An international team of researchers, whose work was published in a recent issue of Perspectives on Psychology, has sought to define and understand boredom. Considered by most a trivial nuisance, chronic boredom, they explain, can have serious health and wellness consequences. Boredom has been linked with poor impulse control, which can lead to drug and alcohol abuse and other problem behaviors. It is also correlated with mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety.

Studies on school engagement reveal that boredom is a pervasive problem in our schools. Sixty-five percent of students reported being bored at least once a day at school, and 17 percent say they are bored in every class, according to the 2009 High School Survey of School Engagement, which includes 275,000 students. Bored students are disengaged students, and many of them—25 percent nationwide—will drop out or not graduate on time.

What exactly is boredom?
According to the research team, a bored individual or student is in an “aversive state” where he or she wants to successfully engage in an activity but feels unable to; these students are aware of their boredom, and they attribute it to the external environment. 
The 2009 High School Survey of School Engagement sheds light on some of the environmental reasons that students might express boredom at school:
  • The material was not interesting: 81 percent
  • The material lacked relevance: 42 percent
  • There was little interaction with the teacher: 35 percent
  • The work was not challenging enough: 33 percent
  • The work was too difficult: 26 percent

However, the new research reveals how individual factors can play a key role in students’ claims of boredom. The research team argues that boredom is directly connected to one’s ability to focus attention. Students with attention problems, such as attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, are more likely to report being bored.

Moreover, stress hampers the part of the brain that allows students to reason and hold information in their working memory (i.e., the prefrontal cortex). Students who are under stress, either the temporary stress caused by life’s minor ups and downs or the traumatic stress that results from being a victim of or witness to violence or abuse, will have more difficulty sustaining attention—leading to a bored, disengaged state. When this happens, boredom itself can become a stressor, resulting in a self-perpetuating cycle of disengagement.

So, what do we do about boredom?

Clearly, teachers need to do their best to make classroom activities as interesting and interactive as possible and to employ techniques that work for different learning styles. Students who find schoolwork to be too difficult—a claim made by a quarter of the students in the survey—may report being bored when in fact they really need some extra help. Gifted students or students who do not feel challenged need to be intellectually stimulated.

For those students who come to school sad, stressed, or in emotional turmoil, the school climate can make a big difference. Schools that foster a nurturing environment, including those that employ social and emotional learning programs, can have positive impacts on students’ attitudes about themselves, others, and school itself. A safe, nurturing school climate, where students feel supported by the adults and peers in their community, is fundamental to engaging students.

We will address school engagement, new research, strategies for schools, and many other related topics in upcoming posts of Promote Prevent Perspectives. (Read our Introduction to learn more.) In the meantime, we’d like to hear your perspective on the topic of boredom and school engagement. Please add your comments below.

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