Why Boys Struggle in School and How to Help them Succeed

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For parents of boys, it’s the all-too-common note from the teacher: “Mrs. Smith, your son was acting up in class again.” Fidgeting, doodling, talking out of turn, and generally seeming not to pay attention just seem to come with boy territory. But it might surprise you to know that those very behaviors can actually be a boy’s way of trying to pay better attention. With the right perspectives and strategies, parents and teachers can effectively channel those behaviors into learning tools and help boys enjoy learning more in the process.

The Science Behind It
Evidence of how boys’ learning styles differ from girls is more than just anecdotal. With advances in MRI and other technologies, researchers can now draw conclusions about how boys and girls learn by comparing images of their brains. Boys’ brains, for instance, devote double the space girls’ brains do to spatial-mechanical functioning, leaving them with about half the area girls have to devote to verbal-emotive functioning.  In short, that’s scientific proof that boys are hardwired with the need to move and that they learn better through things like hands-on activities than by a teacher’s lectures.

‘Bad’ or Just ‘Boy’? 
While order in the classroom is important, requiring boys to sit still and be quiet for the better part of the school day may be unrealistic at best. Although distinguishing simple ‘boy behavior’ from an actual behavioral or learning problem can be difficult without professional evaluation, it is clear that boys struggle more often than girls to pay attention and to be quiet and calm in the classroom.

“My son doesn’t get in trouble at school, but I know he’s always had to work hard to behave,” says Marissa, a Charlotte-area mom of a fifth grade boy. She, like other boy parents, tells of resistance against doing homework and near-daily emotional breakdowns at home after keeping wiggly, loud, ‘boy’ tendencies in check at school all day.  By recognizing his stress, Marissa has found ways to help her son cope. “I know now that when he gets home, he’s going to need what I call his ‘decompression time,’” she says. She encourages him to ride his bike around the cul-de-sac, run laps around the outside of their house, or even knock out some push-ups after school to let go of stress and get pent-up energy out before getting down to the business of homework. 

In the Classroom
These struggles are more pronounced in the elementary school years, when boys have less impulse control. It’s in those years that teachers, especially, can play a huge part in making learning in the classroom positive and effective for boys. Their number one battle in this quest? Helping those boys pay attention.

“The littlest thing, like a piece of Velcro adhered to the underside of their desk that they can run their finger over, can make the biggest difference,” says Bronwyn Roberts, a literacy facilitator with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.  In fact, says Roberts, many products that were developed for children with special needs can help fidgety boys channel their energies, keeping them focused in class.

Whatever the practical solutions, simply recognizing that boys’ needs in the classroom are different is a step in the right direction for parents and teachers. With a few small changes, they can enjoy happier boys who learn better.

4 Classroom Tricks to Try 
stressball.jpgIf you have a boy who has a hard time staying still during the school day, talk with the teacher about implementing the strategies below to help channel his energy.

  • Keep a stress ball or modeling clay at his desk to discretely squeeze.
  • Place a large rubber band around the front of his desk for him to kick.
  • Stock a classroom library with nonfiction books about boy students’ personal interests.
  • Facilitate frequent, short ‘brain breaks’ during arduous lessons.

Deb Mitchell is a freelance writer and a mother of three boys who lives and works in Huntersville.

Read more from the 2013-14 Education Guide: 
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