Why Boys Struggle in School: The Trouble With Boys

I just finished reading the book, The Trouble With Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents and Educators Must Do. This was a new book at my library and it caught my interest because many of the boys I know are having trouble in school. This book sheds light on the subject of why so many boys are currently struggling in schools across the nation. Even though I homeschool my son, the subject of boys and school is of great interest to me. My son Jacob is a bright and active boy and I have always suspected that he would not do well in a regular school setting which is one of many reasons why I have chosen to homeschool him. I am an only girl with four younger brothers so I have a great deal of knowledge and experience with boys. Over the last few years, I have been hearing more and more stories from friends, relatives, and even the checkout lady at Walmart about the problems boys are having in school. I have also worked in the public school system and been a tutor to boys which has given me an inside look at the issue.

One of my tutor positions involved helping a 7 year old boy complete his school work everyday. He was in a special education class because of issues with hearing and behavior and he had a very no nonsense middle age female teacher. I jokingly gave myself the title of "the coloring police" while I worked with him. Everyday this little boy was required to color in multiple pictures which were assigned by his teacher. The poor kid hated coloring and every day it was my job to make sure he completed all of his coloring assignments. I really liked this little boy but he and I were both completely bored to tears with all the coloring assignments. This experience and others have inspired my interest in reading books about boys and eduction.

According to The Trouble With Boys by Peggy Tyre, boys are struggling with school the moment they step into the classroom. In preschool they are expelled five times more often than girls and in elementary school they are four times more likely than girls to be diagnosed with learning disorders. By the time they reach eighth grade, large numbers of boys are reading below basic level and boys account for only 43 percent of students enrolled in college today. The number of boys enrolled in college falls every semester. The statistics point to a crisis in how boys are being educated but the crisis is being largely ignored because it is a political hot potato. We have spent so many years worrying about how girls are doing in school and making sure they are not being left behind that the needs of boys have been mostly forgotten.

There are a number of newer education policies hurting boys today. One issue is the high stress academic pressure now present in preschool and kindergarten. Boys who are four and five years old are just not ready for academic work which requires them to sit quietly for extended periods of time. I have heard first hand stories from friends and family about how different the requirements are today compared to when we attended kindergarten. Children who reverse numbers and letters in kindergarten are often referred for special services even though this is developmentally appropriate. I have my own school work saved from when I was in kindergarten which shows that I reversed many of my numbers and letters. No one ever mentioned this as a problem to my parents. My kindergarten teacher taught us our numbers, letters, and letter sounds but we did not work on learning to read until I was in first grade. We spent happy days in kindergarten participating in show and tell, being read to, doing crafts, caring for the class pet guinea pig, playing, and even doing simple cooking projects. Now days most children are expected to begin learning to read in kindergarten and that is just the beginning of a long list of academic requirements they must master. Many children, especially young five year old boys, are just not ready for this kind of academic work.

Another thing hurting boys is the reduction in recess and active play time. Early elementary school teachers must make sure their students pass all the standards set by No Child Left Behind. There is often little time left for active play and recess which boys especially need. A couple of months ago, I heard a story from a parent in Massachusetts. This parent's daughter attended a school which had cut recess, physical education, art, and music for all children, even those in kindergarten. I must say that I found this story quite shocking and I am still wondering why the parents in this school had not raised strong objections.

Boys seem to be falling behind the most in reading and writing according to Peg Tyre in The Trouble With Boys. I wanted to add a few of her suggestions on how parents can motivate boys and help them succeed in the areas of reading and writing. The first suggestion for parents is to provide plenty of preliteracy experiences such as talking, singing, and story time before your child begins school. Secondly, parents should be paying close attention to how their sons are being taught to read. Some children learn to read almost spontaneously but other children need a great deal of direct instruction. Studies have shown that boys do better in a program that emphasizes phonics over the Look Say reading method.

Once your son is beginning to sound out words, look for reading material that matches your son's interests. Boys and girls tend to enjoy different kinds of books so stories geared to boys will provide greater reading motivation. The types of books which boys tend to enjoy include comic books, sports biographies, humorous books, and books filled with action and adventure. Having fathers, grandfathers, uncles, or other men close to your son read them stories is a great example and helps motivate boys to want to learn to read. If a boy's adult male role models read books, then it is more likely for boys to view reading as an activity for boys and men and not as something girly.

Peg Tyre highly recommends the book Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices by Ralph Fletcher. This books provides ideas on how to motivate boys to write. Another good book which can help parents better understand their boys is Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Lives of Boys.

I am thankful we have the opportunity to homeschool our son who is thriving academically. Just today my son wrote and illustrated his own story by himself with some very creative phonetic spelling and then made a cover out of wall paper from a recycled wallpaper sample book. This was not on my homeschooling itinerary today but I like to make time for my son's spontaneous academic inspirations. I am thrilled that my son is doing well and enjoys reading and writing but I also have great concern for all the boys struggling in school whose parents can not homeschool or pay for an expensive private school that is more geared to boys. A number of these boys are friends and family to my own two children. If you are a parent to a boy who is struggling in school, then I think the best place to start helping your child is by educating yourself about the issues boys can have in school. Reading The Trouble with Boys is a good place to start. In a later post I will be sharing some good book choices for boys.


Polski3 said...

Nice Post. I have also found that in some classes, especially Language Arts/English, at the middle level and up, too many anthologies used by public schools contain too many stories, poems, etc, that are NOT of interest to boys; stories about emotions and such, NOT action. For example, many of my students, both boys and girls (jr. high) like the story about Ricki Ticki Tavie (or however it's spelled). The girls find "House on Mango Street" ok, most boys are not too interested in it. IF boys are to become readers, they must have access and validation to literature selections that are in their sphere of interest.
For example, in my history classes, as a lesson in "how things don't change too much" I read them the portion of THE ILLIAD with the fight between Achilles and Hector. It contains many elements "approved" by jr. high boys; trash talk, boasting and fighting. The same for the fight between Beowulf and Grendel. Or, the death of Roland. Boys get these visual images as they read them, jr high boys are not real in touch with "emotional" things and can't relate well to them so they tune out.

Schools have to change the way they teach boys. Maybe single-sex classrooms are needed for some subjects?

Happy Campers said...

We have a late summer boy, & I cannot imagine placing him in a Kindergarten classroom this year (he's 5). We are doing a relaxed homeschool model, and he is THRIVING on the Saxon Phonics program we're doing. It's very methodical, which I think goes well with his how-things-work brain, & it's nice and SHORT!

Plenty of time for playing with cars, math games, riding bikes, cooking with Mom. I can't imagine him thriving while sitting in a desk.

Great post...I'm forwarding to another friend who homeschools her boys :)

kat said...

As a former ps teacher myself I knew that if my oldest had been put in public school he would have been labeled by 1st grade. He didn't talk until he was 3, didn't read until the beginning of 2nd grade, but now at age 10 (5th grade) he loves to read and does very well homeschooling.

I agree about boys needing adventure and action stories to read, we have a large collection of fiction and non-fiction "boy" books, lots of Landmark Books from the 1950's and 1960's about WWII, explorers... he could read 4 a week and we wouldn't run out for years!

christinethecurious said...

My husband said, "OK, you can homeschool." after we visited our town's kindergarten orientation meeting.

My Own Terms said...

I have two boys who both struggled early on in the ps system. I homeschooled for 3+ yrs and due to a family crisis, had to put them back in ps.
My older son is flourishing, thanks to the base we built with homeschooling. My younger one is struggling, so is homeschooling again. I hope to be able to make learning interesting and exciting for him as well again.

Coloring Police: I died laughing at this, because my oldest was the same way...he hated coloring, and still does. They gave him such a hard time for it. He is artistic as all get out with a pencil and a blank pad of paper, but hates coloring with a passion!