Is my 11 year old burnt out from school?

Parent Question:
My 11-year-old son is in sixth class and hates going to school. He is always reluctant to go in the morning and there is often tears before I finally persuade him out the door. He is also constantly complains of being tired, especially when he comes in from school and he has to lie down on the couch. When I try to get him to talk about what he does not like about school, he shrugs and just says it is boring and he hates it. Getting him to do homework is also a nightmare – he is well able, but complains every step saying it is “so boring”.

Because of his fatigue and tiredness, we took him to the GP who did a battery of blood tests but could not find out anything wrong. He wondered was it maybe a post-viral condition and suggested we give him a daily vitamin. Recently, he gave up GAA, because he said he was “too tired” and he did not like it anymore – this worried me a lot. He does have a couple of friends at school, which he says is the only good thing. He sees them at the weekend and this is certainly when he is at his happiest. He is also more interested in school when something novel is going on like a quiz, drama or a school tour. He did a project on music a few weeks ago and it was the only homework he did not complain about.

I have spoken to his teacher who has had him for two years. She says he is very bright and able, (top scores on standard tests), though he is often switched off or daydreaming in the class. She has noticed a change since last year when he was more engaged in class. Previously, she had trouble with him talking out of turn, and not being able to concentrate on the task in hand. At the time we worried if he had ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). He is on a waiting list for assessment.

I am wondering what is going on for him. Do you think he might be depressed or burnt out or is he avoiding school for other reasons? Last year, he used to have more energy and enthusiasm so it is hard to see him so listless and down in the dumps.

There are many reasons that children struggle with attending school. Sometimes there are emotional reasons such as bullying or finding it hard to make friends, and sometimes they are struggling to engage with the school curriculum. In your son’s situation, the primary reason he reports school and school work as difficult is boredom. This can be common for high-ability students who might have ADHD when the curriculum is universal and comes with homework that can be drill-based or repetitive. It is significant that he prefers schoolwork when they are doing projects that interest him or when the teaching is novel (such as quizzes drama, or school tours etc).

Being disengaged and bored in school for an extended period is stressful and emotionally draining so this could explain why your son might be fatigued and appear depressed about attending. You ask in your question as to whether your son might be experiencing burnout or depression (which are common for ADHD children) and though there is overlap between the two, there are differences. Depression usually comes with negative self-thoughts such as “I am useless”, whereas burnout usually builds over time from dealing with the stress of attending school and appears primarily as low energy and tiredness. Either way there is a lot you can do to help your son recover.

Take his concerns seriously
Parents can easily dismiss a child saying they are “bored” or “tired” going to school and tell them to “snap out of it” or “push through” etc. This won’t help your son. Instead, be very sympathetic and understanding. It is great that he is getting to school every day, despite what is going on for him.

Seek help
It is good that he is on the list for professional assessment. See what you can do to prioritise this and ask the school for their help. In the meantime, take time to learn about the needs of high-ability and/or ADHD children. There are lots of great resources and books, some specifically looking at dealing with school stress, recovering from burnout etc.

Work with the teacher
Explain to the teacher how he is emotionally struggling and tell her how much he enjoys project work and novel teaching. The teacher may be able to do more of this and/or the school may be able to identify outside class projects/supports for him.

Change homework
Extending the school day by doing “boring” homework at home is only adding to your son’s stress. Instead, I would suggest you drop this for the moment (you can explain this to the teacher) and prioritise a “fun learning period instead”.

Prioritise his recovery
Identify fun and enjoyable things that might either relax or energise him. This might be some extra curricular activities such as music or drama and simple daily tasks such as reading, cooking or watching a favourite TV programme. Watch carefully your son’s energy levels and notice what stresses him and what helps him recover and feel better. Be prepared to adapt and change.

Build a good routine around school
This might be a lie down on the couch when he first comes home, following by a relaxing dinner and something enjoyable, which might include time doing something physical, such as a walk or being on the trampoline.

Prioritise his friends
It is great that he has friends in school and that meeting them helps him. Do prioritise these social connections at the weekends as you are doing and perhaps during the week if possible.

Take time
Set small recovery goals and go at his pace. Your first goals might be to build relaxing daily routines, to keep positive about him going to school and then to plan some fun events at the weekend.

John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the School of Psychology, University College Dublin. This parenting Q&A was originally published in the Irish Times in November 2023. John writes in the Irish Times Newspaper on Tuesdays. His website is