What Works With Boys? Part 1: The Research

By Mel West, Teaching and Learning Coach

A few months ago, I began doing background research for a project to support a group of underachieving Year 9 boys. Before beginning I read extensively about the reasons why boys in their mid-teen years sometimes have a hard time engaging with school, and what we can do about it. This is a summary of my research.

Boys’ brains develop later than girls’ at several stages

On average, boys develop fine motor skills later than girls

For some boys, their disaffection with school starts from the very moment they first enter a classroom at the age of 4 or 5.

It has been proven that girls develop fine motor skills earlier than boys, meaning that in infant school girls are more likely to draw better, colour more neatly, write more legibly and use scissors more precisely. At this age, neatness is often seen as a sign of effort, meaning that boys’ effort goes unrecognised and unrewarded because their outcomes are not as pretty. This early experience of repeated failure and comparison to others can often mean boys have a low opinion of their ability to do well at school from a very young age.

Coupled with this is the fact that the part of the brain controlling reading also develops later in boys. In comparison to girls, they may begin to see themselves as non-readers at a very early age. We know that many boys claim to find reading difficult, or not be interested in it. If an early sense of failure has discouraged them from trying, and therefore they have not developed the skills of decoding, fluency and vocabulary over time, then by the time they reach secondary school they are likely to be telling the truth. There may be nothing inherent in them which makes them poor readers, but because they missed the “training”, they are losing the race.

At adolescence, boys also develop later than girls. They experience a period of disorientation around the ages of 13 and 14, coupled with likely sudden growth, where their main focus is on working out who they are and where they stand in the hierarchy. During this period, adolescent boys do not use both sides of the brain to solve problems in the way that girls do. Research demonstrates that they struggle to connect emotions (right brain) with rational (left brain) thoughts, meaning that they often handle situations badly, have no insight into their emotional reaction to challenge, and find it difficult to see the path ahead when they face difficulty.

Crucially, there is no evidence to suggest that, across their educational experience, boys’ brains make them less able learners. Gender does not have that impact on neurology. However, what can happen is that boys’ attitudes and habits are set at the points where brain development is different between boys and girls, and these attitudes and habits can inhibit their ability to learn across their time at school.

Low self-esteem

Early, repeated failure can contribute to low self-esteem

The fact that some boys experience early and repeated failure has a direct link to their self-esteem. We all know that failure saps motivation, and without switched-on teachers and parents in the early years some boys will internalise this sense of themselves as failures. Furthermore, without seeing their efforts rewarded, boys will seek alternative ways to assert themselves, including the loud, disruptive behaviour common in schools. This can start as early as infant school, and become a habitual response to challenge.

In teenage years, boys have strong risk-taking tendencies. A few hundred years ago boys at this age would have been working, and a few thousand years ago they would have been hunting and trapping to feed their women and children. Nowadays, boys who are physically evolving into hunter-gatherers are sitting behind desks, and unsurprisingly some struggle. Without a positive history of education, their risk-taking needs are channelled into boundary-pushing rather than taking on academic and personal challenges. They are unfamiliar with the thrill of achievement in school, so they seek the thrill of notoriety, disruption and “banter”.

At this point, too, boys’ status within the peer group is crucial. Failure is seen as unmanly, as is, perhaps, exerting your effort behind a desk rather than on a football field or in a boxing ring. Therefore it is preferable to mess around and opt out rather than try and fail. Equally, their strong sense of their place in the social hierarchy can confirm their already low opinion of themselves. Boys with low self-esteem will often ignore what they know to be right in favour of being accepted, a choice which does nothing to bolster their true self-esteem.

A lack of engagement with their learning, particularly a lack of vocabulary, results in poor emotional literacy. Without the ability to identify, understand or express their emotions, boys continue to react unconsciously and unreflectively. They repeat the same mistakes, dig their heels in when challenged, and choose to save face rather than back down from conflict.

Unhelpful ideas about manhood, such as “boys don’t cry”, “boys are tough”, “boys cope by themselves” prevent them from seeking help. In studies, these beliefs were strongly correlated to depression and suicidal thoughts in boys. Unsettled home lives also play into this; in households with lone parents, boys are less likely to ask for help because they feel they should protect the parent, often the mother. Equally, where parents are openly emotional or unstable children are less likely to seek help.

Why some boys and not others?

We are all cognitively different, and not all boys will react in the same way to failure. Some are naturally more resilient, and some may develop differently and not experience the failure at all. This could be because they fared well when comparing themselves to others or because switched-on teachers meant that their early education experiences were not linked to their fine motor skills and concentration span. (There is a reason why many educationally advanced countries do not start children at school until the age of 7, when boys have had a chance to catch up!)

There is also a key role for parents to play in establishing opportunities for success from an early age, and helping to frame failure as an opportunity for growth. Growing up in an environment of unconditional acceptance rather than judgement and comparison makes boys more accepting of occasional failure rather than internalising it as a measure of their self-worth. Equally, boys with a diverse range of interests and skills outside the classroom are also more likely to experience success at a young age.

The male role models a boy has are also important in him developing a sense of self. A boy who receives models of male aggression, emotional unavailability or a lack of boundaries is likely to emulate these qualities in his own life, and internalise these as an idea of what a man is. Equally, if a boy sees his female primary school teacher reading but never sees his dad or older brother pick up a book, he is likely to develop the idea that reading is not something men do. Where boys grow up with stable, emotionally connected male role models they are given the opportunity to cultivate the skills needed to become both socially and academically resilient.


Many boys’ greatest fear is being perceived as weak

Researcher Brene Brown, who writes about shame and vulnerability, highlights a key difference between men and women when it comes to a sense of shame. In women, shame is linked to unattainable expectations of who they are supposed to be. In men, the cause of shame is very simple: being perceived as weak.

A sense of shame could be identified as one of the biggest indicators of future success. A strong sense of shame correlates to addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying and suicide. If we link boys’ school experiences, and the challenges outlined above, to this idea of shame we can see that school is a place where many boys may feel that they are weak both socially and academically. If challenged about homework by a teacher, a boy with a fear of being seen as weak is far more likely to fight back than accept defeat. If challenged by a task, a struggling boy will quickly adopt the perceived stronger position of refusal and denial rather than risk failure, uncertainty and emotional exposure.

This indicates that the way we should handle teenage boys, if we want optimal results, cooperation and personal development, is to actively teach courage. Brown defines courage as:

  • The acceptance of vulnerability
  • Clarity of values
  • Trust
  • “Rising skills” (the ability to get back up and try again)

Trust must be central to the teacher-student relationship. A boy who is already struggling emotionally cannot relax and perform at his best if he is uncertain of the way he will be treated by a teacher, or believes he will be publicly outed for failure.

The power of school

The shocking statistic is that in her research, Brown discovered that 85% of people can remember an incident at school so shaming that it forever changed how they thought of themselves.

Let’s be honest: it’s likely that teachers are largely recruited from the remaining 15% of people who had positive experiences of school and generally experienced success. However, we must not underestimate the impact we may unintentionally have on the 85%. Not everyone has the same toolkit.

The most heartening statistic is that 90% of people can remember a staff member who made them believe in themselves. Teachers with an understanding of the needs of their students are in a uniquely powerful position to teach them to be courageous. It is a long task, which ideally should begin as soon as they start school, but it can be done.

And what could be more worthwhile?

Further reading:

  • The Best of Boys by Claire Gillman
  • Manhood by Steve Biddulph
  • Blame My Brain by Nicola Morgan
  • Raising Boys in the 21st Century by Steve Biddulph
  • When the Adults Change, Everything Changes by Paul Dix
  • Brene Brown: Listening to Shame and The Power of Vulnerability (TED Talks)

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