How to Help the Learning of Boys at Home

Boys need competition, structure and more spacious learning areas.
Educating and Raising Boys by Michael Nagel

Why is it that boys are far more likely than girls to be expelled from school? And why are they twice as likely to be diagnosed with a behavioral or learning disorder? Furthermore, boys receive 70% of the ‘D’ and ‘F’ marks at school and only 40% of the ‘A’s.

Is it them, or is it how we raise and educate boys?

A researcher argues it’s the latter and he’s drawn on decades of research into neuroscience and educational insights. Associate Professor Michael Nagel, from Australia’s University of the Sunshine Coast, is a child development and learning expert. He wrote the recently published Educating and Raising Boys.

This Is Not New

He also wrote a book about the topic in 2005 saying then there was a “boy crisis” in the US, Canada and Australia.

“Boys were in trouble, and I’d presumed since then things had taken place to arrest that… [But] not a lot has changed, so as a result, we’re still seeing boys are struggling in most of the scholastic achievements.”

He blames the environment and expectations in place that often don’t meet the needs of most boys. In fact, normal boy behaviour is sometimes condemned as seen as inappropriate.

“In recognising that boys may have different behavioural tendencies and needs, teachers and all who work with boys, can avoid such deficient views of boyhood and find ways to meet those tendencies and needs,” Nagel says.

“We now differentiate based on cultural differences, learning difficulties, exceptionality, but seldom look at the difference between boys and girls. The way we teach boys in classrooms needs to be differentiated as well.”

The reality is a large number of boys find classrooms, quiet reading and homework routines problematic or seemingly inhospitable, during the school day and at home.

Different Wiring, Different Needs

Nagel argues schools favor girls because they’re better at sitting and listening than boys who need short movement breaks between and during class. In fact, boys have less of the hormones that help promote a sense of calm – serotonin and oxytocin. And that pans out over time as this research in female and male adult brains shows we are wired differently.

“There isn’t a developmental psychologist on the planet who’d say that a four-year-old should sit for long periods. So, if you’re putting a young boy at a desk, you’re setting him up for failure,” he says.

“If you have a four or five-year-old boy and ask him to copy letters, his brain and body get frustrated. He won’t put up his hand and say that. He’ll just throw his writing utensils across the room or push his friend. Whatever happens becomes grounds for aggressive behaviour, and it’s in the eye of the beholder.”

Ways Parents Can Help Learning in Boys

As we know, there are logistics and mandates that tie the hands of your son’s teachers and school requirements.  However, you are your son’s advocate in this process. You have the right to give your feedback on what’s working and what’s not during the school day. And you have the ability to manage what happens at home.

Homework and Reading Routines

Here’s are a few suggestions from Michael Nagel on ways to help boys thrive as learners:

  • Give them more physical space, e.g., they need more homework desk space than girls.
  • Allow boys to be more physical, e.g., allow for movement breaks in the homework and reading routines, so their learning is in small chunks
  • Don’t give them a hard seat – try a stool with a round base so they can swivel while learning. That engages their core strength, which helps with concentration.
  • Add competition, structure and discipline into the learning to help them engage more deeply, e.g., creating incentives, targets for good work, can be more effective.

Approaches to Learning for Boys

Most boys are neurologically wired to start reading and writing at around seven years old and in fact, that’s when children start being taught to read in high performing countries.  This has to do with the maturation of auditory processing skills around about seven years of age, but also due to the attentiveness needed to take in the language and thereby master automaticity in reading.

You need to have a  radar for masking behavior by your son as a reaction that stems from frustration with learning.  This is not easy as children want to please their families and their teachers. Many children are able to mask reading problems for a long time, into 3rd or 4th grade when the reading comprehension finally trips them up.  You are the world expert on your child. While the school can detect learning difficulties in later life, once a child should be reading x words a minute or comprehending in reading at a certain level.  Until that age though, they are relying more on observation. That’s where you can help.

Being Proactive

Understand that your child experiencing shame, embarrassment, inadequacy or anger means they’re likely to shut down from learning.  Boys will search out a practical solution to their own or others’ stress. Their brain is ‘hardwired for systemizing’, action and problem-solving.  Hiding their difficulties by faking it or by acting out and trying to change the subject are two common approaches.  And when you think about it, who can blame them.  Learning and reading is their day job. If that is challenging, you can understand why these kinds of reactions might occur.

Once you understand a learning problem or a reading problem, you need to rethink.  The above strategies for learning for boys can only take you so far.  Shame and anger won’t motivate your son to learn, only trigger them to shut down or react.   In addition you might need to push back on the school if they are not seeing your child the way you and asking too much, too early – it is important not to create a negative emotional connection to reading and/or learning as that could last a lifetime.

In addition, if your child is struggling with learning, you might want to consider remediation. It is possible in most cases to use neuroscience-based learning programs like Fast ForWord, offered by Gemm Learning,  to help boys and girls  build the cognitive skills needed to be comfortable learners and readers.  The program helps children who are slow readers or who resist reading, as well as children diagnoses such as dyslexia, APD or ADHD.and more.

Reach out to Gemm Learning here  to see if it could help your child with their learning struggles.