Nurturing Resilience

Raising children to be competent and caring.

Why Kids Like to Go To School, and Why They Don't

Kids go to school when they feel they belong there.

Last week, my son helped organize an evening social at his high school that was supposed to build school spirit. There was a DJ, bouncy castles and lots of other fun things to do. Thirty-five students showed up. The same school has been having problems with food fights in the cafeteria. Hundreds and hundreds of students have been texting the time and place for the next one, and then on cue, lobbing sandwiches and plates of French fries at one another.

To say that children aren't motivated to come to school and participate doesn't make sense. It's what they are motivated to do while at school that's the problem. We can change that. We can make it more likely our children want to go to school and like what their teachers ask them to do.

Here's a little known fact. Research shows that our children, no matter what their age, ethnic background, or where they live, want to feel engaged at school. They want to feel like they belong and that what they do at school matters. Not just to themselves, but to their parents and teachers too.

We know a child is engaged at school when she attends regularly, thinks to herself, "School is doing me some good" and feels like people at her school value what she has to offer. In other words, she has to behave, think, and feel in ways that tell us she is connected. Naively, we think we can make kids behave, think and feel engaged by offering them DJ's and bouncy castles.

But that's not what the research says they want. What they really want is a teacher who greets them by name, and the reassurance that what they're learning is actually going to make their life a little better. Some schools make these things a priority, others don't. When they don't, the kids find their own motivation for coming to school. A food fight is as good a reason as any.

A study of five- and six-year-olds showed that even at that age, kids do what they can to blunt the monotony of the classroom and make school bearable. When Jackie Ravet at the University of Aberdeen looked at children's survival strategies, she found that children said their bogus trips to the wastepaper basket, talking when they were supposed to be working, daydreaming and distractibility were ways to have fun, use their imagination, laugh, or avoid doing work they didn't want to do. Their teachers saw them as simply misbehaving. It seems no one stopped to wonder whether school was meaningful to the children. The child out of his seat needs to be asked if he sees much sense in learning to read.

Schools can't be expected to do all the work engaging students. The more parents get involved with their kids and their children's schools, the more likely children are to feel that their school is a place they belong. Before parents think, though, that their children's grades are going to go up just because they feel engaged, better to keep in mind that's not always the case. There is lots of evidence that shows engaged children go to school more, but that doesn't  mean their grades are higher. Grades are only one aspect of what they get at school. They also get a lot of other needs met, like their need to be mentored by adults, the routine and reassurance of a structured environment, contact with friends, and the social skills and life lessons they need to learn like how to solve problems and how to fight for their rights.

The next time my local high school wants to make kids feel connected, they might want to shrink class sizes, make sure every student is greeted by name by his teachers and school administrators, and include his parents in his educational plan. They may also want to find a way to ensure that when a child does come to class he knows that what he learns will be helpful to him at sometime in the future. Food fights may be fun, but they are a poor substitute for adults making our children feel like they belong at school or motivating them to learn.

Michael Ungar, Ph.D., is a family therapist, a researcher at Dalhousie University, and the author of The We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Kids.

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