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Michael Thompson, Ph.D. is a consultant, author and psychologist specializing in children and families. Read more »
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Over the last 40 years, the United States has seen a remarkable change in the academic success of boys and girls. In 1970, 58% of college graduates were young men; now close to 60% of college graduates are women, and this gender gap continues to grow. There will always be boys who will thrive in school, but more and more, it's girls who do well academically and boys who are losing ground.
Two-thirds of the D's and F's given out in school go to boys. Boys are one-third more likely to drop out before finishing high school. Eighth grade girls score higher in both reading and especially in writing than boys do, and by 12th grade that gap has widened. Indeed, the average 11th grade boy in the U.S. writes at the level of the average 8th grade girl.
A few years ago, medical schools in the U.S. began accepting more young women than young men; soon medicine will be a female-dominated profession. I could go on and on with these statistics, but you get the point: on average girls outperform boys in elementary school, middle school, high school, college and graduate school.
Why is that? Experts disagree on the reasons. If you read Christina Hoff Sommers' The War Against Boys, you'll blame feminism for feminizing schools; if you read Leonard Sax's Why Gender Matters or Michael Gurian's The Minds of Boys, you'll think it's the brain differences between boys and girls that educators don't take into account; if you read Peg Tyre's The Trouble with Boys, you'll conclude that classrooms are unfriendly places for boys, and that teachers' techniques don't work for them. If you read other experts, they'll tell you that the "boy crisis" is overblown.
What we do know is that this is happening not just in the U.S. but in Western Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Once parents and educators removed the psychological barriers to higher education that used to exist for girls, that is, once we leveled the playing field, girls outstripped boys in school.
How can you motivate your son to do better in school? You may be asking yourself one of the questions that so many parents ask me: "My 7-year-old son hates school. It's a fight to get him to school every morning. "How do I motivate my 15-year-old son to care about school?" "My son is bright, but he's just cruising through school. He never makes an effort to do his best work."
I think you have to start by figuring out why your son hates school or doesn't think it's important. In my opinion, there are five different types of boys who aren't doing well in school.
The Struggling Boy. The vast majority of boys who get poor grades in school are not "underachieving." They are making their best effort and are struggling academically because they are of below average intelligence and the work is extremely hard for them, or they are of average intelligence in a very hard-driving school district. It is humiliating to know that you struggle with academics that other boys find easy; it's frustrating and makes you want to run away. These struggling students need teachers who can make learning fun, and they require the ongoing respect of teachers and their parents in order to stay motivated. These boys need to hear the old saying, "As long as you're trying your hardest."
The Learning Disabled Boy. Priscilla Vail, an expert in learning disabilities, used to say that one-third of boys have "funny brains." We know that boys have more variable brains than girls do, and that this affects their school performance. Two-thirds of children in special education are boys. Many of these boys have real learning disabilities. (Some are there for emotional or disciplinary reasons.) We used to call boys with learning disabilities "stupid" or "lazy." Now, we're able to focus on the areas of their brains that do not work as well as others. However, we do not have a cure for learning disabilities; they do not go away, and they are demoralizing for any boy.
The Cruising (or Good-Enough) Boy Student. These boys often feel that school is hard, and pretty boring, and that they do enough homework, and that there are other things to be interested in: girls, sports, a part-time job, cars, etc. It's not that a boy like this has a particular passion, it's just that--well, he doesn't like school all that much and doesn't see how it is related to his future.
The only ways to motivate a "cruising/good-enough" boy: 1) Continue to hold high expectations for him, and express your ideals and some sense of disappointment, or 2) Use incentives to induce him to change his priorities. (Getting a car? He must maintain a B average to drive it). Some parents react negatively to the idea of "bribes," but I call them incentives; they work in business, they work for kids.
The "Otherwise Engaged" Boy. There are boys who develop interests outside of school that are so compelling that school can no longer hold their interest. The satisfaction--not to mention the applause--that talented, athletic boys receive playing football, for example, or the sense of usefulness that other boys get from paying jobs, editing the school newspaper, being part of a band, or--gulp--computer games (or online businesses) are far greater than anything mere grades can offer them. Though it's exciting when a boy discovers a passion he wants to pursue, it can present many challenges to their parents.
The Allergic-to-School Boy. In my book, The Pressured Child, I talk about children who seem to be allergic to the school environment. There are some boys for whom the physical experience of being in a class all day, the psychological experience of having a teacher controlling everything, the frustrations of having to sit still, the humiliation of grades--or any one of a thousand annoying things about the school environment--are simply intolerable. If your boy is allergic to school in this way, it is going to be a struggle to keep him going until he finishes. He'll need teachers who understand and can work with boys who hate school without taking it personally. They have to be willing to modify homework demands and try to see the school environment through a boy's eyes--if he will let them.
Does your boy fit into one of the categories above? I welcome any ideas or questions you have about motivating boys in school.
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