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Can boys be boys in the classroom?

Published on: October 07, 2008

Impish boyIt was the first day of school, and the children were bubbling with excitement. They couldn’t wait to see their friends, meet their teacher and start this business of learning. It was preschool.

Just as my son set off to reunite with his preschool friend, he got a twinkle in his eye and a skip in his walk. It turned into a jog as he dashed to greet his friend. Suddenly, his teacher confronted him, scolding him for “running in the classroom.”

The air came out of his first-day-of-school-excitement balloon faster than I could hug him and say I understood his enthusiasm and that he would still have an excellent day.

I left his class and drove to work; not even the bumper-to-bumper traffic or my lineup of morning meetings could distract me from what had happened. I thought, “He’s a boy, not a robot. He has feelings and emotions. He can’t keep every one of them pent up!”

Turns out countless parents have shared experiences such as this one.

“Many young boys are penalized for their more slowly developing verbal-linguistic skills and their needing a higher and more frequent level of physical activity than their female counterparts,” says Briana Bennitt, executive director of the Three Cedars Waldorf School in Bellevue.

Surprised boyWide gender gaps in the 2005 Washington Assessment for Student Learning (WASL) put parents of boys on high alert: According to a Seattle Times report, 60 percent of the boys in Washington’s high schools failed the WASL, compared with 54 percent of girls.

Reports about the ways boys struggle in the classroom continue to flood in — and not just in this state.

In August, the Colorado Department of Education reported that in Durango, Colorado, boys lag behind girls in both reading and math. And in California, a Vallejo Times-Herald headline announced, “Girls dominate top-level classes in Vallejo schools.”

What’s happening in our schools? Why do boys trail girls so consistently in education?

According to the National Institutes of Health, the regions of the brain develop in different sequences in girls and boys. Researchers at Wellesley College found that 3-and-a-half-year-old girls could interpret facial expressions as well or better than 5-year-old boys could.

“Despite the many strides in recent decades recognizing ‘multiple intelligences’ and ‘kinesthetic learning,’ many elementary classrooms are still quite biased in favor of verbal-linguistic communication and learning styles,” says Bennitt.

Can boys be themselves?

Parents of boys often wonder: Can our son be himself in class? Must he hide his own learning style so he can stay out of trouble and fit in?

Sammamish parent Lori Miller feels boys’ emotions are on their sleeves — and that teachers need to understand that. “Boys are not deep feelers or touchy-feely beings,” Miller says. “Teach them facts, teach them to figure, teach them to troubleshoot, analyze or create; teach them how the world works, teach them to read and write, but don’t ask them to feel something like a girl does.”

Miller says she became aware of gender bias in the classroom when her son was in kindergarten. “His kindergarten teacher had 16 students, nine of them boys. Of those nine, she requested that the parents of five of them put their sons on Ritalin (a popular ADD drug).” The teacher was the mother of seven children herself and had all three of her boys on the drug. “She thought it was a miracle to have them sit quietly — and that it made her job as a mom so much easier.”

Jubilant boyMiller refused to put her son on Ritalin. She told the principal about those requests, and the teacher was transferred to another school, but not before several other parents started their 5-year-old boys on Ritalin.

Helping boys succeed

Some teachers have made deliberate efforts to help boys succeed in the classroom. Michael Preston, eighth-grade teacher at Three Cedars Waldorf School in Bellevue, says his school has been able to transcend gender through a curriculum geared for all kids, “that caters to both traditional male and female preserves.” Examples include “soft” handwork throughout the grades such as sewing, knitting, dyeing, weaving and “hard” handwork in the upper grades: woodcarving and woodwork.

Tanisha Felder, second-grade teacher at Orca Elementary in Seattle, developed a creative solution to help all students get their “wiggles” out. “We dance to one song each morning and give the kids a chance to expend their energy,” she says. Felder says that encouraging races at recess is a good way to offset the “no running in the hallways” rule.

Releasing energy

The issue of physical activity comes up time and again among parents, teachers and experts. “I would identify physical energy as a characteristic that creates academic weakness,” Miller says. “Boys need to release energy far more often than girls so they can sit quietly in class and concentrate. They suppress physical outlets, especially in middle school.”

Bennitt worries that schools are limiting physical education and outdoor activities to focus on academics and test-taking skills. “In the Waldorf School, we view this as particularly cruel and unusual punishment for boys, who show us with their behavior just how physical they need to be throughout the day.”

Fifty years ago, kids played outside all afternoon after school, Bennitt points out. Today, they sit in cars, play video games, and are glued to homework at ever-increasingly younger ages. “It’s no wonder they’re telling us — in every way they can — that conventional schooling is not permitting them to move their bodies as much as they need to.”

Riled boyBennitt feels that the problems facing boys in the classroom begin with a modern lifestyle that finds kids overscheduled, deprived of sleep, filled up on junk food and immersed in electronic media. It’s unfair to condition boys this way and expect them to behave appropriately in class, she says.

What can parents do? By partnering with their child’s teacher, parents can better communicate their child’s needs and keep tabs on what’s happening in the classroom, educators suggest. And if parents have little choice in selecting which school their child attends, they should look for out-of-school activities that maximize their youngster’s physical energy and allow him to get those inevitable wiggles out.

Karen Dawson, owner of Dawson Communications Group, is a communications professional living in Maple Valley with her husband and two active, bright and loving sons.

Here’s how to help boys:

“Try to deeply understand your child, boy or girl. A boy may turn out to be a ‘Billy Elliott.’ It would be very sad if his parents wanted him to be a Marine or a football player!” — Michael Preston, eighth-grade teacher, Three Cedars Waldorf School

“Have a realistic perspective of your son’s areas of strength and areas for growth and improvement. Encourage and support your child … and your child’s teachers. Make it a partnership with your son, as well as with his teachers.”
— Polly Skinner, head of Villa Academy

“It’s important for parents to think about their child’s strengths and make sure the school offers those programs (art, physical education, music, drama, etc.). It is also helpful to teach students how to appropriately approach a teacher with a problem.”
— Austyn Fudge, fifth-grade teacher, Adelante Spanish Immersion School, Redwood City, California

“Parents can work closely with teachers to study the unique riddle that is their son and ensure that he is receiving support and sufficient boundaries.”
— Briana Bennitt, executive director, Three Cedars Waldorf School

“Be involved! Get your teacher’s email address and email weekly. Tell them about your child and speed up the relationship piece.”
— Tanisha Felder, second-grade teacher, Orca Elementary School

Suggested reading:

Why Gender Matters: What Parents and Teachers Need to Know About the Emerging Science of Sex Differences by Leonard Sax

200 Ways to Raise a Boy’s Emotional Intelligence: An Indispensible Guide for Parents, Teachers & Other Concerned Caregivers by Will Glennon, Jeanne Elium and Don Elium

Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men by Leonard Sax

Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson


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