Burning out in school: What it means and how to help

At a glance

  • Burnout in school happens when students face ongoing stress or frustration — with no time to relax and recharge.

  • Well-meaning teachers, family, and professionals can accidentally contribute to burnout in children.

  • Knowing the signs of burnout can help you and your child find ways to take more breaks and reduce stress.

Imagine having 14-hour days with few breaks, loads of work, and lots of stress. For many struggling students, that’s not so unusual. So what happens when kids have to deal with all of that day after day? They may burn out in school.

Learn what burnout means, why kids who learn and think differently may be especially at risk of burning out in school, and how to prevent academic burnout in your child.

What burnout means

Burnout is a state of mental, physical, or emotional exhaustion. Burnout in children happens when kids are faced with ongoing stress or frustration with no chance to relax and recharge.

Of course, some stress is necessary for kids to achieve. It can motivate them to set goals and then reach them. The problem comes when the work and the stress are nonstop.

At first, kids may continue to do well at the things they’ve been trying to do. But then they may not rest long enough to feel a sense of accomplishment. And they may not have enough time to recharge by the time they take on their next challenge.

Eventually, that takes a toll. The stress they feel can turn to anxiety. The exhaustion can affect how well they perform certain tasks. And their motivation and interest level may drop.

What can lead to burnout in school

Sometimes, it’s hard to know what kids’ days are really like, or how much stress they might be feeling. Consider this scenario:

A sixth grader with wakes at 6:45 and leaves for school at 7:30. First period starts at 8:15, but the student goes early for help with word problems from the math teacher.

The student has a full school day of academic work in their regular classes. This sixth grader also works with a reading specialist twice a week. Teachers may forget about the student’s , and the child may need extra help during class. So the student has to self-advocate throughout the day.

After school, the student spends two hours at either soccer or band practice. The sixth grader loves both activities and does well at them. But when they come home at 6, the child has two or three hours of homework to do. It can take them longer than their peers to finish the work. Often, the student’s day, which began before 7, doesn’t wind down until 8 or 9.

“Helping your child build time management skills and take effective work breaks are two key ways to avoid burnout.”

By the weekend, this student has had it. The sixth grader bursts into tears over little things and complains angrily about going to the tutor. The student is exhausted. And on Monday, the child starts a new week with the same schedule, stress, and frustration.

The sixth grader may be able to push through it. But eventually, the signs of burnout appear. The student stalls when it’s time to study and doesn’t feel like going to band practice. In the end, the student does both — but the child has no energy or enthusiasm for either.

Burnout factors for kids who learn and think differently

Anyone can feel burned out. Athletes can burn out in sports. Employees can burn out at work. Medical students can burn out in medical school. But kids who learn and think differently may be more susceptible to burnout in school for several reasons:

Academic factors

  • They might have to work harder or longer than their peers to achieve similar results.
  • They may get extra instruction or therapy on top of their already full schedules.
  • Kids who struggle with attention have to work hard just to focus. They may sit with their work for hours and not make much progress with it — and still feel exhausted when they get up.

Emotional factors

  • Kids can’t control or “turn off” their learning and thinking differences. So they may feel victimized on top of feeling stress.
  • Their self-esteem may be affected by being aware of their differences. This can make kids feel less motivated to try as hard. And that can make tasks feel harder and take longer.
  • They know what it feels like to fail. So they may feel extra anxious about their performance, which also adds to their stress.

Social factors

  • Kids who learn and think differently may have good relationships with adults in their lives who try to keep them motivated. But that can backfire, because kids might feel extra pressure not to let them down.
  • Well-meaning family and professionals may overdo the amount of learning they try to squeeze into every homework, tutoring, or therapy session. Instead of feeling like support, these relationships may feel overwhelming.
  • Kids who learn and think differently may have friends who can’t relate to what they’re experiencing. This can make them feel lonely or isolated.

How to prevent school burnout

Helping your child build time management skills and take effective work breaks are two key ways to avoid burnout in school. See more tips to keep your child from burning out and signs of stress to watch out for.

You can also talk with your child’s teachers, IEP team, or tutors about what you’re seeing. They may have ideas for reducing the amount of extra work your child is getting. And if you think your child’s burnout might be due to issues with anxiety or depression, talk with the school nurse or with your child’s health care provider. They might recommend speaking with a mental health professional.

Key takeaways

  • Kids who learn and think differently may have to work harder or longer than their peers to finish the same assignment.

  • Friends may not understand what your child is going through.

  • If you think you’re seeing signs of burnout, help your child manage time more effectively and “turn off” more often.