The Trouble with Boys

Can you think of an example of an instructional strategy that would not be developmentally appropriate for a given age group?

There is growing doubt about teaching reading and writing skills to kindergarten boys. For whatever reason, boys lag girls in both verbal processing and fine motor skills by, on average, 1 1/2 years at 5 years old. We wouldn’t try to teach most 3 1/2 year old girls to read and write but have no trouble trying to make boys with the same abilities as those young girls to do the same. This has profound implications. Early difficulties in school can create learned helplessness and a lifelong negative perception of both reading and school in general. It is obviously far more complex than this and boys have significantly more nature-based hurdles in school than just this one. But the effect is clear. I put together a 4 minute, totally fact based and fully referenced video, for anybody that’s interested:

There are several solutions to this phenomenon. One is easy: start boys who appear likely to have these issues in kindergarten at 6 instead of 5 years old. There are also a variety of teaching techniques that particularly suit the gender-specific learning needs of students. As just one example, boys do considerably better if their verbal faculties are recruited first through storyboarding or other non-verbal, imaginative exercises.


The first step in establishing a cohesive, productive group is to establish a common framework of behavior and expectations.  In my case, this means a framework of mutual respect.  Respect is a sound basis for a classroom for many reasons.  First, it creates a healthy, cooperative relationship between teacher and students.  Second, it covers the major frictions and playground quirks of elementary school.  It covers name calling, exclusivity, cliques, criticism, prejudice and much more.  It also covers self-respect and, thus, achievement.  Finally, it wraps the classroom in a set of behaviors that are civilized and calming.

The second step is to establish clear goals for class as a whole and to make clear that each student will be fully supported in reaching those goals.  Under the mantle of respect, each student will be expected to support their fellow students fully in their path to meeting expectations.  Under the mantle of respect, group work would be caring and cooperative.  With respect, social interactions are cordial and cooperative, even under difficult circumstances.  Respect provides a clear framework for resolving disputes.  With clear goals for individual lessons, units and the year as a whole, the students understand expectations and can find safety in that clarity.

Discipline, Part Four

If we think of a child as starting the day with a certain self-esteem level, our goal as teachers should be to find a way to send those same children home with more self-esteem. That is so hard for me. I am wired to expect good behavior and punish disruptive behavior and/or inattentiveness. I’m not a disciplinarian and I hold relationship with the class, even in corrections, but I still work from that instinct. Fortunately, the teacher I work with is a model of positive reinforcement. She is constantly scanning the room in order to find a student “doing something right.” It works. Our class is orderly and quick to settle down. Perhaps more importantly the time and stress of strict discipline is avoided. The children, even the boys, feel loved and appreciated. Even the boys with higher natural physicality, lower maturity levels and bigger cognitive deficits feel taken care of and safe. It’s rare and wonderful.

I took a class from a wonderful student of matters educational, Gary Benton. His argument is that at a minimum, children need to receive three positives for every negative. With troubled children, his ratio goes to seven to one. I remember him saying that, if the situation is challenging enough, it may be necessary to say something like, “that’s great, I really like the way you threw yourself against the wall.” Obviously, that’s an extreme, but his point is that almost any positive becomes a way to slowly walk the child back from the self-destructive cycle of punishment and failure. I believe he’s right.

Having said that, I guess it depends on what a teacher sees as his or her role. I see my role as bringing out the best in each and every child. And I believe each and every child wants success. Maybe I need to think of praise as praising their aspirations AND their behavior at the same time. Anyway, I’ve seen how well it works and I want more of it.


Benton, G. (2004). Fire spitters: a workbook for parents (and others) who want to successfully deal with a difficult and angry child. Victoria, B.C.: Trafford.

Benton, G. (2008). Succeeding with the difficult young child (preschool – second grade). Bellevue, WA: Bureau of Education & Research.


Parents and teachers want to know what they can do to promote a child’s self-esteem.  What advice would you give them and why?

According to Bee and Boyd (2007), self-esteem is a function of two factors.

First, children hold a vision of what they should be.  As they move out of childhood into adolescence, they increasingly compare their beliefs about who they really are against who they think they ought to be.  “When the discrepancy is large—when the child sees himself as failing to live up to his own goals or values—self-esteem is much lower” (Bee & Boyd, 2007, p. 287).  

There are at least three obvious actions parents and teachers can take to close this gap.  First, they can work with children to have realistic expectations of their “ideal self.”  By working with children to be fully in touch with their humanity, that ideal can be lowered and the gap reduced.  Second, children all have different areas of strength and weakness.  Typically, the ideals to which children compare themselves are in areas selected by peer group and environment.  This is particularly true in adolescence as the peer group assumes greater significance.  Still, parents can help children shift their comparisons to areas of relative competence.  Finally, children often do a poor job of evaluating themselves.  Frequently, children allow their peer group to define them.  All too often, they place far too little emphasis on their own true strengths and goals.  Parents and teachers can make sure that children see all their capabilities clearly and emphasize their areas of relative excellence.  By doing these three things, the gap between ideal and perceived reality can be reduced dramatically.

Second, self-esteem is dependent on “the overall sense of support the child feels from the important people around her, particularly parents and peers (Franco & Levitt, 1998)” (Bee & Boyd, 2007, p. 287).  In childhood and even in adolescence, children need the love and support of the significant adults in their lives.  Children need to know that they are held to standards, but they need to know that those standards are about the child achieving their own possibility.  They need to know that they are expected to strive and work for the very best they can achieve.  In addition, they need to know that failure is a part of being human, of learning, of evolving.  Mostly, children need to know that they are loved and appreciated.

It is easy to forget, especially with adolescents, but children look to their significant adults to find strength, courage, and direction.  It is up to those adults to provide those things with love and appreciation for all the challenges of youth.