Boys in School (Part One): Swimming Against the Tide

I chose this title because this topic is one of those problems that is affecting an entire population, male children, but as such, is having an even greater impact on African-American boys. Swimming is a great analogy because statistically fewer African-American boys learn to swim and thus, are victims of drowning at a much higher percent than any other ethnic group. So in this context, this boys-in-school crisis, if we don’t address the issues for all boys, more of ours are going to drown.

I am old enough to remember when schools preferred boys. It was thought then (and when I say “then”, I mean some twenty years ago when my first child was just about to enter school) that the classroom environment overwhelmingly favored boys. Back then studies showed that boys were called on more than girls and that boys were given more favorable responses to their answers than girls. Back in the days when my oldest son was in elementary school, teachers evidently had great patience and preference for the rambunctious behavior of boys, as they were accused then of allowing significantly more active behavior and many more classroom outbursts from boys than from girls. It was believed that boys were encouraged to be more independent in their thinking and allowed to be freer in their expression.

But there is no room for such shenanigans now.

Now, it appears that the tables have turned. The new educational buzz is about the difficulty boys are having in school—how they are not thriving, how they need to be medicated, how their test scores and their college admissions are declining. According to Peg Tyre, in her book, The Trouble with Boys, boys are expelled from preschools five times more than girls and are four times more likely to be diagnosed with learning disorders.I experienced this shift with the birth of my second son, who is fourteen years behind my oldest. When Baby Boy started school, we did not get both feet into the classroom door before we were told that he did not sit still well enough, nor pay attention long enough, nor perform his work quickly enough for the satisfaction of the teachers. Before we knew it, we had the school counselor joining our parent-teacher conferences with her list of doctors who could “test”. What used to be called “rambunctious” is now “behavioral problem”. I thought we were being singled out until I started talking to the other “boy Moms”, who reported that they were being steered in the same direction. None of the “girl Moms” I knew were having this problem. Curious. What is going on?

In the time between the elementary schools experiences of my two sons, a whole body of research has emerged that demonstrates the myriad of biological differences between boys and girls. These differences significantly impact the learning styles and needs of both genders. And yet, these studies do not seem to be taken into consideration in today’s classrooms. There is so much confusion about what to do with boys and so much blame going back and forth between teachers, parents and administrators. Is anybody reading? Is anybody willing to step up and acknowledge the unavoidable truths that are at the core of the solution—that boys learn differently; that boys have physiological differences that need to be taken into account in the classroom; and that we should not expect girls and boys to behave the same; nor should we use one gender as the model for both.

I am not suggesting that gender differences are the only relevant factors pertaining to why boys are not thriving. But they are certainly factors that are well documents and yet uniformly ignored. So let’s start here. We parents must shore up our knowledge of the gender differences. We must inform ourselves about our boys. We must listen to what their biology is screaming out as us. And then we can advocate on their behalf.

I am going to summarize the recent findings here. And I am going to list the books from whence this information came in the side bar. If you want to read the details for yourself, you can start there.

Let’s Begin with the Brain:
Boys are not as adept as girls at multi-tasking. The corpus callosum is the connecting tissue between the two hemispheres of the brain. This area in males is different from females in size and structure. Researchers have found that this area allows more crosstalk between the two sides of the brain in girls, which explains why girls do better at tests involving multi-tasking.
Also, girls appear to have an advantage in over boys with decision-making behaviors. The frontal lobe of the brain is the area involved in problem solving, spontaneity, memory, language, judgment, impulse control, among other high functioning behaviors. This area grows at earlier ages and is generally more active in girls than boys. This would be the part of the brain that helps keep impulsive behavior in check. And this is important because there are other factors, biological and otherwise, that bring about more impulsiveness in boys.

Ripe for Risk:
Their propensity for risk is one of those factors. The hormonal make up of a boy, combined with his unique brain function, really sets him up to be a quick acting, spontaneous being. This trait (or combination of responses), which may have been so useful for survival early in human history, is reeking havoc on the male gender in the current classroom environment.
The male nervous system’s response to dangerous situations results in feelings of exhilaration. Where boys often experience a thrill in the face of danger, the female nervous system response leaves most girls feeling uneasy, sometimes dizzy, incontinent and nauseated. These are not feelings that cause her to want to repeat or seek out danger, as a boy might. The male attraction to risk can apply to doing dangerous leaps from high places on a skateboard or just the urge to throw a pencil across the classroom when the teacher is not looking. This tendency to take risks is exacerbated when you interject the presence of peers. Since males are drawn to risk, they value it as a group. When they are together, they encourage such behavior in each other. So based on the interplay of the brain and the nervous system, a boy has a greater urge to throw the pencil and less control to restrain himself, especially if his friends are watching.

How about Hearing?:
Studies also show that there is a significant difference in the hearing of girls and boys. Girls hear better in the higher frequencies, which are associated with speech. So researcher believe girls’ hearing is better adapted for communication. This difference not only continues, but becomes more profound, with age. (We married women know this!) Not to exaggerate the point, but boys may really be like Charley Brown and only hear their teachers saying, “Wah, wah— wah, wah, wah.” (Relatively speaking, of course!)

We can see from the studies that in the school setting, girls are just plain easier to deal with. Most of them can sit. Most of them can stay on task. And most of them can control their desire to throw a pencil across the room (if they even entertain such desires). If the standards of expectation are set based on average “girl” behaviors and abilities, boys are going to more often fall short. Period.

It’s helpful to recognize the potential impact gender differences are having on the day-to-day lives of our boys. When, for example, your son’s teacher comes at you about his inattention in class, before your let her funnel your family down the road to medication, you and the teacher need to explore the other possible explanations for your son’s behavior. You may need to, for example: (And this is in no way intended to be a complete list of possibilities)

Move him to the front of the class, to address the possible hearing differential.
Help him practice self-control coping mechanisms so that he can develop these tools. Acknowledge to him that he will have the urge to do things that may seem fun or funny or exciting, but he must stop himself when he is in class or when such an action is inappropriate. Let him know that this is not an issue of being “bad”, just a question of self-control. If you initiate this effort at home, it will be more effective and valued by your son than if the teacher initiates it as a part of punishment.

Ask that he be separated from his buddies in class, preferably in a way that doesn’t feel like a punishment.

It is very important to let the teacher know that you are paying attention– that you take his or her concerns seriously and you are interested in working with her on solutions. Do not, however, let the teacher off the hook for doing her part. Let her know that you are not going to allow her to wash her hands of her teaching responsibility by sending your son off to be tested.


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