Why Boys Fail (and What You Can Do)

Boys are struggling in classrooms across the nation. Here are five key ways you can help boys succeed.

By Jennifer L. W. Fink
  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

Boys By the Numbers
■ Boys are 30% more likely than girls to flunk or drop out of school.

■  70% of the students in special education are boys.

■  Boys are twice as likely as girls to be suspended.

■  Boys are 4.5 times more likely than girls to be expelled.

■  By kindergarten, 1 in 4 black boys believes he will fail in school.

■  By the end of 8th grade, 26% of boys score at a below-basic level on both reading and math assessments.

Sources: Writing the Playbook: A Practitioner’s Guide to Creating a Boy-Friendly School; 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress

One day before his eighth-grade graduation, Chad was sent to the principal’s office for throwing a chair in class.

“I’d seen this kid throughout the year,” says Edmond Dixon, author of Helping Boys Learn and then-principal of Chad’s school. “He’d been in a play. He was a good skateboarder and the girls liked him. When he walked into my office, I said, ‘Listen, Chad.’ He held up his hand and said, ‘Stop.’ His eyes were watery and he said, ‘Let’s face it: I’m stupid. You know it. I know it. My parents know it.’ And then he wouldn’t talk to me.”

Chad later dropped out of high school. Sadly, his story is not uncommon. Boys are more likely than girls to flunk courses or drop out of school. Boys lag behind girls on almost every academic measure, at almost every grade level. And they make up the bulk of special education classes and disciplinary referrals.

Can Boys Catch Up?

Ask 10 people why boys lag behind girls in school and you’ll likely get 10 different answers, ranging from brain-based biological differences to the increased focus on academics in the primary grades, the decline of recess, and a lack of male teachers as role models.

The truth is that all of the above influence boys’ achievement at school. Biologically, boys mature less quickly than girls. An academic environment that focuses on quiet, sit-down learning can be off-putting for many boys. Zero-tolerance policies that prohibit students from playing with toy weapons and “hands-off” rules that ban any and all physical contact between students can exacerbate boys’ perception that school is simply not for them.

The good news is that focused attention can quickly get boys’ grades and achievement scores up to par, while also improving girls’ scores and overall achievement. When Kelley King, former principal of Douglass Elementary School in Boulder, Colorado, and author of Writing the Playbook: A Practitioner’s Guide to Creating a Boy-Friendly School, noticed that the boys in her school were 16 points behind the girls in reading and writing, she led a charge to increase the boys’ academic achievement. Within a year, the achievement gap was closed.

“Our boys made eight times the gains of other boys outside our school, but at the same time, girls made three times the gains compared with girls outside our school,” says King. “Both groups benefited and made significant gains. It’s just that the boys needed it more than the girls.”

Kendrick Middle School in Jonesboro, Georgia, had a similar experience under the leadership of Principal Marcus Jackson. After a year of concentrated effort, boys’ scores increased by 32 percent in reading and 27 percent in math. The girls’ scores went up, too.

How to Help Boys

King and Jackson initiated school-wide campaigns to improve boys’ academic engagement and achievement. Both began with the expectation that boys could and would achieve success in school. Both helped teachers understand and reframe boys’ behavior; teachers learned, for example, that roughhousing on the playground doesn’t make boys deviants. They brought more men into their schools, encouraged physical activity, and asked the boys what materials they’d like to see in their classroom libraries. Lessons were linked to real-life experiences—and achievement soared.

Changing the school culture may be the most effective way to increase boys’ achievement, but individual classroom teachers can make a variety of adjustments to help boys (and girls) achieve
their full potential.

Connect. Carefully examine your own beliefs and attitudes about boys. “Ask yourself, ‘What is it that I believe about this boy? Do I understand my student after three o’clock?’” says Baruti Kafele, a former principal in New Jersey and author of Motivating Black Males to Achieve in School & in Life.

Make an effort to understand your boys’ lives and interests, and to incorporate their interests into the curriculum. Take drawing and writing, for example.

If a child draws a picture of an animal eating a human, ask him to tell you about the food chain. Teachers sometimes unconsciously squash boys’ enthusiasm because they are uncomfortable with the subject matter of a boy’s work. Instead, honor his effort, praise his achievement, and discuss his story or drawing.

Another approach is to help boys understand the purpose and audience of a writing assignment. “If 7-year-old boys are sharing stories together, that’s a perfect audience for a poop story,” King says. “But if they’re drawing a picture for the school art gallery or writing stories for the literary magazine, help them think about what is appropriate for that audience.”

What should you do if the work contains violence? “It needs to be discussed,” says Frances Spielhagen, associate professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Development at Mount Saint Mary College in New York. Ask: “What are you creating? Why are you writing this?”

Rethink Discipline Strategies. Taking away recess can be disastrous for a young boy who’s struggling to sit still in school. Instead, explore other disciplinary strategies, such as keeping him for a few minutes after school or having him help you with a project.

Boys, especially African-American boys, are far more likely than girls to be suspended or expelled. That time away from school can take a toll on their studies and further alienate them. Instead, try having students who act up spend time in another class. Boys often have a strong desire to be with and impress their friends; removing them from the group when they are disruptive discourages negative behavior while reinforcing positive behavior.

Expect Success—and Show Them How to Achieve It.
Some boys truly believe that academic success is out of their reach. Others believe they’ll graduate from college, but they have no idea how much work it takes to get there. Starting as early as kindergarten, show the boys in your class examples of successful men. Have dads come into your classroom to read books or to talk about how they use reading and writing in their daily work; those kinds of real-world connections can help boys understand why their assignments matter.

Teach boys how to set goals. Kafele tells teachers to have each male student “project the grade he will achieve and devise a plan on how to achieve it.” Help boys brainstorm “at school” and “at home” action steps, and include the steps in their plan. Then post the plans on your classroom wall and reference them regularly.

Make It Matter. Most boys aren’t interested in learning something unless they believe it’s relevant to their lives. Boys are much less likely than girls to read for pleasure but often very willingly read things that will help them achieve personal goals. “Boys engage in reading and writing that manifests in immediate payoff,” says Michael Smith, coauthor of Reading Unbound: Why Kids Need to Read What They Want and Why We Should Let Them. Boys who read about video games for instance, learn cheat codes that help them move forward in the game while gaining social status for their knowledge.

So help boys find books, writing projects, and other assignments that dovetail with their personal goals, and explicitly link your lessons to things that matter to your students. When a male student at Principal Jackson’s Georgia school questioned why he had to learn history, Jackson explained the importance of understanding the past—and then asked the technology teacher to develop a lesson on the history of cell phones.

Offer Praise and Encouragement. Some children are easily discouraged when they give an incorrect answer in front of the class. “A boy will raise his hand once. If he gets the answer wrong, how you reply to him is critical, because if he feels devalued or humiliated, he will not raise his hand again,” Jackson says.

Instead of saying, “You weren’t paying attention,” try, “What a great effort. He was very close. Can someone assist him?”

Use boys’ small successes to inspire them to greater achievement. “I may have a boy who’s failing every subject, but if he’s excelling in even one class, I’m going to praise him to the hilt,” Kafele says.

Embrace boys’ natural curiosity and desire for mastery. Incorporate their interests in the classroom—and watch the boys (and girls) in your class soar.


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