Q: My second-grader (almost 8 years old) says he hates school. He cries every Sunday night. When he's asked about his day, he says that the only parts he liked were lunch and recess and that the rest of the time he was bored. I have talked to his teacher several times, and it sounds as though he and six or seven other boys in his class are very chatty, distracting one another throughout the day. When we ask him to stay focused and avoid distraction, he says he can't focus because he's so bored. Despite all of this, his academic progress is on track or ahead, and his teacher says he frequently participates in class. Two other key points: He gets anxious about getting in trouble or being in a class with kids who are often in trouble, and it sounds as if classroom management is a challenge this year. He also gets only 20 minutes of recess a day — a real pet peeve for me. Is there anything we can say or do to help him feel more positive about school?
A: “Bored,” “distracting,” “can’t focus,” “anxious.”
These are the words that jump out to me in this question, and trust me, you are not alone in parenting a child who exhibits these symptoms.
Almost every American elementary-school-age child is not getting enough exercise. Schools are tasked with teaching and testing students so much that developmentally normal needs such as outside play are pushed to the fringes.
This lack of outside play has ramifications for all students, such as decreased focus, increased aggression and frustration, and lower test scores. And although I don’t think the classroom setting is helping your son, I’m not sure we can chalk up all his troubles to a lack of recess. Is his desire for more outdoor play the root cause of his anxiety and boredom? I am guessing no, but no condition is improved by a lack of movement.
The other diagnosis that you may ponder is attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Unlike 4- and 5-year-olds, the average 7- or 8-year-old is able to listen and sit for longer stretches. I tentatively use the word “average” because Americans have a tendency to attach themselves to age and developmental expectations, and those can lead us down a thorny path. Although we need standards, all children are on their own developmental arc, and there are so many reasons one child is more mature than another. To keep saying, “Well, he is old enough to sit still and focus” — not that you are saying that — is not only unhelpful but also may not be true, depending on a child’s brain or home life.
Here is what’s tricky: ADHD, an executive-functioning issue, can easily cause anxiety. If a child’s brain isn’t working predictably and he is easily distracted by the boys sitting nearby, he is constantly missing material and instructions. When his brain tries to pull him back into class, he finds that he is lost and unsure of what is happening. And rather than asking a neighbor what is happening or raising a hand for the teacher (what a “neurotypical” brain might do), the child’s brain goes into panic mode. It jumps from thought to thought, sight to sight, and movement to movement to calm itself. The lack of focus creates more lack of focus, and because the neural synapses are not firing the way we need them to, his willpower doesn’t override his need to jump around. The inability of children with ADHD to force themselves to listen or be positive or on track often leads to chronic anxiety and depression.
But let’s look at the possibility that your son has anxiety, not ADHD. In that case, the executive-functioning part of the brain works fine and the child can handle multiple instructions. But children with anxiety have what Gordon Neufeld calls “jangly nerves” or “worry without eyes.” It’s the pervasive feeling of being on edge or that something is wrong or about to go wrong, and it makes kids feel powerless when they can’t control this sensation of dread. This chronic feeling can often look like an attention disorder, as the brain tries to do too many things at once. It is always surveying the environment, on alert for danger, and a child’s sympathetic nervous system, which controls the fight-or-flight response, is almost chronically activated. So he’s trying to listen in class, but his brain cannot protect him and listen to a math lesson at the same time. The disruptive boys grab his attention (because they are loud and funny), and his brain comfortably rests there. (Much like my brain when I start watching women fight on “The Bachelor.” I go on autopilot, and my brain doesn’t have to focus on real issues.)
We have lack of exercise, possible ADHD and potential anxiety. The last red flag that popped up for me was his boredom. That could mean many things. Some possibilities:
1. Is this a go-to thing he says because he doesn’t know what else to say?
2. Is he gifted? What if he is bored and distracted and unfocused because he is not being challenged by the material? The research is clear that gifted children quickly fall between the cracks because their boredom is mistaken for misbehavior and they are disciplined rather than given the appropriate material.
3. Does he say he is bored because every time he does, you pay a lot of attention to it? Perhaps it’s his way of getting the attention that all children want from their parents.
I have not left you with any answers. I have definitely not answered how he can feel more positively about school, because to find the way out, you must look at what his behavior is telling you. Start with his teacher and the appropriate specialists in the school to help you piece this together, and in the meantime, listen. Ask your son questions about his day and pay attention to the clues and his thought patterns. Stay curious. Good luck.