Ask any teacher to name the most baffling student to teach, and that student is likely to be a boy. “He’s so capable, but he just doesn’t work,” or “He could do so well if he would just pay attention.” The teacher’s remarks will probably reflect a belief that the student has the academic skills to do well, but won’t apply himself. Some believe that boys learn this behavior, but if that were true, why is the same behavior so universal? It is more likely that similarly gendered brain development is the underlying foundation for this challenging behavior.
Cognitive gender differences are complex and it is hard to demonstrate conclusively that specific brain structures are linked to observable behaviors, but there is evidence for five of the most common problems that boys have in school.
1. Verbal Delay
At birth, the left side of the brain is developing more rapidly in girls and the right more rapidly in boys. Of course, there are variations among children, but generally this is true. The left side of the brain is where the verbal center begins and the right is where spatial skills are centered. This differential development is why a 20-month-old girl has, on average, twice the vocabulary of a 20-month-old boy. By the time children get to kindergarten, that difference may have narrowed a bit, but there is still a difference and, furthermore, there is an expectation that the difference exists. Additionally, little boys are more likely to have ear infections, which could mean they don’t hear what people say to them very well and therefore miss some of what they should be learning. What this means is that when boys enter school they may not be quite as ready for reading as most girls.
- Read to all children every day – hearing language helps children learn language as the sound of the written word is different from the way we speak. In order to learn to read, all children need to have some experience with what the written word sounds like.
- Give little boys picture books and older boys graphic novels – having the opportunity to link pictures to words may help them learn the words.
2. Need for hands-on learning
The research in this area is not as robust, but indications are that boys learn better when they can have an active part in the lesson. Every teacher has noticed that boys tend to be more engaged in the lesson when there is something for them to do. This may be part of the reason that boys like math better, because the work of solving problems is more interesting than reading about doing them. Science also affords many opportunities for experiential learning. The major issues that boys have in school generally occur in language-based classes where much of what happens in class is reading and listening. Any opportunity for students to write will capitalize on boys’ skills, especially if technology is involved.
- Duplicate a sentence onto stiff paper and cut up the words. Challenge the students to put the words together to make the sentence. You can do the same thing duplicating the sentences in a paragraph and having the students put the sentences in order.
- Have students build a map from a story by using the description of a location in something they are reading. They can work in small groups, locating the relevant passages in the text, and then translating those descriptions into a design.
3. Movement does not mean lack of attention
Many boys get into trouble in class because they find it difficult to sit still and teachers may assume that the boy who is moving is not paying attention. One study found that boys who had something to manipulate in their hands such as a fiddle toy got better grades than boys who were not allowed to mess with something. Boys are wiggly and if required to sit still tend to put all their energy into not moving with the result that they find it difficult to pay attention. It may seem strange that moving results in attention, but many boys are going to move and if you let them move in ways that are not distracting, they can pay better attention to the lesson.
- Standing desks work well for some boys. Little children can stand at their desks and older children can put a sturdy box on their desk to raise their work up. Alternatively, children can use exercise balls for desk chairs – they can wiggle a little without running the risk of tipping over their chair.
- For the very wiggly boy, let him pace a bit in the back of the classroom. He can get up and walk, but only if he does not bother anyone or call attention to himself. It is astounding how much better some boys can pay attention when they are moving.
4. Charts, tables, graphs
Many teachers report that some students can describe the pictures in a text book, but cannot remember the text and many of those students will be boys. Any strategy that helps students link words and pictures will help with memory. It is in the right hemisphere that spatial skills begin, and boys consistently demonstrate good skills in manipulating objects in space. Arranging words into charts or tables may make that information easier to understand or recall. Obtaining information from large blocks of text is more difficult for many males who may find it easier to understand the same information when arranged in a graphical format. This is one reason why it is important for boys to learn to outline so that when they write, they do not stray from the structure of their essay.
- Start a lesson by directing the students to look at the pictures in the text and trying to figure out what information is illustrated by the pictures then link words to the pictures.
- Older boys may benefit from outlining the chapter in the text for the class. Certainly, the author used an outline to write the material. Challenge the boys to find that outline in the text.
5. Relationship with teacher is key
A study conducted at boys’ schools around the world revealed that what mattered most to boys was the relationship that they had with their teacher. Parents frequently report that their son will not work for a teacher whom he believes does not like him or in a course which he does not like. This may be linked to boys’ earlier development of the amygdala which is the structure in the brain that reacts in times of strong emotion. There is no question that boys are very emotional, but may have problems expressing their emotions because of a lack of verbal fluency.
- Have students develop lists of adjectives based on the behavior of a character in a book being read in class. How many different ways can they think of to describe the character’s behavior? This will help students develop an emotional vocabulary.
- If a teacher senses that a student is distancing himself, ask the boy to talk about the troubles he is having in class. Listening to his difficulties will let him know that that the teacher cares and is interested in him. Make sure that the talk takes place in an inconspicuous time or place.
A more comprehensive discussion of these issues as well as many more together with lots of strategies can be found in Teaching the Male Brain: How Boys Think, Feel, and Learn in School 2nd Ed. (2015).