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What to Do When Your Child Hates School

School negativity can be evidence of a healthy brain.

Key points

  • It helps motivate children to exert effort when they believe it will pay off.
  • When children's brains develop school negativity, it is usually the result of an effort-preserving mindset.
  • One challenge for parents is to reconnect their children with the joy of learning.

If your child hates school, it is probably not his fault, nor that of his teacher, but rather it can be evidence that his brain is functioning appropriately.

Healthy brains protect their owners from perceived threats. School today is stressful, and often threatening, as a result of the high-stakes standardized testing that challenges students, teachers, and school administrators. There is so much information mandated as required "knowledge" for these tests (that determine federal funding), that for many children, school seems more like a feedlot force-feeding them facts without adequate time or resources to make them interesting or relevant.

Overstuffed Curriculum

Without the projects and group activities — to say nothing of the elimination of art, music, P.E., and often elementary school science, social studies, and even recess — why should a child want to be there? These classes and many enjoyable activities have been sacrificed so there is more time for the two subjects that are evaluated on those tests — math and English.

Fortunately, there are many wonderful, creative, and dedicated teachers, consultants, and administrators on the front line every day doing all they can to engage their students. Without them, I cannot imagine how much worse things would be for the children in their charge.

The problem is worst when the district is required to stick to a rigid "teacher-proof" curriculum that dictates tedious days of worksheets and nights of the same brain-stuffing. In these cases, the best teachers have less opportunity to use their skills to create the joyful, memorable learning experiences children need.

The penalty for all of us is that the dropout rate has never been higher. For today's high schoolers, it is more likely that their parents will have graduated than it is that the students themselves will graduate high school. When surveyed as to the reason for the dropping out, the overwhelming cry is boredom. When asked what constitutes boredom, the two major responses are: "The material isn't interesting" and "What we are taught has no relevance to me."

From my perspective as a neurologist and classroom teacher, I see blank faces, "acting out," and zoning out, and I know that these are not the children's choices. The brain evolved as an organ to promote the survival of the animal and the species. Its first priority is to avoid danger. Our attention is hard-wired to alert us to signals of potential danger. The most primitive parts of the brain are those that determine what gets our attention and what information gets priority entry into the brain.

This attention system is essentially the same in humans as in other mammals. When the brain experiences stress, that attention system is on autopilot, seeking out the potential threat that might be causing the emotional disturbance, while ignoring other sensory information, such as lessons.

Stress goes up with boredom and frustration in humans and animals. Animals restrained or understimulated "misbehave" with aggressive, destructive, and even self-mutilating behavior. The stress causes their brains to attend only to imagined or real threat. In that state, behavior is no longer influenced by the higher, thinking brain. Stress takes control of the neural pathways that determine where information is processed and where behavior is controlled.

The same responses take place in the human brain. If children are stressed by boring lessons that have little personal relevance, or by the frustration of not keeping up with the overloaded curriculum, their brains do what they are programmed to do: Input is diverted away from the thinking, higher brain (the prefrontal cortex) and sent to the lower, reactive brain. In this situation, in humans as in animals, the involuntary behavioral reactions are essentially limited to three responses: fight, flight, or freeze.

The reason I left my neurology practice and became a teacher was that I had a profound increase in the children referred to my practice by teachers who suspected they had attention or other neurological disorders that caused them to "act out" or "zone out" in class.

When I observed the joyless force-feeding of facts by teachers who were given the impossible task of cramming test material into these young brains, my heart went out to both the students and their teachers. I joined their ranks and made correlations between neuroscience research about stress, attention, behavior, and memory. I spent 10 years in my classrooms implementing strategies to promote the neuroscience of joyful learning.

Parents Need to Be Brain Preservers

Your challenge as a parent is to reconnect your children with the joy of learning. You can make a difference in how they relate to school and even reverse their brains' reflexive reactions. The key is to build bridges.

You can reduce your child's automatic reaction to the boredom and frustration of school and homework by linking your children's positive emotions to their one-size-fits-all classrooms. You can enrich and expand your children's learning experiences and help them be more successful on tests and other school assessments. More importantly, you can revive the love of learning and discovery that was present when they started kindergarten.

How to Build the Bridges for Your Child's Safe Passage Across Troubled Waters

The intervention you can provide is to connect your children's classroom studies to their interests. Help them find personal relevance that busts the stress and opens up the neural pathways to their upper, intelligent brains, where true learning and creative thinking take place.

You can use strategies with your children at home to reverse school negativity and promote the mindset your children need to regain in order to sustain a positive attitude about themselves and school. With this outlook and reversal of negativity, their brains will be more receptive to attentive focus and memory-making, both during class and homework time.

The success your children will see from their effort will promote new neural pathways, helping them to respond to learning more efficiently. They'll also more efficiently store what they learn in their long-term memory. Finally, they will retrieve the information not only for the test but for the challenges and opportunities that await them in the 21st century.

The key to this process is to connect your children to what they learn at school through their interests and past positive experiences, so they will WANT to learn what they HAVE to learn.

Looking Inside the Brain

Neuroimaging studies reveal the real-time metabolic and structural changes in the brain that occur when newly learned information is retained in memory storage areas. We know from these studies that memory storage activity pumps up when the new information is related to prior knowledge, personal interest, and positive emotional experiences.

Similarly, each time your children focus their attention, this activates their neural pathways for alerting and focusing, making those neural circuits stronger. As a result, it increases their ability to pay attention and focus. Most certainly, they'll need this strengthening of attentive focus if they are to learn from lengthy and tedious time spent on drill-and-kill activities at school. Little mental energy may be left when they come home and are required to do more repetitive drill work, especially with the lure of their video games, laptops, social networking, and television.

Practicing these processes of active learning for long-term memory is like exercising a muscle. The neuronal circuits involved become more developed because of their repeated activation through the process of neuroplasticity.

Each time a memory is activated — especially when one memory network is activated in connection with another, related memory circuit — the networks become stronger, more accurate, and extensive. Repeated linking of related memories with new learning is like brain glue. The new information increasingly grows more linking connections (dendrites, synapses) every time the new and prior memory are used together for a new purpose.

An example would be activating the memory of family camping trips to link with the new learning about the settlers traveling across the country in covered wagons. When you help your children link the new learning about the settlers with that long-term stored memory of family camping trips, the school-based social studies lessons grow more dendrites that carry information between neurons that hold the memories. Now, the neuroplasticity links are like mental Velcro. When your children want to remember facts about the social studies lesson for a test, recalling the camping trips retrieves the associated information they need to answer the test questions.

Brains Keep Track of Effort That Does or Doesn't Pay Off

It helps motivate children to exert effort when they believe it will pay off. Why? The brain evolved for survival. Survival is served when the brain evaluates the likelihood that effort will produce a payoff. The brain is wired to remember the outcome each time it evaluates a situation (challenging test question, confrontation by a classmate, choice of studying or playing, decision to pay attention to a lecture, whether to try out for a team) and predicts whether effort will pay off.

There is a special structure in the brain where its only job is to squirt pleasure-evoking dopamine into the prefrontal cortex (the place where past memories are activated to make the prediction) when a prediction (i.e., choice, answer, social response, decision to put in physical effort, prediction that doing homework is a better choice than playing) is found to be accurate.

This accumulated information about the predictions made and the results is used by the brain in animals and humans, to evaluate new, similar situations when effort is called for. A fox that tried chasing a rabbit up a steep hill, exerting effort and using valuable energy stores in the chase, only to be outrun by the rabbit, keeps a memory of that prediction. The fox builds a memory network that the effort exerted failed to produce the predicted result. A few more such failed attempts and the fox's brain builds a more and more accurate memory network to better survive. It now uses that network to predict whether to exert effort based on previous experience relative to the steepness of the hill and distance from the prey. The fox now will not extend effort if this network predicts that chasing the rabbit up a steep hill is unlikely to be successful.

When children's brains develop school negativity, it is usually the result of the effort-preserving mindsets constructed by unsuccessful prior efforts. Through a past history of failed efforts — past efforts to sustain attention in class, do homework carefully, persevere at challenging classwork — that did not result in success, children's brains learn to automatically resist putting mental effort into subsequent similar activities.

Children who are quite intelligent can have difficulty with rote memorization. Yet, since that memorization is what is tested and therefore perceived by students as valuable, they develop the belief that their failure to sustain attention in class or to get high grades on rote memory tests means they are unintelligent and don't have the ability to succeed. That mindset is not only inaccurate, but when taken on by your child, means the positive effort-to-goal neural patterning becomes more difficult to develop.

Preheat Your Child's Memory Networks

Connect their brains to the topics they will be studying at school by looking at photos or videos of family trips, objects they own that were made in countries they study, or reading favorite stories that relate to topics in science, history, and math. The curiosity prompted by your reminders of their past experiences and current interests is a brain bridge ready to link with the information they must learn for school. The Velcro is now waiting in their brains, and their neural circuits are prepared to grow the dendrites that will physically link the new information with their permanent memory circuits. Additionally, they now have the interest and positive mindset to want to know what they have to learn.

Also, you'll further preheat the memory links to connect their interest to school work when you ask your children questions that help them personally connect these stories, past experiences, possessions, or their interests to the current or upcoming school topics. Stimulate curiosity in your children so they want to discover answers and solve problems. Their brains remain attentive because they are personally interested in the answer to the question.

Stimulate curiosity in your children related to school topics, and then work with them as they learn how to discover answers to their curiosity-motivated questions. You will not only be increasing positive school topic connections, but also help them develop critical thinking skills and other frontal lobe executive functions as they analyze information (from their memories, books, the internet, and from you) to answer their questions.

Their brains are attentive because their curiosity generated their question. As they learn to focus attention on and evaluate which information is pertinent to answer their questions, they build their highest thinking skills such as analyzing, organizing, and prioritizing.

Thanks to your connecting school topics with their interest by engaging their curiosity, their brains get a jump start on information processing skills that will promote success in academic, social, and emotional challenges and opportunities throughout their lives. When children are motivated by curiosity and interest to ask and then find answers to questions, their brains build skills of prediction, deduction, expanded thinking, analysis, and the ability to distinguish fact from opinion, make judgments, and support their own opinions or ethical beliefs. These are rather nifty side benefits from promoting your child's curiosity about school topics and reducing school negativity.

Preparing to Be a Brain Coach

You may need the curriculum in advance from your child's teacher, but more likely, the teacher will be required to follow the textbook in a strictly sequential manner. As long as you know what material will be studied in the next class unit, you can find ways to bring it into active discussions at home, in the car, or while waiting in line at the grocery checkout.

You might want to have a handy note card with a supply of open-ended questions that are good bridges to link your children's interests to many topics. These can be cues for how to relate things you experience together to school topics.

If your child is interested in sports, a question on your list might be, "If you were the coach of a [...] team how would you use [...] to help your team win?" The first blank would be their favorite sport or the name of a favorite team. The second blank would be the related school topic (gravity, averaging, multiplying, vocabulary words, inventions, or qualities evident in characters from their school literature books).

If your children learned about taxation without representation in American history or percentages in math, you can show them the grocery bill and ask their opinion of the tax added to the total. How was the number calculated? Can they estimate what percent of the total bill the tax represents? Is it fair to have tax?

If your child likes skateboarding and the city council voted down the proposed skateboard park, there is an opening to discuss if the decision was fair. How does the current system work? How do these council members represent what you want? Should children vote? Should people who pay more taxes have more say in how tax money is spent? All of these questions can be linked to topics in history such as the Revolutionary War (taxation without representation), the Civil War, poll taxes, and voting rights for former slaves and women—which came first and why?

Discussions you promote to bridge your children to their school work will serve as stronger memory cement if you are an active, attentive listener when they express their ideas or ask questions. This is not the time to split your focus. To keep them motivated, your children need to know you are truly interested in their ideas and opinions.

Negativity Turns to Motivation

The knowledge gained from brain research, when applied to learning, can help you energize and enliven your children's minds. You can help them build life skills such as improved memory, focus, organization, and goal setting. Using your knowledge of your children's interests, past enjoyable experiences, and learning strengths to bridge their interest to school subjects will result in their improved attitudes, motivation, perseverance, and ultimately their increased confidence that their efforts will pay off.

Your interventions will help your children avoid the learning turn-off to the challenges of today's fact-heavy, meaning-light curriculum. You will help them construct the brain circuits to become lifelong learners who can transfer and apply what they learn to real-world situations.

The results will more than offset your planning and preparations. Smiles will replace groans and eye-rolls when you use neuroscience to return the joys of learning to your children.

More from Judy Willis M.D., M.Ed.
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