Christopher Taibbi M.A.T.

Gifted-Ed Guru

Giftedness and Boredom, Part Two: Tackling the Issue Head On

Here's what to do about your gifted child's boredom--before you blow your stack.

Posted Mar 25, 2013

I ended that article with this promise to all readers: “Classroom boredom that is merely the result of lazy instructional decisions is not desirable, and in the next article we’ll discuss how to address this effectively.” Well, today’s column is that very topic. Let’s get started. Straight to it!

If you have boredom concerns—but, really, concerns of any kind—start by scheduling a conference! I see this all the time: parents are frustrated for months before they come in to speak to the teacher. Instead, they stew at home, aggravated and fuming, sharing their irritations with friends on Facebook posts or with other parents when they’re together on play dates with the kids. They detail for each other all of the battles they have with the child at home over the schoolwork or the issues they have with what they perceive as a teacher’s pointless assignments. Many parents spend these energies “getting it all out” with another person and so they leave that venue feeling a little better, a little less piqued by the problem. Or, after perhaps the tenth time of blowing off steam with a friend, they finally do feel fed-up and angry enough to make a call to speak to the teacher.

Neither one of these scenarios is desirable. At the least, you’ve wasted a lot of the school year not addressing the problem. At best, you’ve set yourself up for a potentially hostile parent-teacher conference because you reached your breaking point a long while ago but never let the teacher in on that fact. You enter the classroom on the offensive. So, when that notice about the school-wide parent-teacher conference day comes home, fill it out and send it back. Better yet, don’t wait till then. Call the school secretary and schedule a time! (Note too that it might be tempting to skip over the chain of command, to go straight to the principal or even the superintendent. Don’t. Neither of these individuals works with your child on a regular basis so they’ll have little to say that will help you or your child in the immediate future. Always give your child's teacher the first shot at tackling your concerns.) Whatever protocol your child's school requires, follow it and follow up. After you’ve done that simple initial step, it’s time to prepare.

Document for clarity’s sake, as opposed to a creating a teacher “Gotcha” moment. At the conference, you’re tempted to make the problem statement be something akin to “I’ll tell you what’s wrong: Bobby is bored out of his mind!” However, even you might have a hard time precisely explaining what that boredom looks like at home unless you have taken the time to study and investigate it. Consider for example, these questions: Does your child’s complaints about boredom arise at a certain time of the school day? Does your child complain about his boredom at a particular time in the evening? Is it associated with a particular subject? Does the boredom arise out of a particular type of assignment? Does the boredom come and go in waves—it seems okay for a while, but then begins to deteriorate? Alternatively, does your child’s boredom seem to be less of an issue when you consider those same factors? In other words, do the boredom complaints seem less frequent/vocal when…? [Fill in that blank yourself.]

From a teacher perspective, this kind of information is extremely helpful. Good teachers plan lessons that attempt to get all students processing the content in a wide variety of ways. For some kids, the choices that teacher has made about the lesson’s material are spot-on; for others, it fails. That is not to be helped, since not all learners are the same.

If you as the parent can enter the conference with specific information about what/when seems to bore your child, you better enable that teacher to consider his unique learning style and pace. Perhaps she could, for example, offer ten math problems instead of the usual twenty, freeing your child up then at school (or home) to investigate a topic of study on an independent basis. Maybe she’ll offer word problems that explore the same concepts instead. The teacher knows that your child has a superior vocabulary and she enjoys sharing his work with the class. But she hasn’t realized that the fine motor skills are problematic for Bobby. Perhaps she could reconsider how often he has to show his understanding in that particular manner. The problem the teacher may have is that, at school, Bobby is a teacher-pleaser; he never complains until he gets home. What you can share can go a long way to assisting both you and your child—but you have to be specific.

If the boredom complaints occur mostly at home with, say, homework, take a hard and fair look at that environment too. All kids are tempted to complain about anything they dislike. Similarly, they may complain when they are tired, hungry, or grouchy about some other underlying issue (e.g. the afternoon trip to the skate park got cancelled due to rain). When they complain about boredom, it is entirely possible that boredom really is at play, yes—but it may be something else, too. Completing the task of writing a creative, descriptive paragraph may not bother your child nearly as much if he weren’t just getting home from baseball practice, sweaty and hungry. He might not find showing his work on the ten math problems “boring” if he weren’t sitting down to do that work so close to the start time of his favorite television show. Furthermore, gifted children are typically quite adept at reading adults. Be aware of this. If your child notices that your hackles go up when he says he’s bored, you can expect that he might make this claim more often—especially if the end result is that he gets distracted from tackling the task at hand.

Before you meet, formulate some questions, not complaints, for the teacher.I’ve discussed the importance of this in a previous article, but it bears repeating here: you should create a list of questions you have about your child's time at school. For parents of gifted children, the most common question asked should be: "How are you differentiating instruction for my child?" Most schools are doing something different for their advanced students. You need to know what, so ask. What does the classroom teacher do to meet the needs of your child so that he is not bored by truly remedial tasks? Does she offer alternative assignments or alternative reading materials to better suit your child’s advance reading abilities? Is there tiered instruction happening in some way so that he isn’t always forced to sit through simple letter identification? If so, what does that alternate instruction time look like? Does your child’s teacher use flexible grouping within the room to assist with differentiation of the material, both in terms of content and pace? Are there higher level classes you in which might enroll your child? What are the prerequisites for those classes? Again, what you hear from your child at home may not really reflect the full course of his day at school, so you’ll need to ask these questions.

Also inquire about resources that may be available outside of the teacher’s immediate sphere of influence. For example, does your child have the chance to work with a gifted resource specialist? If so, what are the requirements for that interaction? Is testing or gifted screening needed first? What would that specialist do with your child when he is pulled out of the regular classroom? If he has been properly identified, what does the school division's Gifted Plan say should be happening with your child? How can you know if that is happening?

Prepare this list of questions and have them at hand when you enter the conference. Your goal should not be to dominate the meeting with a shotgun style Q & A assault; conversation is key, a give and take between you and your child's professional educator. Having a list of questions helps focus this conversation. It shows you are concerned and ready, from this moment on, to be a proactive and ready partner in dealing with your child’s boredom.

Remember, too, once you’ve investigated the specific sources of your concerns, you should…

Gather your evidence. Perhaps you're getting leery that your third grade child who reads on a sophomore high school level is still being required to study words from the standard class' weekly spelling list. Or maybe you have internally questioned why your kindergarten daughter is still working on simple single-digit addition when she mastered two-digit with regrouping three weeks ago. Be ready to explain these specific concerns in a logical and illustrative way. To help state your case, collect samples of work. Gather those last five spelling quizzes that he aced. Make copies of his reading test scores. Bring in that unit math test. Offer evidence and then ask the teacher to explain her reasons for offering instruction as she has thus far. In some cases, you might be surprised. Perhaps the exam you saw at home was, in fact, a preassessment only. Maybe what you have brought in to show is a required division-wide benchmark test that all students must take, regardless of ability.

Your goal should be to better understand the teacher's approach/rationale for her curricular decisions and, if you are unsatisfied, to offer compelling reasons why this level of instruction is insufficient. You want to be heard. To that end...

Be diplomatic. Again, I’ve written about this previously but it bears repeating. You’re upset, perhaps even a bit angry about how things have been going. You’ve made the conference appointment, you’ve formed some questions, documented your concerns and now you’re ready to get it all out in the open. Breathe deep first. Don't attempt to bully, be passive-aggressive, or both. If you have listened to the teacher's point of view, if you have stated your case and offered evidence in a neutral tone, the logic of your concerns should be sufficient. Generally teachers want their students and parents to be satisfied with what is happening in school. You can help make sure this happens by being sure that, before you leave the conference, both you and the teacher…

Have a plan for the future. You've expressed your concerns and hopefully come to some agreement about what you and the teacher expect. If your child passes the pretest for the spelling list every week, then he'll be offered a different one to work on at home. If she demonstrates a sufficient level of mastery of the two-digit addition algorithm, then she will be given multi-step word problems in its place. Formulate and agree on a plan, making it as precise or as specific as possible. Write it down. Don't leave without a plan of attack. When you get home email the teacher a copy of what you two discussed. And if it feels like your conference is running long, that your issues will take more time, reschedule or figure out another way to get this step accomplished because it is that important. (Consider it: if the plan you two create is successful, your child will feel better about his time in school and you’ll feel less helpless at home trying to solve a problem that you really can’t address solely in the role as a parent.)

Be patient. Depending on the depth of the problems that are the root of your child’s boredom, this might take some time. Perhaps you have some work to do at home, rearranging your child’s schedule, for example, so that he tackles his homework at his best, most energetic time. Perhaps, the teacher needs some time to find more appropriate reading level materials. Maybe it’s a combination of both. The point is simple: you’re unlikely to see a complete reversal of your child’s attitude or an appropriate alteration to his classroom curriculum in just a day or two. It will take some time. Acknowledge this, keep track, and look for improvements. If you feel the arrangement you had needs to be reworked after you’ve both given it some time, ask for a revision of that plan. If you are still unsatisfied, then it’s time to…

Be the squeaky wheel. Yes, sharing your concerns with someone other than the teacher does have its place (although hopefully as a last resort). But you as a parent, the primary advocate for your gifted child, must speak up if there is no progress—and you must not be afraid to do so. As you did before, gather your information, document what has been done—or not done, as the case may be—and get help from another individual, the principal, for example.

In my last article, I cautioned readers that “boredom” is an emotional state that all of us must and will experience throughout life, and I will remind my readers here again that there can be some good that comes out of embracing it, learning how to deal effectively with it. But it is also my hope that, as I pledged I would, I have presented others’ viewpoints about this topic in a fair manner. After all, when boredom becomes a stagnant source of negativity that kills a child’s interest in learning and when that boredom is the result of poor curricular decisions, it needs to be addressed.