Why do kids stop loving school?

One of the hottest topics of discussion amongst Paly students consists of school day boredom and exhaustion.This is a common feeling shared by many students, but isn’t how they always felt about school. Younger elementary school students enjoy and look forward school each day. When and why exactly do students feelings about school change?

Child psychologist Susan Wilkens describes the reasons why kids hate school as “the perfect storm.” Wilkens worked as a pediatric psychologist and clinical supervisor at the Children’s Hospital and Research Center at Oakland for ten years and currently runs a family-centered psychotherapy practice for children and adolescents. Wilken’s works with students of all ages, helping kids with what she describes as “school refusal,” an anxiety-based problem affecting 3-5% of kids across America, generally those entering middle or high school. A student who suffers from anxiety-based school refusal experiences a very different response to daily school activities than a student who simply does not like school.

 After asked what they would change about the current education system, the majority of a wide range of students did not address their workload, the difficulty of the material being learned or how the material is taught. Rather, most students suggest pushing back the time that school starts. Tommy Hall, an 8th grader at David Starr Jordan Middle School, shares that “[class] starts at 8:05 and that forces [me] to wake up around 6:15 to work out and do everything that [I] want to do, and that is way too early.” For Hall, waking up and going to school is worse than school itself. However, once at school and surrounded by his friends, Hall’s morale improves. According to the National Sleep Foundation,  10 to 13-year-olds should be receiving around nine and a half hours of sleep each night for their growing bodies and minds. However, most teenagers get about seven hours of sleep because they spend their time after school participating in various extracurriculars, in addition to  completing their schoolwork. Every day after school, Hall practices sports for about one to two hours and spends around  two hours on homework.  Feeling overburdened by school leaves Hall with minimal time for himself, even at the young age of 13. Hall, along with many others, believes that if students had a later start time, they would benefit. Hall elaborates on the frustration he feels when he does not do as well on a test as he initially hoped. “I definitely get mad at myself because school is all about studying. It just shows I’m not trying hard enough, and this is how I’m going to get into college, this is how I’m going to get a job. If I can’t do this right, how am I going to get into a good college, and from there, how am I going to get a good job?” Hall said.

Hall’s feelings about school stress are not uncommon to Wilkens. Her experience watching kids she’s worked with lose their love for school is normal.. “By fifth and sixth grade, people are talking about high school and college. School is not just about learning for the sake of learning, but it’s about doing something you have to do so you can [move on to] the next thing,” Wilkens said, pointing out that the stakes get higher and the idea that school is for the love of learning goes away. “It’s about high school, and then it’s about college, and then it’s about getting a job, and you better do all those extra activities because people are gonna ask about them. Things that are supposed to be fun become obligations.” Wilkens said.

On the contrary, most students second grade and below do not think twice about going to school. Their homework and stress load is kept to a minimum and their day is filled with fun interactive activities that allow them to express their imagination freely. Escondido student Redmond Haynes said his favorite part of the school day is art. “…You can show your creativity and do whatever you want.” As time goes on and school curriculum becomes more demanding, students are given less flexibility with their creativity and become less interested.

The loss of interest that comes around fourth or fifth grade comes as students become more aware and start to question why they are. Wilkens suggests that questioning the motives of education generally takes place when kids shift from writing about fictional characters and about themselves towards writing about more specific things that do not necessarily interest them. “The curriculum starts to move from general subjects of learning and developing enthusiasm about learning to ‘We need to teach these certain things because kids need to know them, and kids need to be tested on them.”’ Wilkens said.

While kids begin questioning the rationale behind lesson plans taught in class, their homework load begins ramping up as well, creating a greater animosity toward school.

Wilkens connects this to problems that form at home. “The battle between parents and kids regarding homework starts to intensify. Teachers don’t really prepare parents for how to engage or not engage in those battles at home. Not only do you have kids that are tired, not only do you have a kid that has lost interest in the work, but now you get the added dynamic [with parents].”

Simultaneously, the social element comes into play when cliques at school begin to form — kids become exclusive and some get bullied. Now, recess and other free time that students are supposed to be looking forward to throughout the day may become dreadful and filled with anxiety.

Cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham argues in his book “Why Don’t Students Like School?” that, since teachers do not have a full understanding of how teenage brains operate, they do not teach as well as they could. Additionally, Willingham believes that the way teachers present material is boring, causing students to lose interest in their education.

Willingham’s hypothesis about the disconnect between teachers and students parallels Wilken’s belief that the transition from single classroom learning in elementary school to a seven-class schedule in middle school can make it a lot more difficult to build a relationship with teachers. When transitioning from fifth to sixth grade, students go from being one of 25 students that teachers teach, to being one of 120 students that teachers see a few hours a week. Losing that personal connection with a teacher makes it more challenging for a student to feel like what they have to say is important, making it harder to learn.

Even with this “perfect storm,” many students find a way to adapt to the always developing stress of school. When education transitions from a more basic, creative based learning to preparation for college and then the real world, kids lose a lot of the motivation and joy for school that they originally harbored at a young age. It is a lot harder for students to enjoy coming to school and succeeding if they are not interested in the material that they are learning. Even so, students find motivation in the little things, continuously prevailing over stress and finding a way to love school, even when they have many reasons not to.