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In the Classroom

Where the boys are

Steps educators can take to ensure the success of male students

Few would argue that boys and girls are different—in their classroom behavior, their socialization and their play. During the past decade, researchers have published work indicating a growing achievement gap in boys’ and girls’ reading and writing skills. These researchers have also shared other attention-grabbing stats:

  • In elementary school, boys are diagnosed with learning and attention disorders four times as often as girls, writes Peg Tyre in The Trouble With Boys, the ATPE Book Circle’s most recent selection.
  • Nearly twice as many boys are being retained as girls, according to Richard Whitmire, author of Why Boys Fail.
  • Boys are involved in 80 percent of discipline problems, according to Michael Gurian, who wrote The Minds of Boys.

Although educators have historically focused on ensuring that girls are afforded equal opportunities in schools, the so-called “boy problem” is causing many educators to re-examine their practices to ensure they reach every student.

“There are no differences in what boys and girls can learn, but there are different ways to teach them,” says Dr. Bill McBride, an author and educational consultant on gender differences.

McBride points to variances in brain development for girls and boys. One of the last areas to fully develop is the prefrontal cortex, where the brain handles organization, analysis, strategizing and synthesis. McBride cites Dr. Leonard Sax’s research: “Differences between a same-age girl and a same-age boy are larger than differences between, say, a 7-year-old girl and a 9-year-old girl.” According to McBride, a female brain is fully developed by about age 21, whereas a male brain is not fully developed until a male reaches his late 20s or even age 30.

So what’s an educator to do?

Let them play

Recess—which, in this age of standardized testing, often ends up on the chopping block—could be one answer. Tyre references a University of Minnesota research study indicating that successful peer interaction at recess was an excellent predictor of standardized-test success. She also writes that the percentage of boys being prescribed medication for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has increased dramatically along with the focus on standardized tests. When movement is limited, boys sometimes channel energy in negative ways in the classroom.

“[Boys] might be more susceptible to as-yet-unknown environmental or chemical causes of [ADHD],” Tyre writes. “But other factors—including higher academic expectations, zero-tolerance policies and [the] shrinking of recess may be making boys’ behavior seem less normal and more pathological.”

McBride suggests that teachers incorporate opportunities for movement in lessons, such as creative dramatics, pantomime, singing, dancing, etc.

Model higher-level thinking

Educators and parents should also teach and model higher-level thinking skills, such as organization, acting less impulsively and thinking through decisions. “Because boys will act without thinking, adults need to explain cause and effect to young males,” McBride says.

Modeling simple activities such as organizing a backpack, desk or notebook can help boys overcome organizational difficulties.

Make sure they can read

Boys are frequently later to mature in language development than girls, so Tyre suggests educators “take care to ensure boys are reading at grade level and with fluency” and recommends using systematic phonics with boys.

“They don’t ‘catch up later’—poor readers struggle all through school,” Tyre writes.

McBride recommends providing boys with books that “play to their spatial-mechanical mind.”

“Boys want to see action, competition and, yes, fictional violence,” he says.

Educators can also help parents better understand their role in modeling literacy and other behaviors. Tyre writes: “I think parents have a big role to play in this: They must help their sons see the importance of literacy for adult men—boys need to see dads reading the paper, dads reading the good night story, [and] dads reading for work and for fun.”

Strategies for active students, both male and female

  • Allow a child to stand instead of sit at a desk.
  • Give students frequent breaks to socialize and move.
  • Take kids outside to complete work on clipboards.
  • Allow free play during recess.
  • Don’t take away recess or physical activity as a punishment.
  • Be patient with students’ developmental timelines.

Book review:

Examining the “trouble” with boys

In late March, the ATPE Book Circle will wrap up its study of The Trouble With Boys by Peg Tyre. Here, ATPE Professional Development Coordinator Kris Woodcock describes her reactions to the book:

When I first picked up The Trouble With Boys, I thought back to my days teaching third and fourth grade. Each year there were “those boys” whom I struggled the entire year to reach: They couldn’t sit still, had trouble paying attention, or had been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or a learning disability. Some were aggressive to other children and would call out or talk to others at inappropriate times. I would have appreciated Tyre’s helpful strategies.

I also felt guilty because as a teacher, I perpetuated the problem. I was guilty of many of the practices that Tyre identifies as hindrances to boys’ learning: forcing memorization, requiring kids to sit still for long periods of time, limiting recess so as to focus more time on reading, writing and math. And my excuse? I felt pressured by test scores. Tyre states in her book: “If you think this system seems too test-driven, remember that it has the blessing of the community. … Schools with good test scores attract young families moving into the area, and real estate prices go up and stay up.”

I am also a new parent. As I read The Trouble With Boys, I became concerned for my infant son. I started to formulate scenarios in which I would intervene in my child’s schooling to make sure he didn’t become one of “those boys.” And then it hit me that this would further the problem. Rather than stepping into line and causing my own boy to feel the stresses of our current system of education and standardized testing, I can call out to other educators and parents to put an end to this madness. Let’s stand together and demand that our educators are given the support they need to teach both boys and girls in the best ways possible and to provide opportunities for socialization, recess, art, music and physical education. Boys and girls need less direct teaching and more project-based learning. And let’s work as a community not to let test scores be the motivating factor behind where we live and want our own children to attend school.

ATPE Book Circle participants earn continuing professional education (CPE) credit for reading selections and posting responses to discussion questions in the ATPE Idea Exchange. Learn more at

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