Dear Dr. Wes and Julia: My classes this year are difficult for me to stay invested in. The subject matter is easier than I was expecting, and I find myself fighting the urge to skip. When I attend, it's almost painful to sit through because I am so bored and feel like I'm wasting my time. Any suggestions on how to keep myself focused and interested?
Julia: Usually from the first day of kindergarten you can tell what kind of student you're going to be - a school lover, one who just tolerates school, or a school hater. My first day was one of the happiest of my life, but lately I've needed a cup of coffee, two breaks during the school day and knowing that I have rehearsal to look forward to after school to even rouse me in the morning. It's been my experience that school gets less and less fun as the years go on and more is expected of you, including the expectation that you WANT to learn what is being taught. There are many classes that I struggled through, and there are a few tricks that kept me somewhat focused or at least learning throughout the years.
Try to study with friends. Not only did my study group give me a better understanding of the material, but I got a rap song about photosynthesis out of the deal. You might also recommend having a student lead classes once in a while. By teaching or having a fellow student teach the class, you learn the material your way. You can take new and interesting liberties by teaching it with PowerPoints, skits and the like.
A final trick is having something to take your mind off of school as often as you can and still maintain academically. Involve yourself in an activity that you can look forward to during the day, maybe having a study hall where you can relax or even zoning out for a second now and then. Having a "perfectly-focused-student" mindset all day ends up being self-destructive, so let yourself take small mental breaks now and then. Think of it as a catnap for the brain. Tips like these - and ones you invent for yourself - can help you retain material, be interested in what you're learning, or at least keep going to school after that first day of kindergarten.
Dr. Wes: It's hard to say for sure what's bugging you. It could be a lot of things. However, one I'm seeing pretty commonly these days is more sociological than psychological. I don't have a clever name for it, but I think it comes from growing up among the most overstimulated generation in history. TV, iPods, text messaging, MySpace and Facebook, cell phones, numerous school and community activities and high levels of socializing all conspire to train the mind to seek out novelty. Compared to these activities, school tends to be boring. Many educators are trying hard to compete, and these same new technologies in the hands of a gifted teacher can make learning a lot easier and more fun. Still, for most kids, learning is more like a job than a recreational activity. How many people do you know who pop up like toast every morning and run to their jobs singing a happy tune?
I was a pretty good student, but from seventh grade on, I can guarantee you that when April 1 hit, I was literally counting the days 'til the end of school : 23, 22, 21. And when that last day came, I hit the door like a bat out of hell. Three months later (we actually had THREE MONTHS of summer back in the day), I dreaded having to go back to school because I felt like I was "so bored and wasting my time." In fact, we didn't call it school. We called it the "indoctrination center" - kind of a 1980s Pink Floyd spin-off I think.
I see a lot of kids who share this same feeling of futility from junior high through college, and those feelings are as old as school itself. What kept me going was not what I had on my academic plate that day. It was the idea that there must be something worthwhile down the road - a better life out there in adult land - and that high school and college were necessary parts of reaching it. So school became a journey, and somehow I ended up there for 10 years more than I'd planned, despite not liking it that much. I'd suggest coming to grips with the fact that, except for a few wonderful experiences that you should always cherish, school will tend to vacillate between stressful and boring.
Try not to waste time in too many blind alleys - they'll just add to your frustration - but try and take at least one class every semester that gives you energy rather than sucking it out of you. Maybe this is computers, music, media or art. If you love history or math, you might find your energy there. I realize it's getting harder to take electives in junior high and high school, but hopefully you'll still find one class that makes it worth popping up in the morning.
As you get older, you come to realize that, many times in life, how we feel isn't as important as what we choose to do. As I look back, I'm deeply thankful that my family encouraged education. Despite the many potholes in the journey, it has been worth the trip.
Next week: A teen feels tired all the time. Bad sleep hygiene or a more serious problem?
Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Julia Davidson is a Bishop Seabury Academy junior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.