Welcome to a collection of thoughts, questions and interesting links relating to giftedness ..............
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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Boredom turns the brain off

Or the importance of meaningful and achievable challenge

Lets think about skiing as an example, seeing as it is winter. If you already know how to ski, this analogy will probably be more meaningful, if not, you can substitute any other sport or skill you know better. Imagine you are being able to ski at a fairly expert level having put in practice elsewhere, but you find yourself having to spend the day on the easy slopes. It is unlikely that your skills will continue to improve in this setting and you will probably begin feeling frustrated and somewhat bored. You will probably have trouble keeping your mind on what you are doing and probably not ski as well as you could. Quite possibly, before long, you will lose interest in skiing. Unless you feel the achievement is a challenge, there is no intrinsic satisfaction from your success or progress.

This is a similar situation to one gifted kids find themselves in when there is insufficient challenge in the classroom. It is difficult to remain motivated without appropriate challenge.

We only experience the rewards of our competence and effort, or perseverance, when the achievement is authentic. That means that doing something easy, perhaps getting full marks on a task which required a skill we learned ages ago (think adding single digit numbers perhaps) doesn’t have the same effect as something challenging and new that we have to work at.

Meaningful challenge is a powerful motivator.

In fact, it appears that the impact happens at a chemical level in our brains. Our brain is a pleasure focussed so that once it has experienced the rush of dopamine that comes with success at an authentic task it seeks out opportunities to repeat the feelings of satisfaction and pleasure. Meaningful challenge helps build confidence and curiosity and even perseverance. Gifted students need achievable challenges (just as all children do) in order to grow as learners and to develop their potential. The tasks however, need to be appropriate to their learning needs.

What happens in our brains when we are bored? Our reptile brain kicks in. The amygdala actually blocks learning when students are bored.  It goes into a stress reactive state when learning activities are not at the appropriate level. The only options open to it are Fight, Flight or Freeze. In the classroom this can show up as lack of participation in activities, disruptive behaviour, zoning out or raised anxiety levels.

If that rings any bells in the way your child is responding at school, try to engage them in a conversation about school, what they enjoy, if there are any subjects where they spend time waiting, or are not engaged. While these behaviours could be attributed to other things, probing can help you gauge whether boredom or lack of appropriate challenge might be contributing.

It is also important to talk to the teacher, find out what they are seeing. While you are working on a plan with the teachers, be on the lookout for opportunities to help your child go into more depth in areas they find least stimulating at school. Look for books or interactive websites (Gifted Children: Resources for Parents andTeachers in WA has plenty to use as starting points).

A match between the curriculum and the child’s learning needs will be important in bringing about changes in brain chemistry and turning around lack of engagement, disruptive or anxious behaviours. As adults we find it very difficult to feign ongoing interest in or motivation for something that does not provide us with a meaningful challenge. Our children are no different.

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