Why Boys Struggle in School and What You Can do About it

Why do boys struggle in school? In most countries they have more behavioral problems, learning disabilities, and lower grades than girls. This has led some to question whether the educational system is biased against boys, or isn’t meeting their needs. In her book The War on Boys Christina Hoff Sommers argues that changes to educational system are to blame for boys woes.

The Education Gender Gap Has Always Existed

But is this a new trend? Canadian researchers looked at 306 studies from Canada, America and other countries from 1914-2011 and found that boys have always lagged behind girls in school. The gap was biggest in literacy but even held true for math and sciences. 

The real problem is that poor school performance is more costly today that it was 50 years ago. In the past boys who dropped out of high school could find good jobs relatively easily. However,education is increasingly required for employment opportunities. In todays job market boys who don’t complete any post-secondary education will have great difficulty finding employment.

what is causing the grade gap?

What is the reason behind the grade gap? The answer lies in looking at places where there is no gap. The previously mentioned study found that the grade gender gap was virtually non-existent in Scandanavian countries Sweden, Norway and Finland. So what are they doing differently? One of the key differences is that these countries don’t segregate students by ability. This prevents boys from getting the message that they or “stupid” early on leading to low motivation.

Another factor contributing to this difference could be when children start school. In Nordic countries the start of school is often later than in North America with Finish students starting at age 7. Despite this late start students do well in post-secondary outperforming almost all countries on international assessments

late starts result in better grades

One study in New Zealand found that children who started learning to read at 7 had caught up to those who started learning at 5. They late-start group also had better reading comprehension and more positive attitudes towards school. In the UK 130 early education experts signed a letter calling for an extension of informal play-based preschool provision and for formalized school to be delayed until the age of 7

Children still attend some sort of program, like daycare but the emphasis is on play and there is little to no academic learning. Clearly this helps both boys and girls, but why would it have more impact on the outcomes of boys? 

why early starts affects boys more

Boys lag behind girls in verbal and emotional development. Some argue that boys don’t truly catch up to girls until their early 20’s! Whatever the classroom expectation is for verbal communication and reading it can be assumed that boys will be less likely to meet it especially at the younger ages.

Boys also have more testosterone than girls and it peaks at age 4 and 14. Testosterone is a neurochemical linked to aggression making it more likely boys to get in trouble. If the teacher cannot handle the boys behaviour it can sour the relationship. This in turn colors how the boy see’s teachers and school in general.

A young boy may look at a classroom and see that most of the teachers disapprove of them. He may see his female classmates outperforming him in rote learning and ability to sit nicely and please the teacher. He may conclude that school isn’t for him. This could lead to him losing the desire to want to do well in school altogether.

What You Can Do to help your son

There are many helpful recommendations for how to support your son’s education in the book Boys Adrift by physician Leonard Sax. I’ve included some of his ideas along with my own below.

delay his entry into formal school

Firstly, know about the school your son is attending. If they have a high academic focus in kindergarten and grade 1 you may want to consider waiting to enroll him until he is 6 or 7. As we’ve seen from Nordic countries the first year can make a big difference from your son. A study of the US and Denmark found that delaying school by 1 year helped reduce hyperactivity and inattention in students enabling them to do better at school

Look for schools that meet his needs

If your son is already past grade 2 but is still struggling look at whether the school has a good balance between rote and experiential learning. Many boys who struggle are very good with hands-on learning. If experiential learning is not emphasized at his current school look around for schools that do emphasize it.

partner with like-minded parents

If you can’t move your son look into partnering with fellow parents and talk to the PTA about your concerns. Gather together a group of passionate and concerned parents. Together approach the school administration with your concerns. You’ll be more likely to get traction then if you go it alone. Take a collaborative approach so the schools staff don’t become defensive. If you get nowhere you might have to move jurisdictions or even cities to find a school that’s a good fit for your child. 

Small changes can make a huge difference. Leonard Sax has worked with schools that have seen major improvements for boys with relatively small changes. For example making sitting optional has resulted in huge gains for some boys. Instead of being forced to sit, they can stand, sit, or crouch on the floor. But what if your son is past the early years and has already started to become disengaged from school? 

how to help older boys

Many boys become disengaged from school because they don’t feel they are good at it, or they don’t find the subject matter interesting. To help these boys help them to find a love of learning rather than focusing on school performance. Find out what their interests are and see if your can partner with their teachers to incorporate that into their learning plan. If this is not an option find out what your son is interested in and connect him to mentors who are in that field. Boys need mentors to help guide them find their purpose and grow in maturity.

For boys who loves video games search your social networks for someone who works in the industry and connect them with your son. Try to ignite your son’s natural curiosity. Developing his interest in a topic he already likes will be much more effective in motivating him to learn subjects he hates at school. Many boys who do poorly in school often go on to post-secondary and good careers. However, they usually have adults who believed in them and helped them to believe in themselves and their ability to accomplish their dreams. 

school performance and mental health

In my work counselling boys I’ve seen how poor performance in the early years can lead to poor self-esteem and mental health problems later on. To support his mental health don’t stress too much about his school performance. Help your son to recognize his unique strengths. Then he can still be proud of himself even if he doesn’t achieve high grades at school.

What has helped your son be more engaged with formal school, and his own love of learning? Feel free to leave comments and questions below.

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