Boys, Schools and the change that is needed

Maggie writes for Australian Education Reporter on what change is needed in our schools to better help our boys succeed and thrive…

I am a former teacher and the mother of four boys, now adults. Thinking back to their childhoods and adolescence, it’s a whirlwind of movement and physicality, adventure and injury, rough and tumble play, of fart jokes and stinky shoes, short and to-the-point communication, and lots of food and Milo.

This description of life with boys won’t surprise most people – yet why is it that the one place children spend most of their time, school, is stacked against meeting boys’ needs?

In 2002 Brendan Nelson, then Education, Science and Training Minister, issued a white paper on boys in education in Australia and things were not good. Nothing was done.

Now, 16 years later, things are worse and still nothing is happening. In fact, the ‘schoolification’ of early years as an unintended side effect of NAPLAN has a lot to do with increasing concerns about boys.

We are seeing disturbing numbers of boys in remedial classes and in behaviour management units.The statistics show a massive increase in the number of 4 to 6 year-old boys being suspended or expelled from the early years of schooling.

We have huge increases in the numbers of boys being diagnosed with ADHD and ODD, and there have been no significant improvements in literacy.

Indeed, the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) shows children are turning up with more developmental vulnerabilities than ever before (national average was 21.7 per cent in 2018) and boys and Indigenous students feature highly. A new disturbing trend too is the increase in self-harm among boys aged 6 to 10 across Australia.

In WA girls now outperform boys in maths and science. The OECD says girls continue to outrank boys in education across the developed world and some commentators are calling it a ‘boy crisis’ – where one gap is closed, another one has opened. Great for our girls, but can’t all children do well?

It’s long been acknowledged that the low number of male primary teachers is an issue and unless a female teacher has brothers, how can we expect her to understand the boys in the class unless we actually talk about the differences between boys and girls, politically incorrect as that might be?

Steve Biddulph in his book Raising Boys shares research that shows boys are developmentally different physically, emotionally and socially.

Perhaps allowing our boys more time to develop before feeling the pressures of our earlier-than-ever formalised learning system might improve the statistics.

Boys have been shown to develop their right brain before their left, whereas girls develop both at the same time and this partially explains why boys are often up to 18 months behind girls when they start school and why girls are generally more emotionally and verbally savvy.

The right brain is more about ‘doing’, creativity and intuitive processing (rather than logical) and spatial growth and awareness. This may be why many boys prefer the sandpit to craft corner.

Neil Farmer in his book, Getting it Right for Boys, explains some key differences in how most boys’ and girls’ brains function. He says girls have better ability for ‘cross talk’ between their right and left hemispheres, better memory storage, and are more verbal and better listeners.

“A preschool girl has a large vocabulary, has better grammar, and forms longer sentences than a boy of the same age,” says author Ruth Hanford Morhard in her book, Wired to Move.

These differences explain a lot of the angst that happens in our homes and schools where boys are often misunderstood.

One of the most noticeable major differences (there are always exceptions) between girls and boys in the classroom is boys tend to learn better with regular movement. Passivity numbs them to a degree.

The need for movement has become even more important with today’s screens. I celebrate the schools that have acknowledged this and changed classrooms to allow more freedom to move with wiggly stools, standing desks, and low desks that allow students to sit on the floor.

I recently visited Immanuel Primary School in Adelaide and they have changed the classroom environment to support the need for all students to find a preferred learning place that suits them – and the boys are noticeably more engaged.

Classrooms, especially those trying to get everyone up to scratch for NAPLAN, aren’t really conducive to flexibility.

The fad of explicit instruction is followed in the hope it will improve grades, however I have heard of students spending up to an hour in intense sessions of explicit instruction. Even I would struggle to stay engaged for that long.

The second major difference between boys and girls is that the amygdala is bigger in boys so they are biologically driven to want to be warriors and superheroes and to take risks – often perceived as naughtiness.

This also explains why boys get confused around emotions. Many boys will take any emotional state – even sadness, confusion, frustration and hurt – and turn it into an anger response. So much aggression masks other emotional vulnerabilities.

Combine this with their extra testosterone and we have a situation where if we don’t provide our boys with plenty of opportunity to diffuse pent-up energy and process feelings, it will manifest itself in disruptive, aggressive and even bullying behaviours.

The return to nature play especially in WA is helping many boys spend time at recess and lunch being adventuresome and active. This floods the brain with dopamine, which improves capacity to concentrate. Play also helps build social skills boys can often struggle with, again especially in our screen-driven world.

Australia’s ‘education revolution’ has eroded critical playtime and the opportunity for physicality in our schools. The cost is high for all children but even more so for our boys – and perhaps for their teachers who end up devoting more time to behaviour management.

Most boys tend to have shorter attention spans and need more stimulation to become engaged in activities they perceive as ‘boring’ with little fun and lightness. With the fascination and passion for gaming outside of school this is becoming a greater issue.

Another challenge is boys tend to hear less than girls, and that’s when they’re engaged.  If a boy is absorbed in an activity, or facing away from his teacher, he will generally not hear a thing being said.

He also struggles with information overload – so making too many requests in one communication can create a glazed look as he fails to understand what is required.

We need to factor in these gender differences when we’re communicating with boys. They need all the help they can get to ensure they can succeed and thrive in our schools and in life, and reverse those scary statistics.

Allowing young boys more time to bloom, ensuring they can find some success somewhere in the school ground, having a grownup who cares about them and acknowledging that just because they have slightly different needs this does not mean they are not a problem – are great starting points.

Boy champions who get boys, whether male or female, are essential in settings where boys are being taught and we need to seriously question old social norms that tend to blame and shame boys for making poor choices.

What we cannot do is continue to accept the awful statistics as the norm.


Image credit: ©️ nadezhda1906 /Adobe Stock –