« We’re killing kids’ ambitions. Why? | Main | Does the “IKEA effect” apply to children? »

February 07, 2013

What's causing the boy crisis?

Connie Matthiessen, Associate Editor Back to school

"What do you expect? He’s a boy!"

If you have a son you hear this refrain a lot — people employ it to explain everything from sloppy personal habits to lackluster grades to the jacket that goes missing over and over again.

Boy brain!” people quip when a teen side-swipes the family car (with the other family car), or dashes out of the house leaving the front door wide open, or, after being nagged for years about his grades, confesses during his first semester at a mediocre college that he wishes he’d worked harder in high school.   

But it’s not funny, not really, that so many of our boys stop reading books, perform poorly  in school , and  worse — drop out, abuse drugs, and languish in prison. Of course, girls aren't perfect, either, but statistics make the case for a yawning gender gap: girls consistently out perform boys in school; boys are far more likely than girls to repeat a grade or drop out, and boys are twice as likely to end up in juvenile detention. Girls now earn 60 percent of college degrees, and the gap is even wider for minorities: black women are nearly twice as likely to receive a college degree as their male counterparts, for example. 

Boys misbehaving

The boy crisis has received plenty of attention: there are entire books on the subject, including The Trouble With Boys, by Peg Tyre and Richard Whitmire’s, Why Boys Fail.

Now the issue is in the public eye again because of a recent article published in the The Journal of Human Resources, which found that, beginning in kindergarten, behavior is a major factor in how teachers assign grades. Since boys don’t behave as well as girls, they receive lower grades than their test scores would predict. 

In other words, from their earliest school years boys receive grades based in part on “non-cognitive” skills that girls develop much earlier, including the ability to sit still, pay attention, participate and demonstrate knowledge in the classroom, and generally show a positive attitude toward learning.

The implication of this research is that, because of these non-cognitive lags, boys fall behind in school early and never really catch up. As one of the study authors told Christina Hoff Sommers, “If grade disparities emerge this early on, it’s not surprising that by the time these children are ready to go to college, girls will be better positioned.”

These findings are important: we clearly need to create more academic environments that take into account differences in boys’ learning styles, as Hoff Summers suggests. It’s also important, as Sara Mead points out in in Education Week, that we help boys develop essential non-cognitive skills that will serve them — not just in school but in every aspect of life.

Mind the (gender) gap

Still, for all the research that’s being done on the gender gap, it strikes me that we haven’t gotten to the bottom of this issue yet. I found this observation by a college professor, writing in response to Hoff Sommer’s article, particularly disturbing:

“…Most of my female students are hungry! Hungry for success, hungry for knowledge, hungry for whatever they need to get where they want to go. My female students track me down for meetings, advice and tips on how to get where they want to go. They ask all the right questions and are seriously thinking about their futures. This includes white, Black, Asian American and Latino female students.

A lot of my male students are complacent! They sit in my classes, never meet with me and never try to get information that they might need. I never know what their intended plans are or if they have any since they don't engage me outside of class.

The difference is striking! I don't know how things got to be this way but it is very sad and doesn't bode well for this country.

You’ve got to wonder: why aren't these boys as hungry to learn and shape their futures as their female counterparts? Should we hold them responsible, or are parents, educators, and society as a whole somehow letting our boys down? 

I’d love to hear what you think….


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

I raised an active boy. 11 years later, I am raising a girl. You can bet that it's easier for her in school.

I celebrate the differences in biology and I warn parents of active boys to advocate loudly for what they need.

If I knew then what I know now....sigh.

Why do we assume that this behavior from college boys means they don't care? What else could it mean? Are they following the stereotypical, "I need to accomplish this lone wolf style"? is it because they think the teacher doesn't care about them whereas girls have been taught about caring and being cared for? We, as educators, need to learn to reach out in a different way to boys. It is our responsibility, not the boy's.

I think the is all exacerbated by No Child/Race To The Top, which forces focus away from recess time, the arts, physical and social learning and, more crucially, from critical thinking. The idea of my 5 year old son going to kindergarten next year, where he'll go from having 2-3 hours per day to run around at preschool to 20-45 minutes at best for recess in kindergarten is horrifying. He loves to learn right now, but also loves to play. I watch his contemporaries suffering in kindergarten, and they are already developing the "I hate school" mindset.

If we don't want to actually leave our boys behind, we've got to start teaching to the whole child, and embracing the differences between the genders.

I have 3 boys, two of them dealing with disabilities, ie, Autism Spectrum Disorder and ADHD. All are very bright, the oldest having tested as Gifted, as I did as a child. The other two not tested yet, but their intelligence shines through.
I had my own undiagnosed problems as a child, and graduated high school at the appropriate age due solely to my intelligence, as I got little or no help from the system.
I see this now with my sons. They were identified early and received Spl Ed, but are now in regular classes, and struggling. Because boys are the majority in special needs, they tend to be given short shrift, as if its hopeless, boys being boys you know.
My sons do not hate school. Its no problem getting them up and off to school, although they love snow days, and are highly active when they can be.
I don't want my boys neglected and their gifts wasted in a system that neglects males. But I feel as if I am beating a dead horse for all anyone cares.

I am experiencing this very topic with my 7 yo son in second grade. When will this society realize that boys and girls are educated differently! Most girls are able to sit still and appear to focus, where our young boys are judged and graded according to their inability to sit still and focus! Teacher's need to be more sensitive to this disparity! And stop labeling our boys as being unable to focus and easily distracted.

Informative! My 6yr old kindergarten son is already telling me he hates school! He is an accelerated learner and active and playful. He is FRUSTRATED to have to be quiet and still for so many hours every day. We walk home(I bring his scooter) so he can cut loose right after school and he gets to play outside (or inside) for an hour or so before starting homework. I have noticed his frustration level is better, but still he's ancy. His school DID AWAY WITH MORNING RECESS for kindergarten only and actual playtime at lunch is 20 minutes...not enough to stay focused and content sitting in a desk for most boys. My daughter (14yrs) would have had no problem with this schedule, but my little son (who dreams of running around in the sunshine) is frustrated. The BLESSING in our particular circumstance is that he has a kind teacher who does not scream or use shame to keep order in a class of 25 5&6 yr olds. 1st grade is coming. Morning recess will be restored and the boys continue to grow and mature. Until them, we play outside alot, get together with friends and stay consistent to keep him stimulated and happy. Other than that, I don't know what else to do! God bless little, busy boys!

Sorry, guys, but if your boy is unable to focus and easily distracted, it's your boy's problem, not society's. I'm a teacher and the parent of a boy who did very well in school and is now doing very well in college. I never heard "What do you expect? He's a boy" from "society" in reference to my son. I do hear "What do you expect? He's a boy" ALL THE TIME from parents in reference to their own misbehaving sons. I don't mean squirmers, chair-tilters, need-to-get-up-and-movers. Teachers with brains in their heads don't expect any children, boys or girls, to sit silently with their hands neatly folded, and parents who constantly complain that "teachers don't know what to do with boys" are delusional. Teachers aren't cloistered nuns--we have sons, husbands, brothers, nephews, grandsons. Heck, some teachers even used to be boys themselves! I hear the "he's a boy" nonsense from parents of the kids whose behavior makes it impossible for me to do my best work teaching the students whose parents have taught them that they don't need to be constantly entertained in order to behave themselves, that they are not the glowing center of the universe, that they're responsible for their own actions, and that they are perfectly capable of behaving as civilized human beings, regardless of their gender. If you're constantly hearing from your kid's teachers that your kid is disruptive, stop making excuses and hold your darling boy responsible for his actions.

Labelling a child as disruptive is far different than appreciating the differences of children. As an active parent in the schools, I certainly know the difficulties that increased class size has brought on teachers, but blaming a kid is not acceptable, and I'd expect more from our teachers.

I don't want my son to disrupt the classroom, but expecting a five year old to sit for hour upon hour and color worksheets and sit on the rug like a soldier is a recipe for disaster.

Thankfully, my kids' teachers have embraced transitional periods as a way to keep them moving and better able to focus.

I teach grades 6 - 8 at a school with a project based curriculum. My boys are engaged and energetic, particularly when they are physically active and working on something that interests them. There are many factors contributing to boys "decline" but one reason certainly is classroom teaching style. Mostly it is language based - great for most girls. So many women teachers can't deal with boy energy so they punish boy's active and talkative ways. Get boys out of their seats and working on something that interests them and you will see them excel.

Social problems are complex and their solutions must be as well. However, I believe a hint of the solution was posited in the question, "Should we hold them responsible?" Yes, yes and yes. Everyone should be held responsible for their own actions. Much of the worlds pain comes from people who are not. For far too long boys have been given a pass. Example - Boys will be boys. They need to know the world will no longer be handed to them. The playing field has been leveled and they need to work hard for their goals as girls have. Perhaps part of their troubled scholastic success is simply that they are no longer routinely told that they're naturally smarter than girls.

Boys need to spend more of their day running, jumping, playing and talking. Then they will be able to make the most of their classroom time.

I teach sports to children ages 4-17. The boys are naturally so much more active, on average, than the girls. 80% of the girls tire sooner and enjoy sitting and talking quietly with each other. Some of the girls are more like boys and play hard, and vice versa.

That's just one person's observations. We are not doing our kids -- boys especially -- any favors with the cutbacks in recess time and lunch play time.

Erin, listen to shovelready. The boys have to learn to work together and depend on each other and of course also be accountable. They are usually less collaborative than girls but more willing to follow a strong leader. Best teacher strategy is picking initial leader then letting new leadership evolve. Not easy but what is ? Also of course more active involvement allowed.

Instead of looking at gender differences, how about we consider learning differences. What you describe as being a "boy" problem could just as well be a girl who doesn't fit the stereotypical female student who will sit still for an entire day. I have been teaching for over 20 years and also have 3 boys at home. They all have different learning styles, my 2nd child has been the most challenging merely because it requires that I engage him with more one on one interactions as well as teaching with a different perspective. He is a creative soul and learns best when presenting material in imaginative concepts. For example, if I need him to keep his body calm, I have asked him to pretend to be the the trunk of a tree. He has that image in his mind and is able to hold it while we engage in other activities with his hands or his mind. Granted, no classroom teacher could possibly provide this type of individual attention to a classroom of 25 students, but isn't it the parents' responsibility to reinforce appropriate behaviors at home and to constantly communicate with the teacher about their child's learning style to allow that child to have the best success possible? Another example was the suggested use of the iPad Math application exercise program called Xtra Math at home to practice basic math facts. This same son was having trouble achieving the expected goals in answering the math facts. I sat with him to see what was happening. Two things: 1) he is left handed and the key pad was showing up on the right hand of the screen causing him to slow down 2) the screen was popping up all sorts of other distractions related to score and progress that caused his eyes to look and attempt to register also causing him to slow down on this TIMED exercise. The basic skill that was being assessed --answering basic math facts--which I knew he could do, was showing that he was incompetent and was receiving the lowest possible score. It wasn't until I emailed the teacher to let her know these things that she realized as well that the program was not suitable for my son. My advice? Understand your child's learning style and communicate with his teacher.

Look at their male role models in media: Action heroes, athletes, and military and armed law enforcement characters. No scholars, few scientists (except those in CSI, law, and sci-fi roles), and many, many hours of sports programming in media and in towns in America. They are constantly shown that masculinity means athletic achievement, not academic. It''s cool and popular to be into sports, not science or the arts. Money is thrown at athletic programs and arts/music/writing/history scholarship is starved. They are told it's not manly but nerdy to be an academic success. They spend more time on fields and courts than libraries, museums, labs or on computers (except to view action and sports videos and games). Their values are trained and skewed away from academics, they are rewarded in sports and taunted in academics, and shown that violent action, not study, is glorified in everything on every type of screen. Hours and billions are devoted to athletics; we don't eveny have "College Bowl"-type shows on TV anymore showing stellar students achieving. American values are the cause of boys' achievement declines, not teachers or hormones.

Absolutely true, EMM. It simply is not cool to be academically successful if you are a boy. Unfortunately, many teachers subtly reinforce this idea. As the mother of two teenage girls and two teenage boys, all of whom are athletes, I have found that girls get more encouragement, positive reinforcement, and more "breaks" from teachers (extra credit opportunity, more lenient grading, deadlines extended). Amongst their peers, girls can be both athletic and academic, but boys are categorized as one or the other (jock or nerd) and treated accordingly. Boys get the same message from peers, teachers, coaches and society in general: it is not manly to excel in academics.

Those breaks have been given to male athletes for decades, along with excused absence from classes for sporting events. Only since Title IX have girls been offered the same. Just as boys are not succeeding, the USA is every year falling behind other countries in Sci, Tech, Engineering, Math and space initiatives, and most other areas (e.g., great classical musicians, scholars, doctors, etc.). Those countries do not have the athletic/violent action media focus the US continues to promote and reward. Hence, fewer scholars, fewer advanced degrees, more crime, etc. among American males and less national advancement, except on playing fields and on courts, and as the study shows, more involvement in criminal courts.

I have noticed that when my son gets recess and is able to run around and burn off energy, he does better in class. We noticed in his last school that when he didn't get to burn off energy, his behavior worsened at school. One teacher said that if the P.E. teacher had them doing something that required sitting, he would have my son run laps. My son behaved better and got his work done and he enjoyed it. The teachers at his school have been reasonable with him. They expect him to get his work done, and they keep me informed of what's going on. I also spend time with my son, helping him with his homework. I read to him every night which is when he tells me his side of things. I feel it's important to be involved, talk to our sons, And give the boys plenty of exercise.

I appreciate the open and mostly objective discussion regarding gender differences. While we are in this mode, has as anyone considered the possible consequences of the fact that about 95% of elementary teachers are women? Is there any data regarding achievement gaps in any learning environments where the teachers are predominantly men?

Doesn't it make you wonder about the rate at which boys are diagnosed as ADD / ADHD? The way school days are structured, children spend the majority of time sitting at a desk. Teachers KNOW that children have different learning styles but by and large cater to one type. Large class sizes also make it difficult to differentiate instruction for our tactile/kinesthetic learners. Many (subconciously) wish parents to medicate their children to make their life easier. It's a national epidemic that needs to be addressed.....

The fact that these young men aren't reaching out in class can not steroetypically be said to be because they are not hungry for knowledge. That is a poorly based guess with no basis of truth other than the professor's closed minded opinion. There are many possibilities, but it is hard to pin the cause to one given reason without considering geographic location, community trends, personal cognitive processes and many other contributing factors. It could be that these young men have been taught to fend for themselves and consider asking for help to be weak. It could be that some are too tired from sport activities. It could be that some have an overwhelming home life that takes up thier mental energy. It could be that some really want to be learning something else but the only way they could go to college is if they take what thier parents wanted them to do. I could go on and on about the possibilities. However I do believe this is a subject worth further research.

As the mother of a 16-year old male, I certainly see the difference myself.

We are amidst a complete paradigm shift - going from the reductionist mechanistic view of reality to a more holistic view that says everything in the universe is interconnected, inter-related and affect each other. You could say we are shifting out of a masculine view to a feminine.

This is a confusing time for our children, as the world shifts quickly. There is a pull to continue the "old ways"- get educated, go to college, get a job, get married, have kids, have grandkids, retire, die. Our children are smarter than this - they feel this shift occurring more than we know, even if their parents or teachers aren't talking about it. The world is in a crisis of perception, and so are our children.

Girls are encouraged for their more "feminine" feeling and relationship qualities, while boys are pushed to be more success oriented. Is it no wonder, then, that our boys may on some level sense that the old ways aren't going to work in our "new" world, especially when they are not acknowledged for their more "feminine" qualities? It may be more difficult to then feel a sense of purpose or passion, unsure of their place in the world.

I coached high school cross country and track for several years at a large high school. One of the observations I had during this time was that the girls on the team were much more willing to approach me after their race or practice and wanted to genuinely hear my opinion or get feedback on their performance and how they could improve. The boys were less inclined to seek feedback or advice or be verbal at all. They were confident, not shy or avoiding. They just preferred to not collaborate. There were exceptions of course.

EMM brings up the topic of media and I think this relates very strongly. Julianne says we are in a crisis of perception and I strongly agree. Our kids are exposed to media the majority of the day (facebook, cell phones, magazines, movies, music, tv, video games). People learn more from media than any single source of information. This the creating consciousness as it always had, but we are so much more exposed. And it is teaching us more than ever that intellect is not as important as how you look, or what sport you are in. Media is a very necessary tool for education and information and we need to understand it. It shapes our society, our politics and our young children's brains, lives and emotions. It just depends on who piloting the plane and what content their putting out there.

Men are largely perceived as strong and powerful. Women are largely perceived as young, thin and beautiful. This is where they get there value and their worth. Perhaps not enough is done to promote intellect and emotions in boys, but intellect is also certainly not promoted to women.

In addition, John makes and interesting statement about possible consequences of elementary school teachers being mostly women. I would be interested if such data exists. I am a woman and I got my degree in engineering and felt I definitely needed to adjust my learning style to the predominantly male teaching style of my department. Not too limiting but definitely had an effect on my experience and made it harder at times.

No mention of the drugs that the educators are shoving down the boy's throats. If I had that many pills forced down my gullet, I am sure I would not give a s*** about my future. These children need to run around, play, establish hierarchies, (fight), and do all of those wonderful things that they are not allowed to do anymore. The feminists wanted a feminine world, now they got it. Hopefully they can defend it against the rest of the world, whose men-children are not drugged.

I am not sure there is an onus against academic achievement among boys. It certainly was not there when I was in school, and I don't see it now. In fact, most of these "problems" with boys did not exist until we screwed up the system, turning it against them.
My oldest tested as gifted, and is also ADHD, but not being in any of the politically correct gender or minority groups, he gets no special training to take advantage of his gifts, and this child is extremely eager to learn. If he were a girl, or a minority, his gifts would be trumpeted and half the schools staff would be assigned to assist him.
One teacher who posted negatively about his male students sounds like my autistic sons teacher. I would be glad to have my son removed from that teachers class and returned to Spl Ed where he excelled, because he got what he needed, instead of being isolated and constantly punished.
Our schools follow the road of political correctness, away from fairness and good sense.

The comments to this entry are closed.


  • Welcome to The GreatSchools Blogs, your official place for all things GreatSchools.

    GreatSchools is an independent, nonprofit organization that empowers and inspires parents to participate in their children's development and educational success.

Subscribe to the GreatSchools Blog

Bookmark and Share

July 2014

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
    1 2 3 4 5
6 7 8 9 10 11 12
13 14 15 16 17 18 19
20 21 22 23 24 25 26
27 28 29 30 31