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Boys Struggling In School: How Can Parents Help?

Girls have made great strides in the last few decades. And boys? Well, plenty of boys are doing just fine, thank you very much. They’re thriving at school and on the playing field, not to mention at theater, dance or whatever else they’re passionate about. Sure, they stumble at times, just like girls, but that’s to be expected. They are, after all, teenagers.

But when Your Teen took a look at some of the statistics about boys, we wondered, “Is all well in boyland?” Take, for example, the data on academics. More boys drop out of high school than girls. Boys get worse grades than girls. And fewer boys graduate from college.

Struggling Boys in School

So, what’s up? Why are boys struggling in school? Although girls, as a whole, have always gotten better grades than boys in elementary school, boys used to zoom past their female classmates during high school. “We put psychological barriers on girls and didn’t encourage them to take physics or higher math; we sent them into home economics,” explains Michael G. Thompson, child psychologist and co-author of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys. “We have to see the brilliance of the women’s movement as freeing women. Now, girls outperform boys in elementary school, middle school, high school, college and graduate school.”

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, boys are 30 percent more likely than girls to flunk or drop out of school and four or five times more likely to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). From elementary through graduate school, females are more diligent about homework and earn higher grades. Women earn 56 percent of bachelor’s degrees and 55 percent of graduate degrees.

Differences Between Boys’ and Girls’ Behavior

The bottom line: while many boys are successfully navigating our academic system these days, many are not. Why? Biology plays a role in this. Simply put, boys are wired differently than girls. “Boys are more physical and impulsive in school, and they process language in a different way,” Thompson says. “It makes school more challenging for them. It’s always been like that for middle school boys, who don’t think school is a place to help them become strong men. Boys believe the place where they’ll become a man is outside of school—sports, video games and whatever commands the respect of their peers. Girls don’t see school as an obstacle to becoming a woman.”

The typical classroom model of arriving on time, sitting still, listening to lectures, taking notes and submitting assignments on the due date works for most girls. But it is not boy-friendly, a situation worsened by the emphasis on standardized testing over the past decade.

“Boys are active. They need to move around. By the end of the class period, they want to have done something,” explains Tim Viands, Head of School of the all-boys Grand River Academy in Austinburg, Ohio. “But in many of our schools, standardized testing drives the curriculum. So, a huge amount of time is spent in class preparing for these tests. Multiple choice, rote memorization—all these kinds of things that girls are a lot better at than boys.”

Boys and the Achievement Gap

Peg Tyre, author of The Trouble With Boys: A Shocking Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School and What Parents and Educators Must Do, agrees. Schools, she says, should embrace boys’ active tendencies, help them master reading and writing (subjects in which girls outpace boys significantly) and deemphasize neatness.

Yes, neatness. “Boys realize that their ability to stay organized and neat, and indeed, their interest in staying organized and neat, is less than their female counterparts’,” she explains. “They begin to look at school as a game they can’t win. So, they don’t play. Grade kids on what they know, not on putting sparkles and feathers on their book report, and boys will do better.”

The prevalence of boys diagnosed with ADHD may also contribute to the achievement gap. Sitting still and remaining engaged for extended periods are tasks that are particularly challenging for those diagnosed with the condition. Take Ben Thurstone, now 19, and a Kent State University freshman. When he reached ninth grade, teachers mistook his relentless questions as disruptive and borderline disrespectful. But, his mother, Melissa, argued that Ben’s peppering the teacher with questions was how he compensated for ADHD and an auditory processing disorder. It took several conversations with his teachers to help them adjust to his learning style.

Helping Boys In School: What Can Parents Do?

So, how can parents help their sons succeed at school? As Melissa discovered, advocacy is key, especially if your son struggles academically.

“Go to the school. Talk to the teachers. Talk to the guidance counselors,” Grand River’s Viands recommends. “What are you doing to engage my son in the learning process? Getting in trouble for not paying attention or talking out of turn can be symptoms of being disengaged.”

Some boys may simply do better in an environment that is more tailored to their particular needs. Austin Lackritz, 15, has ADHD and dysgraphia, a handwriting and learning disorder. He took (and continues to take) medications, worked with an interventionist and was granted a scribe for essay tests. Still, the transition from middle school to high school was excruciating. Midway through ninth-grade, he transferred to a Cleveland-area private school for children with different learning styles. Now a sophomore, Austin is exposed to teaching methods that complement how his brain works and has grown from a C to an A-minus student. But, says Austin’s mom, high expectations were also critical to getting her son on track.

Staying on Track

When Austin struggled to complete assignments, his parents required him to stay after school to do homework, took away screen time and monitored the school’s online grade viewer. His mother sat at the kitchen table doing her own work while he toiled. They also allowed him to stumble, including failing algebra in 8th grade. “We needed to let him fail this class and have to take it again. It was not just about algebra, but about his inability to prepare,” said his mother. Austin retook the class and is excelling at math at his new school.

Positive reinforcement—or praise—is also important when it comes to motivating boys. But, make sure it’s the right kind of praise, Viands says. “Boys know what fake praise is.” So, what’s real? “Look for even the slightest sign of improvement, maybe a D to C in math. That’s an opportunity to say, ‘That’s great. I am proud of you. Let’s keep that up,’” Viands explains. This kind of real praise can help validate a boy’s effort and make him want to do more. “When boys are struggling at school, they are beaten down. We need to build them up and that only happens through positive and genuine praise,” Viands says.

Positive Reinforcement

Meanwhile, a positive male influence can also help. “Make sure boys see their dads reading and writing—and understand the value of being a literate man in society,” Tyre says. That includes helping boys with homework, often the domain of moms. “Boys say, ‘School is something run by women during the day and something that makes my mom nuts at night, so this whole enterprise is a woman thing,’” Raising Cain’s Thompson observes. But, they might think differently if their fathers are more involved in the academics and the extracurriculars. “Boys who see dads come to school for non-athletic events tend to get higher grades,” Tyre adds.

John Paydo, a seventh-grade counselor, also encourages parents to bring students to parent-teacher conferences and reach out to school staff as much as possible. Says Paydo: “The partnership between home and school is so important.”

Nina Polien Light

Nina Polien Light is a freelance writer in Cleveland, Ohio.