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How do we help boys close the academic gender gap?

BY Sarah McHaney  May 7, 2014 at 1:01 PM EDT

Recent research points to an academic gap between boys and girls, with a learning environment tipped to favor girls. Photo by Flickr user Lotus Carroll

Data reveals an academic gap between boys and girls, with a learning environment tipped to favor girls. But there’s a lot parents can do to encourage their sons to achieve academic success. Photo by Flickr user Lotus Carroll

Sit still. Read quietly to yourself. Stop fidgeting. Such warnings are often directed at boys, but you may as well be asking them to do advanced calculus.

parenting now logoGirls are more attentive, more organized and perform better socially and academically, according to recent research published by the Third Way, a centrist policy institute. And the gap between girls and boys exceeds that of any other two groups.

“The social and behavioral skills gap between boys and girls is considerably larger than the gap between children from poor families and middle class families or the gap between black and white children,” the study reads.

Some attribute the growing divide to a learning environment structured to favor girls.

“Girls have become the gold standard,” Michael Thompson, author of “It’s a Boy!” and “Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys,” told NewsHour. “We, as parents, have decided that we need earlier reading scores. Then we’ve made kindergarten the new first grade. There is more emphasis on learning earlier and earlier. Boys just aren’t programmed like that — that’s obvious from a physical and psychological standpoint.”

By the 8th grade, 48 percent of girls receive a mix of A and B grades compared to 31 percent of boys, the research shows. The gap remains through high school and in college. Nearly 60 percent of college graduates are women.

The academic gap takes a psychological toll on boys too. Boys are far more likely to be suspended or expelled from school, in fact they account for 71 percent of all school suspensions according to the U.S. Department of Education and the Schott Foundation Report.

Boys are also far less likely to ask for help when they don’t understand a subject.

“If you treat girls as the gold standards and boys as defective girls, that’s going to be demoralizing,” Thompson said. “What do elementary and junior high girls always say about boys their age? ‘You are so immature.’ If that’s the norm, then this system is just rigged against the boys.”

So, how can parents help turn this around? We have tips from two experts on how to help boys keep up with their female counterparts and succeed in school.

Marie Roker-Jones founded “Raising Great Men” and is the senior editor at The Good Men Project.

  • Make sure your home encourages learning. Have books, learning materials and tools that support your son’s learning style. Create a learning environment at home that reflects what your son is learning at school. There needs to be a school-home-life-connection to make education appealing to your son.
Create a safe, learning space in your home, one that would help make education appealing to your son. Photo by JGI/Jamie Grill/Blend Images

Create a learning space in your home, one that would help make education appealing to your son. Photo by JGI/Jamie Grill/Blend Images

  • Set goals for the academic year. Work with your son at the beginning of the school year to set realistic academic goals. The goals should be fluid and adjusted as the school year progresses. Talk about expectations and plans for achieving academic success.
  • Create a partnership with your son’s school. Work with administrators and teachers as a team to ensure your son’s success. Let teachers know you are an active partner.
  • Create a safe space for your son to discuss challenges/concerns about school. Have weekly or monthly check-ins with your son to talk about how what is going on at school. Use this opportunity to listen more than speak. Provide guidance rather than criticism.
  • Help him to recognize his abilities. Focus on your son’s strengths and help him identify areas in need of improvement.
  • Bonus: Set guidelines and show him how to balance “work and play time.” Be consistent with helping him manage his time.

Michael Thompson is the author of “Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys” among other books and is a psychologist specializing in the emotional development of boys.

  • Fathers need to spend more time reading to their children — both boys and girls — more time helping with homework and more time attending non-athletic school events. When boys see that their fathers only come to town sports, they conclude that school is not of great interest to men and therefore not a path to manhood. When fathers, even uneducated fathers, come to school and spend time on schoolwork with their sons, it has a huge positive impact.
Fathers can help their son's development by being involved with the child's schoolwork, reading and other non-athletic activities. Photo by Cavan Images

Fathers can help their son’s development by being involved with the child’s schoolwork, reading and supporting other non-athletic activities. Photo by Cavan Images

  • Parents need to allow their children to engage in free, undirected outdoor play as much as possible. When boys organize their own groups, play their own games and have their own adventures, it makes them more competent and confident, readier to tackle tasks in the more constrained world of school.
  • Teachers need to be taught that in the classroom boys respond favorably to lessons that involve movement, teamwork, competition, a public product (producing a video clip, reciting a poem or lines from a play) and some psychological hook: humor, a mystery, a puzzle. The steady diet of a quiet classroom with an emphasis on individual reading or paper-and—pencil work is designed to make boys feels they are in jail.
  • Schools are constantly interfering with boys’ play at recess and are constantly banning the kinds of stories they like to write in an un-scientific effort at violence prevention. There is no scientific basis for banning boys’ play or their so-called “violent stories” just because they are not to the teacher’s taste.
  • We must all recognize that boys, even more than girls, are relational learners. They only work hard for teachers who are interested in them as people, who are curious about a boy’s life outside school, and who have a sense of humor about some oppositional behavior on the part of boys. Boys work hard for teachers who trust boy development.
  • PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.