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Why Boys Struggle with School

Why is it that boys often have a harder time with school than girls do? Early developmental differences point to some answers.

Why Boys Struggle with School

The statistics are sobering. According to the United States Department of Education, boys have consistently scored worse than girls in reading for thirty years—all ages, in every year. Two-thirds of special education students in high school are boys, and boys are 50 percent more likely to be held back in the eighth grade than girls. Boys are more likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder or a learning disability; they are far more likely than girls to be referred to a school psychologist. Underneath these statistics are real flesh-and-blood boys who dread school, spend hours in the principal's office, refuse to do their homework, and tell worried parents that "the teacher doesn't like me." Why?

It's Tough to Be a Boy

Imagine this scenario: It's time for art projects at the neighborhood preschool. Fifteen four-year-olds are gathered in clusters while Mrs. Grant, the teacher, explains what to do. The girls calmly put on their plastic aprons and move to the art tables, talking quietly and gathering paper and brushes as they go. Some of the boys, however, appear to be on a different wavelength. Four are still in the play area, attempting to make their block tower the tallest one yet. Two of the boys are looking out the window at a passing dump truck. And three more boys have grabbed brushes from the girls and are having a duel, stabbing at each other and laughing.


A boy's attitude toward school and learning begins with preschool. Unfortunately, many boys are expelled from their preschool programs because they don't get along with the teacher or their peers. Preschool expulsion rates are lowest in public and Head Start programs, apparently because teacher training and behavioral consultation are more common. Expulsion rates are highest in private and faith-based preschools.

"Boys, please settle down and join us at the art tables," Mrs. Grant says kindly, but the boys are busy with their own sort of fun. One or two eventually wander over and begin putting on their aprons, but for most of them, art is not nearly as enticing as what they're already doing. Mrs. Grant's patience disappears in the face of all this commotion; while the girls look on smugly, Mrs. Grant herds the duelists and the window-gazers into the time-out corner.

"I'll be sending a note home to your parents," she says firmly.
As you have learned, boys and girls develop differently, especially in the early years of life. Girls usually acquire language and social skills sooner, while boys tend to be more impulsive, more energetic, and less comfortable with reading and writing. For better or worse, most preschool and primary-grade teachers are women; they often find the competitive, active style of little boys difficult to manage.

Many young boys discover very early that the teacher doesn't seem to like them as well as she likes the girls, who may find it easier to sit quietly, follow directions, and do the work. Boys' problems with school begin early. According to the Yale Child Study Center's Foundation for Child Development, a child is approximately three times as likely to be expelled from preschool as from kindergarten through grade twelve, and boys are four-and-a-half times more likely to be expelled from preschool than girls. Most of these expulsions are for behavior problems, and many of these behavior problems happen when little boys act like little boys. By the time a boy reaches "real school," he already may have decided that the classroom is a place where he will feel incompetent, disliked, and unwanted.

Developmental Differences

Girls are not better than boys, and boys are not better than girls. But boys and girls certainly are different, especially in groups. A boy alone may be quite content to look at a book, do a puzzle, or focus on a task, but when boys gather together, competition and activity usually erupt. Boys just have to figure out what to do with other boys.

Boys' higher activity level and more competitive, hands-on approach to learning can create challenges for even the most understanding teacher, especially in today's large classes. While many boys are excellent students throughout their school years, most learn to read later than girls. Many experts believe that boys are often identified as troubled learners because of developmental differences rather than genuine academic difficulties.

Schools appear to value most highly the skills that girls excel at. And a boy who learns that he is a failure or a problem is unlikely to enjoy school. Failure in the classroom leads to the emotion boys fear above all others—shame. Shame, in turn, leads to lower self-esteem and disconnection from the school community. By the time high school rolls around, boys are at greater risk for academic problems, truancy, and dropping out altogether.

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