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2 weeks ago
From kindergarten through sixth grade, a boy spends more than a thousand hours a year in school, and his experiences and the attitudes of the teachers and other adults he encounters there are profoundly shaping. The average boy faces a special struggle to meet the developmental and academic expectations of an elementary school curriculum that emphasizes reading, writing, and verbal ability--cognitive skills that normally develop more slowly in boys than in girls. Some boys are ahead of the others on that developmental curve, and some girls lag behind, but when we compare the average boy with the average girl, the average boy is developmentally disadvantaged in the early school environment.
We are not suggesting that boys are good and schools are bad, or that teachers don't care about boys. Quite to the contrary, much of what we know about boys' difficulties in school is confirmed by the many caring, creative teachers we know who struggle with the challenge of working with boys in the school setting. We know, too, that there are boys whose talents or temperments make them exceptions, but if we're going to talk about the ways in which boys' life experiences complicate their emotional development or compromise it, we have to talk about the hidden hurt that the early school years inflict on so many boys.
Studies that track children's development through the school years suggest that, by the third grade, a child has established a pattern of learning that shapes the course of his or her entire school career. We see this clearly with boys: the first two years in school are a critical moment of entry into that world of learning, but boys' relative immaturity and the lack of fit they so often experience in school set them up to fail. Many boys who are turned off to school at a young age never refind the motivation to become successful learners.
The average boy's gifts are wrapped in high activity, impulsivity, and physicality--boy power--and the value of these gifts depends on the teacher, the boy, and the moment. These qualities serve boys beautifully on the playground, where there is room and respect for bold strokes of action and impulse. In the classroom, however, alongside girls--who are typically more organized, cooperative, and accomplished school learners--those "boy qualities" quickly turn from assets to liabilities. Even among those who aren't considered problem boys, many teachers identifiy the ordinary boy pattern of activity, attitudes, and behaviors as something that must be overcome for a boy to succeed in school.
When school is not a good fit for a boy, when his normal expressions of energy and action routinely meet with negative responses from teachers and classmates, he stews in feeling of failure--feelings of sadness, shame, and anger, which can be very hard to detect beneath that brash exterior. Unable to "talk out" the emotional pressure, boys typically act out though verbal or physical aggression that walls them off emotionally from others, straining or severing emotional connections to the people and circumstances they find painful.
The most important thing to remember, the guiding principle, is to try to keep your son's self-esteem intact while he is in school. That is the real risk to his success and to his mental health. Once he's out of school, the world will be different. He'll find a niche where the fact that he's can't spell well, or didn't read until he was eight, won't matter. But if he starts to hate himself because he isn't good at schoolwork, he'll fall into a hole that he'll be digging himself out of for the rest of his life.
When normal boy activity levels and developmental patterns are accommodated in the design of schools, curricula, classrooms, and instructional styles, an entire stratum of "boy problems" drops from sight. When a boy's experience of belonging at school is greater than his sense of differentness, then the burden of shame, inadequacy, and anger drops away, and he is free to learn.