Friday, September 12, 2014

Banish boredom from school for your gifted child

At some point, soon after gifted children start elementary school, something unexpected happens.

Boredom strikes.

It's not the typical backseat of the car are we there yet, sit through your sister's ballet recital, wait in line with mom at the grocery store boredom. That seems normal, although not without the requisite whining and complaints.

No, this is something new. Most gifted children have spent preschool and kindergarten indulging their creativity, following their muse, exploring whatever piqued their interest. But then real school starts.

It's not that school isn't boring for everyone some of the time. All of us have gone through this. But gifted children quickly realize that the degree of boredom they endure seems vastly different from what their peers experience.
  • They finish papers, projects and reading much more quickly.
  • They don't require the same level of repetition
  • They hunger for a faster pace and greater complexity
  • They see their classmates engaged in class and sometimes even struggling with assignments that are easy, and often simplistic for them.
  • They may start to notice the teacher's frustration when they ask "distracting" questions, complain they are bored, or talk too much.
This is all very puzzling. After all, enthusiasm for learning and creative exploration were encouraged a year or two ago. Now, they are told to cool their jets: wait, be patient while other kids catch up, and refrain from those pesky questions! Just when they thought they could delve into learning, like the big kids they used to admire, they find themselves standing still.

Soon their bewilderment morphs into anger, even as they settle into the classroom routine. This isn't what they expected! They would rather learn on their own, read a book, draw pictures, build Legos, or just use their imagination than reiterate facts they already know. Some go to the teacher and ask pointed questions like "why are we doing stuff we learned in preschool?" Or "why do we have to do the same thing over and over again when it's so easy?"

But most gifted children save their complaints for home. Parents get to witness their tears, angry outbursts, and refusal to complete assignments they label as "stupid" and not worth their time. After having suppressed frustration all day at school, they batter the family with misdirected anger. Parents must weather their child's disappointment and anger, limit conflict at home, provide empathy for their child's experience at school, and take care to not fuel further frustration by showing too much of their own distress. A delicate balance to achieve.

And when children cannot express frustration directly to their teacher or family, it may emerge in one of several forms:

Acting out - Some children entertain themselves by talking too much, becoming the class clown, or causing trouble in the classroom. At worst, frustration may be expressed through outright aggression - bullying, fighting, or using their advanced verbal skills to manipulate other classmates. Typically, parents receive feedback from teachers about their child's problem behaviors.

Internalizing  - These children don't show outward signs of distress, but instead, become shy, withdrawn, or develop physical symptoms, such as stomach-aches or headaches. They may become  anxious, have difficulty getting up in the morning, or refuse to go to school, citing physical complaints or vague fears. Often they fall below the radar, and teachers may not recognize their distress.

Regardless of whether the child's boredom is expressed overtly or indirectly, it can create long-lasting damage. Boredom fuels apathy, disregard for authority, underachievement, and sometimes a complete loss of interest in school. Even those gifted children who are remarkably patient and tolerate the situation are left with a distorted perception of their abilities. They may assume all academic challenges will be easy, never learn to struggle or push themselves, and fear failure. They avoid taking academic risks and may never reach their potential.

When schools are unable or unwilling to challenge gifted children, parents need to mobilize their efforts:

1. Start by asking for help.

Ask the teacher for advice. Approach him or her respectfully, avoiding the "boredom" word, since this can be off-putting. Instead, focus on specific behaviors. Describe your child's distractibility, daydreaming, and complaints at home. (Sometimes schools are more open to ameliorating behavior problems than creating a more challenging learning environment.) Ask the teacher about options such as extending and enriching the curriculum, subject or grade acceleration, or gifted programming. If you are met with roadblocks, find out what further steps are needed .

2. Gather information.

Become informed. You need as much information about your child, your district's and state's regulations, and available resources as possible. Get your child tested by a licensed psychologist or school psychologist. Testing provides valuable information about your child's strengths and weaknesses, and can offer concrete data that can aid in requesting additional services. Learn as much as you can about gifted children and their academic and social and emotional needs through books, websites such as NAGC, SENG and Hoagiesgifted, and even online forums such as Davidson's Gifted Issues Forum.

3. Explore other options

Determine whether the school is the best possible fit for your child and whether other options should be considered. Sometimes a local private school or homeschooling can provide relief and offer greater flexibility or a more challenging curriculum. Yet these options present limitations (financial or time constraints) that limit their suitability for some children and families. Public schools are free, and ideally, gifted children deserve access to an appropriate and challenging education that meets their needs.

4. Help your child adjust

You can offer ideas for coping with boredom, while still assuring your child you are advocating for change. Even when enrichment or acceleration are offered, many gifted children still endure periods of boredom. Your child benefits from learning coping skills for managing boredom at school.
  • Ask the teacher for alternative activities for your child when classwork is completed; at the very least, get permission for him or her to draw or read a favorite book while the other students are still working
  • Find enriching extra-curricular activities, depending on availability and your financial resources. These enhance life outside of school, although may not compensate for what the classroom lacks.
  • As noted in a previous post, you may need to help your child develop strategies for banishing boredom until the situation hopefully improves. For example, your child could learn to manage free time by coming up with more in-depth questions about the subject matter, creating a poem related to what is being taught, or composing a musical tune that fits with the reading material. 

Create a learning experience

You are your child's best role model and teach how to adapt to difficult situations through your actions. Your child will notice how readily you advocate, how respectfully you treat school staff, how strongly you push for change, and when it is appropriate to back down and accept a compromise. Children learn humility, respect, collaboration, appropriate assertiveness, and tolerance from this experience. There are no perfect solutions to addressing the dilemma of giftedness and boredom in the classroom, but you can help your child face this challenge through your caring, attentive and persistent presence.

What solutions have you found? Let us know in the comments section below.


  1. My daughter was devastated when she went to first grade. She expected to have fun and learn, and was constantly held back. I had to fight with school officials constantly for everything.

    1. Nancy, Sorry that your situation was such a struggle, although a surprisingly common one. I hope you were able to achieve some success in getting some accommodations for her. Sometimes parents have to continue to advocate well beyond what seems reasonable.


  2. Thanks, Gail, for this article. It's both comprehensive and succinct. I appreciate your strong advocacy for gifted kids.

  3. YES! This is where my 8 year old was at the end of 2nd grade this past school year, and why he is at home now. Thank you for putting to words so clearly what people just don't seem to understand about what's been going on with my son. I'd been told many times the teachers didn't see him act bored in school so they thought he was fine. I got it all at home.

    1. Anonymous, Yes, it's true that a lot of kids wait until they are home to share it all with us! Lucky parents! But it many ways, it is adaptive and a sign of strength that your son was able to fit in and not act out at school. That frustration needs an outlet, though, and often comes out in a safe place like home with family. I'm glad you have worked out another alternative for him. Gail

  4. Gail Thanks for writing this article. I felt like I was the only one going through this when my daughter was told to "wait, be patient while other kids catch up, and refrain from those pesky questions!" "Stop correcting me, even when I am wrong.“ The behaviors that they complained about were because she was bored. To have the teacher and principal tell us "We just don't see it - we think she is ADD or ADHD" was infuriating! Even after the testing that showed she was PG we still got pushed back to "sit quietly while the others finish". We tried enrichment activities, but special projects were not accepted & told teacher did not have time to look at it. Without the validation she gave up. Joining MENSA helped as she was taken seriously and treated with respect, not contempt like her classmates treated her. Only after getting the Superintendent involved did she get more challenging work. Now she is in a gifted school and finally feels like a normal classmate because they are all alike & she is adequately challenged.

    1. Kari, I am so glad you found a school for your daughter. Yet your story aptly describes the disregard and often contempt these children and their families experience. Can you imagine the teacher of a "special ed" student refusing to look at a special project? Can you imagine other test results being ignored like this? Anyway, it is wonderful that as a parent, you were able to challenge the system, and eventually find something that worked for your daughter. Good luck. Gail

  5. We are in a similar situation with a very bored first grader. We recently had him tested on the WISC IV and he had an impressive IQ of 143 and the Woodcock Johnson put him at the third grade level academically (purely through osmosis, as he hasn't been taught anything at school since Kindergarten). After much urging, the school finally gave him an Educational Plan. Unfortunately, the teacher refuses to follow it. I complained to the Superintendent who asked our principal to allow me to observe. I was let into the classroom for 15 minutes with the principal and had to agree entirely with my son's assessment of the situation. The teacher didn't move from behind her desk. Some kids were jumping around, talking etc. My son was one of about 10 students working, and his work was single digit addition he memorized over a year ago in kindergarten. The principal said "look, he was given differentiation. There are two blank lines on the bottom of the worksheet where he can add two more animals (the activity was counting animal legs). I requested that the principal follow the Accel Law (in Florida) and provide acceleration by grade or subject if an appropriate education was not forthcoming in his grade 1 class. She refused, saying she didn't believe in acceleration and he had to complete grade 1 first. I suggested he do RedBird math (Stanford program we purchased for him) and read his own novels instead of the whole-class extremely easy "Sam and Scruffy go up and down" stories etc they were making him go over again and again. They refused. I felt like unless I threatened litigation nobody would listen and I don't want to be at odds with the place I send my children every day. The local private school doesn't seem much better and has no current openings. I just want an appropriate education for my brilliant child. It was so disheartening that we decided to sell our dream home and move the family to a location 2 hours away with a school for the gifted. Now we are trying to find a home there and a good school for our other child. Why do American schools refuse to recognize and expand the minds of those with the greatest promise to help our culture, our country and our world?

  6. And don't rule out homeschooling. This article fit me perfectly (and sadly). I grew up to be an underachiever giving up the "game" of learning in school. Instead, I went to the library all day on Saturdays and learned my way. I kept waiting for someone to understand. They never did. When I saw it in my own child, I chose to stop teaching in the classroom and start teaching at home. Never say never. It's your child and our future.

    1. Thank you, Atlas. You raise an important point about the choice of homeschooling for those who are able to take on that decision. It sounds like a great decision for you and your family.

  7. Unfortunately, this is very common. It would also help if schools understood giftedness, but often the parents are the ones informing them.

    1. Thank you, Lisa. So true. It would make a huge difference if schools, administrators and teachers truly understood what it meant to be gifted.

  8. I am a middle school student, in normal middle school curriculum, but I also taught myself algebra 1, alg. 2, geometry, and I am halfway through pre-calc. The pre-algebra teacher doesn't know of this, and because of this, the class has become true torture. Although I recognize it is wrong to use sigma notation, functions, field axioms, and sarcasm to answer simple math questions, I just can not stand the math class. I am by no means a genius, and I would probably be the first to get a negative IQ, but I take pride in being smart enough to know when I have no idea what to do. With this being established, I would like to ask one question. What should I do?

    1. Anonymous, Wow. You really must be bored in that class. I hope that you speak with someone at the school who could help you find an alternative that would be more advanced. If your teacher won't help, speak with your guidance counselor. Try to enlist your parents to speak with the school also, so that you find some opportunities that are more challenging and educational. Good luck!

  9. What hurts the most is not my memories, but the fact that the nuances of my traumatic childhood could be so vividly explained. It is the shear fact that so many other children went through similar frenzies. That it could be so generalized is the sole reason why giftedness is my greatest curse, my enemy, my foe, but still the one thing that keeps me yearning for more. It is my second greatest refuge, my protector, my ally.


  10. To Anonymous before me, math is not a mere sequence that you run through. Math is a language, and like all languages, it is impossible to achieve fluency. No matter how greatly you believe that you have taught yourself these math "courses", if you do not understand the relationship, complexity, and perennial value of what they make up [rather than what they are], then you ought not to be bored.

    This is the true downfall of modern education. It weeds out those who would see more than the mere practicality of its study from others who procure in them the aspirations to reach the unattainable. Continue with "Algebra, Geometry, and Pre-calculus", but recognize that the road to inaccessible fluency requires depth and breadth beyond many individual's comprehension.

    I, too, was like you, trying to better myself on my own, but I relied on them to provide me with a suitable education. However, I was also too foolish to question teachers at the time and too complacent in my anger to absolve what predicaments I could have. That I commend you for. At least now, I can do what I love. I can let it believe that it has possessed me, only to show it that I have the power to confine it to myself. I have that will.

    In essence, I want you to grasp that the entelechy that you have procured now should be enduring. You may be bored, but why teach yourself math in the manner that they plan to teach you? Why stoop to such a level? If you desire to learn, then learn. And if you wish to subside boredom, then subside boredom. But to go about it in this manner is futile. Very few people wish to hear or see your "cries", and so it shall be. I could never wish the torment of suffering alone, but I will surely not deny the necessity in discovering solutions on your own— especially if you intend to endure it on your own. If this morbid system of mathematical competency cannot enlighten you, then that question that you asked will do so. That is your first challenge. You have seen it, now get out there and grasp it before it takes possession of you.