting your child to plan ahead and even make a list of things they could do when they feel bored
• doing an online distance learning course in a non-school subject
• finding like-minded peers to work with who can inspire their learning .

If you are worried about your child’s high levels of boredom, it may be useful to start by putting together (or ask your child to do it!) a ‘boredom log’ so that you can see if there is a pattern to your child’s feelings of boredom:

  • when does it happen?
  • why does it happen?
  • what they do to stop feeling bored
  • any solutions to this.

What are we doing when we put the solution to boredom in the hands of our son or daughter? We are teaching them to be self-reliant, to come up with their own solutions to the problems they face, and to deal with their emotions in the way which works best. All of these skills are important parts of growing up.

So the next time your child says they are bored, perhaps you should just stand, smile and say, “I understand how you feel. Now what are you going to do?”

Or, as Nigel Farndale said in an article in the Telegraph in 2009:

Bored children are forced to daydream, to stand and stare, to use their imaginations.