Why schools are failing our boys

First published at essentialkids.com.au

Boys will be boys, they tell us, but how many of us actually take this adage to heart and embrace it?

I am the mother of four boys, now all adults. If I think 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 sports shoes, short and to-the-point communication, and lots and lots of food and Milo. (Actually, it’s not so different when we all get together now.)

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

A recent survey in WA found that girls are starting to outperform boys in maths and science, which hasn’t been the case previously. Fantastic news for our girls – these fields badly need some gender balance, but it’s a shame if it’s at boys’ expense. We are also seeing a lot more boys in remedial classes and in behaviour management units in our schools across the country.

Boys are also more likely statistically (75% more likely than girls in fact) to die or be injured in an accident, to commit a crime, to be injured playing sport, to get cancer, to die at work, to go to prison, to be admitted to hospital and to fail school … well, boys will be boys right? But what does that mean for parents and teachers?

It’s long been acknowledged that the low number of male primary teachers is an issue and unless your son’s 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?

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

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

One of the most noticeable major differences (and yes there are always exceptions) between girls and boys in the classroom is that boys are more likely to learn through movement. Passivity numbs them to a degree.

Boys have been shown to develop their right brain before their left brain, 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 more emotionally savvy.

The right brain is more about ‘doing’, creativity and intuitive processing (rather than logical) and spatial growth and awareness. This may be why most boys prefer the sandpit to drawing and painting. It may also explain why men are better at reverse parking, but hey you didn’t hear it from me.

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

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

The brain difference 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 is often masking 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, it will manifest itself in disruptive, aggressive and even bullying behaviours.

It worries me that Australia’s “education revolution” is eroding critical playtime in our schools and the cost is high for all children but even more so for our boys – and perhaps their teachers who end up devoting more and more time to behaviour management.

Most girls do not have the same huge need to discharge energy and can sit at desks much longer than boys without becoming restless and disruptive.

In one study it was identified that at around five years old, girls’ joints, especially ankles and wrists, are more flexible than boys. So for a boy to sit on a mat for an extended time he may actually be experiencing physical pain, which is not happening for the girls.

Why can’t boys lie down to listen – maybe it doesn’t look as though the teacher has her students behaving respectfully or it looks neater if everyone’s sitting? This is just one tiny aspect of physical development that needs to be considered in our classrooms.

Another challenge is that boys only hear 70-75% of what girls do and that’s with eye contact. If a boy is absorbed in a play activity, or is facing away from his parent or teacher, he will generally not hear a thing being said.

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 thrive in our schools and in life, and reverse those scary statistics.