"How was school?" is a question parents typically ask their teenagers daily, even though the answer is often the same -- "fine," "OK," or the non-verbal shoulder shrug. And there the conversation ends.
Perhaps it is important to dig a little deeper. Gallup recently asked U.S. teenagers* (aged 13 to 17) to select three words from a list of adjectives that describe how they usually feel in school, and found that "bored" is the word chosen most often, selected by fully half of teens. That was followed by another negative word, "tired," chosen by 42%. Only as many as 31% selected any one of the positive feelings provided -- such as happy and challenged. Educators and parents would undoubtedly prefer that those were the first words that popped into teens' minds when asked about their day at school.
The data suggest that boredom may be a sign of the times for teenagers. Kids spend so much time with colorful, fast-paced TV shows and other stimulating media that it has become difficult for teachers -- who still often have little more than a chalkboard to work with -- to keep them focused.
But it's not impossible. "I have to change direction every 10 or 15 minutes to hold their attention," says Telma Gonzalez, a high school Spanish teacher in New York. "[But] even though kids say they are bored in school, they don't really act that way in my class. It may just be, too, that the inflexible routine of daily classes seems boring to kids."
Positives and Negatives
Teens' responses to this question were generally consistent across demographic categories, with a few notable exceptions. Older teens (aged 16 and 17) are more likely than younger teens to express the negative feelings of boredom, tiredness, pressure, and confusion at school. Younger teens (aged 13 to 15) are more likely than older teens to report feeling happy, challenged, supported, and appreciated.
The poll also finds that girls are more likely to say they feel happy in school than boys are -- 37% to 25%, respectively. Thirty-six percent of boys say they feel challenged, compared with 26% of girls. Nineteen percent of girls report feeling lonely, versus just 7% of boys. The genders are equally likely to report being bored at school.
Perhaps not surprisingly, teens' self-described academic standing is related to their likelihood to express positive or negative feelings about school. Teens who describe themselves as "near the top" or "above average" in their class are slightly less likely to say they feel bored in school than are those who define themselves as average or below average -- 46% compared with 54%. Teens who say they are above average academically are also significantly more likely than their lower-performing counterparts to report feeling challenged, interested, excited, and appreciated at school.
Teens who are involved in risk behaviors such as drinking alcohol are more likely than teens who say they don't drink to report negative feelings in school. Only 19% of teen drinkers report feeling happy in school, while 36% of non-drinkers do. Conversely, a majority of teens who use alcohol (63%) say they are bored in school, versus 45% of those who don't drink.
Educators pay attention to their students' feelings and work to address them, particularly the negative emotions. "I'm not so concerned about teens saying they are tired in school -- they really are tired," says Gonzalez. "Kids lead such busy lives."
As for boredom in school, Saul Cooperman, retired teacher, principal, and New Jersey Commissioner of Education, surmises that, "Teens could certainly be responding to society saying school is something they have to endure." But Cooperman suspects that many students simply may not appreciate the opportunities they are given at school. "We have an affluent society," says Cooperman, "much like a beautiful buffet table that has everything on it -- but even that gets boring after a while."
*The Gallup Youth Survey is conducted via an Internet methodology provided by Knowledge Networks, using an online research panel that is designed to be representative of the entire U.S. population. The current questionnaire was completed by 785 respondents, aged 13 to 17, between Jan. 22 and March 9, 2004. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.