Little boys beginning big school

We have seen some disturbing trends in recent times:
  • Increasing number of 4-6-year-old boys being suspended or expelled
  • More ADHD/ODD diagnoses —  mainly boys
  • More behaviour management classes in schools — 97% boys
  • Increasing boys with gaming addictions.

Young boys tend to have:

  1. Lack of language skills
  2. Less emotional development
  3. Physically ‘unjoined’ up and emotions expressed through action.
    — Neil Farmer, Getting it Right for Boys (2012)

My absolute favourite parenting expert Steve Biddulph has written for years about the challenges little boys can have starting school and how these challenges can have long-lasting detrimental effects on boys and their schooling journey.

In early childhood research boys have been known to be around six to 12, even 18 months behind girls when they start school.

In Australia there has been a massive ‘push down’ of formalised learning where what was normal for 6-year-olds now happens for 5-year-olds. Ten to 20 years ago the same boy who may have experienced this developmental delay by around eight tended to catch up if he was not forced to do things that he’s developmentally unable to do, nor has he had repeated struggling experiences.

Repeated failure creates mindsets like, “I am dumb. I am stupid”. It is very difficult to change these once they are entrenched and they can become self-fulfilling prophecies; sad but true.

This is where my concerns about the push down of formalised learning into the early years starts. Biddulph in his excellent updated edition of his bestselling book, Raising Boys (2013), argues that we need to seriously consider allowing boys to start school later than five – boys who struggle at five continue to struggle throughout school. Others agree:

“Boys speak their first words later than girls and their speech does not become 99% comprehensible until they are four years old a full year later than girls. A preschool girl has a large vocabulary, has better grammar, and forms longer sentences than a boy of the same age.”  — Ruth Hanford MorhardWired to Move (2013).


Emotional vulnerability

This increased pressure for all 5-year-olds to be ‘hurried up’ has also seen a reduction in play-based learning and this means a lessening of movement — a key essential for a significant number of little boys to help them maintain self-regulation. Many little boys are chastised when they squirm and wriggle and in a way they are trying to concentrate by using movement to create positive brain chemicals.

Partly due to the inner struggle between hormones, brain chemicals, slower and poorer verbal and emotional processing social conditioning and the pressure for boys to appear powerful and successful often at any cost, boys struggle emotionally on many levels.

There is a mistaken perception that boys and men don’t feel emotions as much as women – they do. They just process them and often communicate them very differently. It seems (speaking very generally) that boys need more time to be able to work out what big ugly feelings are really all about, whereas girls tend to move from experiencing the emotion to interpreting the emotion much quicker.

When boys feel emotionally vulnerable – as they do when they struggle with the academic requirements of their first year of big school – they tend to have a default setting that takes them straight through to anger, which is a very acceptable warrior emotion but often not acceptable in everyday settings, especially school. Feeling vulnerable, sad, bored, unhappy, confused, uncertain of what is required of him or a failure often is expressed through anger and often in aggressive acting out behaviour.

“The stronger a boy feels emotionally connected to his adult allies, the safer his emotional world becomes and the better his behaviour will be.”

The stronger a boy feels emotionally connected to his adult allies, the safer his emotional world becomes and the better his behaviour will be. It is a bit sad that due to the inner warrior in our boys they often make more mistakes, break more things, forget more things and are often the ones who bear the brunt of our discipline much more often than most girls. Many early years’ educators talk about the sad/angry boy syndrome when a small boy who feels abandoned and anxious will quickly convert that into hitting or aggressive behaviour.

Michael Gurian (1996) believes that the invisible drive at the biological core of manhood is the pursuit to prove self-worth. No one can give a man his self-worth – he has to give this to himself. To find this place, boys and men seek external ways to demonstrate potency, victory and independence, and this is what helps shape their search for meaning and purpose in life from a very early age. This is the warrior unfolding from within.

Boys seem to be generally competitive, active and constantly in search of moments to prove their worth and value. If little boys are unable to find success – build a tower, climb a tree, win a game or answer a question correctly – they can come to a place of avoidance. Reluctance to attend is increasingly common among little boys.

It seems that a boy’s natural impulsiveness may be rooted in his biology. Some suggest boys tend to have lower levels of serotonin, the calming neurotransmitter, and thus their heightened state could mean it is more difficult for them to manage impulses. Combine this with the possible influence of hormones and cultural and social influences and we can appreciate the tendency for our boys to be incredibly physically active, competitive, risk-taking and seeking experiences to define their emerging manhood.


Where boys struggle at school

Boys definitely benefit from structure with clear rules and boundaries, but not too many. Boys can struggle with too much teacher direction – too many words and too many things to remember like classroom rules and expectations. Most little boys strive so hard to please their teacher, to remember everything and to do the right thing and it can exhaust them if they are unable to create some time to have fun and recover from the intensity. Recess and lunch time are incredibly important at refilling their energy cups. For some little boys (and of course many girls!), walking them to school or having some play time before class time can also help them energetically prepare for the challenge of the classroom day.

Many boys need lots of help to cope with disappointment and failure. Because they are wired to be winners they are also wired to see failure as a really bad thing. Helping our boys have emotional buoyancy around moments of failure is incredibly important. When a boy has been unable to achieve a task in class like writing a sentence or spelling sight words correctly he will already be beating himself up inside, so if he is confronted with a punitive or insensitive approach to the problem, he will often cover up his sense of vulnerability by becoming really angry.

“Winks and smiles are big messages of love”

Many little boys struggle silently with separation distress. They are prone to feeling unloved and abandoned, and strong physical and emotional nurturance is incredibly important as they adjust to their new schooling journey. Remember, boys like to be shown you love them or care about them not just be told that you do – so hugs, tickles on the back, soft ruffling on the head, high fives, winks and smiles are big messages of love and connection for our precious sensitive little lads.

The transition to big school can be a fabulous adventure or a struggle and every boy will be different in his search for mastery and victory. If we keep in mind that they can struggle more, be responsive to their unique needs and work closely with the early years’ teachers, our little boys can feel we are there for them.

“The self-esteem of young male students is incredibly fragile, even more so than that of girls.”
 — Dr William Pollack, Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood (1999)


My Top Tips for Little Boys Starting Big School

  1. Don’t ‘over sell’ school like it’s going to be exciting, fabulous and you are going to love it!
  2. Don’t tell them they will learn to read. Many boys express regret at the end of the first week when they haven’t learnt how to read.
  3. Having a good friend or making some good ones ASAP is a critical factor in the success of his transition.
  4. Promote the value of recess and lunchtime and playing as a high-quality reason for going to school!
  5. Hope and pray (indeed, seek out) that the school has a fabulous nature play space or allows lots of free play – kids love to have freedom in their play!
  6. Know they are unlikely to poo at school, and avoid going anywhere after school that doesn’t have quick access to a toilet.
  7. They will be starving the minute they see you — be prepared.
  8. Meltdowns in the car are a way of showing how much they have missed you!
  9. Be prepared for meltdowns in the car by having funny props to change their emotional mood – wigs, false teeth, masks and a farting cushion.
  10. Don’t interrogate him — “How was school? What did you learn? Who did you play with?” Your boy may not remember a thing until possibly bath time!
  11. Let him refill his energy cup before mentioning the ‘H’ word — homework!
  12. Some quiet TV time or 20 minutes of technology can help him forget school if he doesn’t want to go outside. He needs ‘wind down’ time.
  13. Read fun and quirky stories, and joke and riddle books to him often to keep him keen to learn to read especially as it can be much more difficult for most boys.
  14. Share lots of non-verbal love and connection moments.
  15. Don’t harp on about school or how important it is and why he has to be good for the teacher.
  16. Talk about plans for weekend as much as possible so he has something to look forward to beyond the school gate.
  17. Help him get his bag organised the night before.
  18. Don’’t have many expectations on school mornings when he’s little. Three things is a lot to a little boy (or a 14-year-old!!). Get up, eat, get dressed and remind him kindly about doing teeth. Leave the bed and mess of toys in his room — too much extra stress!
  19. Have a dot point plan in his room (visual cues as he can’t read yet) — and possibly on the fridge — of what to do in morning. They can really forget especially when tired and not that keen to go to school and he can go check it without asking you … reduces nagging.
  20. Encourage, coax and be positive about school and especially his teacher. Never let him hear you be negative in any way about either.
  21. Have a good girlfriend/mate to regularly debrief the frustrations of the transition time and remember coffee and chocolate!

Remember boys can be as sensitive emotionally as girls and many of these hints may help your daughter in her transition as well. 

Mothering Our Boys: A Guide for Mums of Sons

Maggie shares her insights, her reflections, and (as always) her humour around mothering boys in this book that will help you be the mum your son needs you to be.

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