Are Schools Failing Our Boys?

DSC_1335School has started and many boys have headed back to the classroom. Sending them off we assume that they will be loved and protected by the teachers and administration. But are our son’s best interests being looked out for?

If you want to have a greater chance of being diagnosed with ADD, childhood depression, be behind in reading, get disciplined in school more frequently, be expelled from school or drop out of school what do you have to do? Be born a boy.

Girls will out score boys in every subject at every grade level except for the last two years of school where boys tie or slightly outscore girls in Math and Science. (And I have recently seen some studies that now say girls outscore boys in those areas and grades as well.)

In 1978, as a skinny college freshman I volunteered at Winchester Elementary School in New Haven, Connecticut. Since then I have been in and around early childhood and elementary education. I have seen with my own eyes how the system works and how we treat our boys. While not all boys learn and act the same way, there are distinctive characteristics that can be found in a large percentage of males. It is a wholesale disregard for this “maleness” that has me concerned. Please understand that all young children including males have a desire to please adults. So many boys will work hard on suppressing their natural inclinations and preferences. But just because they can conform for a while does not mean that they are “just fine.”

As an “insider” here are just some of my concerns for our boys in today’s schools:

DSC_1520Tables and desks are used beginning with 3 year olds. This is not a preferred way to work or learn for most little boys. Many cannot sit still until age 7 or 8 and except for the demand of school there really is no need to sit still for long periods of time.

In early childhood education toys are stacked in favor of girls. Yes, there are building blocks and snap together blocks, and some trucks. But many of the play clothes and centers revolve around girl types of play. Disney princesses are often acceptable in early childhood education. However, typically deemed “aggressive” any type of boy movie or TV program characters are almost universally discouraged. They will be tolerated on lunchboxes, t-shirts and underwear, but not in the toy box.

“Boys mature at a later rate than girls” is the excuse used by teachers and educational experts for the continued failure of boys in our schools. This is based on a few “key” indicators which are mentioned if you challenge this assumption. Girls behave “better” in classrooms (as in, give the mostly female teachers what they want.) They have better fine motor coordination and learn to write sooner, a skill now needed even by toddlers, which would shock and confound educators from the era before the invention of the copy machine. Girls hit their adolescent rapid growth stage sooner than boys. Girls do better in academics. Therefore it is assumed, they are more mature. However, I coached tennis for both boys and girls. If you ask me, when it comes to learning and competing in tennis – boys are clearly more mature than girls. Why would I say this? Because they learn the sport faster and are better at it given the same amount of time. So, what if we measured some other factors? Gross motor coordination, sports ability, mechanical abilities, and yes, even physical strength will often be better in boys. Boys are better at performance based tasks and tend to be better at competition and conquering difficult assignments. There are a host of areas where boys have been able to outperform girls. Yet we routinely ignore these and declare one gender “more mature.”

This “maturity” excuse leads the educational institution to push for boys to delay entering schools rather than examining the way education is done and to make education more boy friendly. This means that educators are telling parents that their boy is the problem. Thus we have huge amounts of boys on drugs, and with labels and diagnoses. Schools typically do not accept any or even part of the responsibility of the failure of boys within their schools.

DSC_2792Children are asked to sit way too long. The stretches of time children are asked to sit should be considered child abuse. Of course many children and especially boys simply cannot do what is asked, so they get the idea that they have “failed” to comply. Could you imagine if we asked children to pick up 50lb weights and told them they had “failed” when not able to do so? Then we go on to scold them and insist they lift the weight. Parents would be outraged. Yet a similar scene is played out in our schools day in and day out. And boys in particular are suffering the consequences of this problem. Now in fairness, many teachers have come up with cute, simple, quick stretches, move the children around the room, pause to do some exercises and relaxation techniques all to help children cope. But without needed stretches of major muscle movement compensations are minor helps at best. Even physical therapy tools such as silly putty, movable chairs and the like are helpful, but not an answer, just a coping technique that helps some, but cannot cure this issue.

Learning off of a piece of paper is not natural and not the best “fit” for little ones, especially boys. While harder for children it is so much easier for the teacher to use a flat, boring piece of paper instead of three dimensional objects or models or other hands on learning.  I am sure that if teachers from a few centuries ago returned to today’s classroom they would be shocked at how nice they are and equally shocked that we expect young children to use a hand writing device for so much of their school time. Boys have a more difficult time than girls using paper and except for letters and learning to read, paper does not need to be widely used in the earliest grades. And making it colorful or projecting powerpoint slides on a screen does not make it better. (Construction with paper is perhaps one exception.)

Many female teachers were “good” in school and double down on what made them successful students. This leaves the boys at a huge disadvantage. A teacher who insists that children write neatly, speak softly, wait their turn by standing motionless, etc. create a huge barrier for boys. If teachers insist on neat and conscientious work, rather than correct and accurate work boys are nearly always going to get a lower grade.

A good amount of what is defined as “good” behavior is a set of expectations based on typical female characteristics and abilities. This includes how loud one may be, how still, specific mannerisms and even eye contact as well as how one replies to requests. They are all stacked in favor of the typical female. To give you an understanding, by high school there are some male teachers who like to “spar” and challenge students thinking and perspective. They want students to challenge back. Sometimes this is fast paced and when thoughts come to a student they are allowed to call out, as long as it is on task. Many boys thrive in this type of give and take environment as opposed to an environment where you have to sit still, be quiet, keep your eyes forward, raise your hand, quietly and politely ask your question and never, ever challenge the teacher.

DSC_3003Typical girl interests are tolerated, but boy’s interests are scolded and even punished. Wrestling, snakes, superheroes, dirt or even talking about these things can get a boy in serious trouble. (Can you imagine how a teacher would handle a conversation about who can pee farthest?) Talking about a “boy” video game can be punishable. But girls can talk about what they do at home with little to no condemnation. Even many playground games such as baseball are forbidden  and in some schools bringing a bat to school is punishable. Nearly all of these forbidden games are the types of games boys are likely to play, and almost none are typical “girl” games. This can give the boys the impression that they are naturally “bad” and unwanted at school.

Libraries and reading material consists of nearly all fiction and relational based stories. Boys much prefer nonfiction and action based stories. However, many teachers and librarians think nonfiction will not expand thinking skills and  action stories tend to be labeled as promoting aggression so they are never placed on the shelves. Never mind thinking an entire book series about a boy in his underwear should ever be on the shelves! This results in many boys thinking that all reading is “girl stuff.”

Typical personal interactions between boys are sometimes deemed inappropriate. Silly as it sounds, even a firm handshake or congratulatory pat on the back are often not allowed at school. I heard a female psychologist once joke about how a male gets excited. She said the excitement flows from his body and out his hands and feet. She asked “why do boys have to jump up and put their hands in the air when a touchdown is scored? Why do they slap each other? Why high five?” I don’t know, but boys just do! Yet they are asked not to do any of that in school. Instead verbal praise using female type language is what is acceptable. In some schools a boy may not fist pump while blurting out “Way to destroy them. That was awesome.” Nor may he smack someone on the back and say “You are the man. You beat back that competition and now you are king!” Such actions and language would be seen as aggressive, arrogant and deemed inappropriate by many teachers. Many professional athletes and men in the workplace would be scolded in today’s schools.

Children in school are generally taught to be passive rather than assertive. Quiet and unquestioned obedience is most desired. While challenges are tolerated, they are rarely seen as a positive. When boys want to defend or stand up for a cause or principle, such actions are often frowned upon.

Zero tolerance policies almost always target undesired male behavior instead of girl behavior. Think about this. Can a 4th grade girl be expelled for nasty, catty talk which isolates or makes another girl cry? But a 4th grade boy can be expelled for bringing in his little pen knife. Or for drawing the school cut in half by a laser. I recall the infamous decision to suspend a 5 year old boy for taking bites out of his graham cracker and making it into a gun. Have we ever seen a girl get suspended for making her graham cracker into a magic wand that makes students she does not like disappear? When schools overreact, it is nearly always against boy behavior, not girl behavior.

Competition has been eliminated or at best only occasionally tolerated. Competition is a close cousin to conquering, something nearly all boys have a desire to do. (I have heard this challenged several times. Individuals will tell me that there is a whole generation of passive boys who hate sports, go home and play video games in their rooms all night. To which I say “Are you serious? What do you think they are doing on those video games? They are conquering something!)

proof-13Playgrounds have been made safer and have little to no opportunity for adventure or risk. The new safety push has resulted in playgrounds that are stationary and simple obstacle courses or suggestive imaginary play stations. Boys can move about on them, (which I admit is helpful.) Gone are children who learn to take risks, conquer a challenge and learn how to overcome difficulties. No wonder it is my experience that children now get bored with playgrounds at around 6 or 7 years old. Another problem is the time to play on those playgrounds has increasingly diminished. Some elementary schools now have 20 minutes total time for lunch and recess. All children need large muscle movement for oxygen, raising heart beats and clearing the mind. But boys appear to be more affected by lack of play.

Physical Education (PE) has been reduced. While PE is fairly recent, many schools eliminated their afternoon playtime in order to add PE. But now they have eliminated or reduced PE without bringing back afternoon playground time. Again, these changes seem to affect boys more than girls.

Deep tissue pressure has been eliminated due to “no touch” policies. Many boys like to bump and bang. They like firm hugs. They desire the deep tissue pressure. This often will help relax boys. But teachers are not allowed to hug students and often children are discouraged from touching each other. Again, this may be tolerated at times, but frowned upon. So the message a boy gets is that his natural inclination is only tolerated.

Daydreaming is scolded rather than redirected. Boys who daydream are told they have attention problems and are disobedient because they are willingly not fulfilling their duty to focus 100% of the time on what the teacher wants them to focus on. I have taught dozens of seminars to teachers. Trust me, they do not focus 100% of the time either. But for some reason they expect little boys to.


My heart breaks to think we send our little boys off to school, excited and loving and with a great desire to please their teachers. But willingly or not, the school system has made success difficult for our guys. But do not totally despair.

There is hope!

I am thankful there are some great schools and great teachers out there who are well aware of this issue and have worked tirelessly to help make boys feel comfortable at school. I have watched as school libraries have answered the call and now have many “boy interest” books. Some schools have tried to implement after school activities that help children be more active. Yet much still needs to be done.

Look for my next blog entry on this subject which will give parents some concrete ideas how to help their sons not merely survive school, but even thrive in school –

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Christian, husband, father, grandfather, and educator who finds it a privilege to blog with his daughter and daughter-in-law. My desire is to support Christian parents and help boys be understood and appreciated.

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  1. Pingback: From a Man – What I Want Moms to Know About BoysAll Boy Life

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