How to help males succeed in school again

According to recent headlines, boys are falling behind in school across the nation. Not only are high school boys slipping in standardized writing test scores, younger boys are more likely to be diagnosed with a learning disorder, or say that they don't like school.

What's the solution? James Brcak, PsyD, a post-doctoral fellow with the Bradley School in Portsmouth, RI and Brown Medical School, cites the following opportunities for parents and teachers to help boys thrive in school.

Most people realize that girls mature physically faster than boys, but educators need to understand that this also impacts the way boys engage in the classroom.

"The part of the brain that assists in response-inhibition, the prefrontal cortex, develops later for boys than for girls. As a result, boys are more likely to blurt out answers or be impulsive in class," says Brcak.

He suggests that one way of assisting boys in the classroom may be to structure tasks to include higher levels of energy and noise, thereby making allowances for impulsivity. Staging game show-based activities that separate the class into teams in order to test subject knowledge works well for boys. Another tactic might include using more hands-on learning, like group experiments, that incorporate movement and interaction.

Keeping boys engaged and interested in class is also linked to the subject matter. Surveys of middle school boys' attitudes toward reading often cite "boring" topics as the number one reason why boys reject literature.

"Teachers and parents can help their male students to be creative when choosing books for school reports and at-home reading - several lists of 'boy-friendly' themed books are available on-line and comic books, magazines and illustrated novels can also feed a love of reading," says Brcak.

At home, parents can help by frequently offering to assist with schoolwork, and by taking a more active part in the homework process.

"Boys are often taught that they should be autonomous and self-reliant and as a result, asking for help can often lead boys to devalue themselves," Brcak explains.

Parents can also help boys identify school staff members on whom they can rely for help with schoolwork, emotional stress or conflicts with peers.

Brcak suggests that parents make conversations about school a daily habit since discussing school subjects, reading materials and special projects sends the message that school is a priority for the family.

He warns, however, that boys may not respond well to general questions such as, "How was your day at school?"

"Try asking specific questions about certain subjects or ask about school topics that are of interest to your son," says Brcak.

The rising number of single-parent households, and high female-to-male teacher ratios may also account for why many boys are falling behind.

"Some boys rarely hear about the importance of education from male role models," explains Brcak.

Parents and teachers can help by identifying male family members or community leaders who place emphasis on education, and by inviting these men to speak with boys on a regular basis. Community mentor programs can also assist in teaching the importance of school.

Parents should work closely with their son's school to identify when and how he is performing poorly, Brcak says. Parent-teacher communication is key to identifying if a student is slipping academically, and can produce collaborative means of bringing him up to speed. If problems persist, he suggests that parents should familiarize themselves with the process of requesting testing and special education services.

"Special education services can be put into place to accommodate each student's unique learning style, and parents should not hesitate to rely on them as a resource," says Brcak.

Additionally, if a student qualifies for an Individualized Education Plan through special education, parents should include him in conversations about the process. The term "special education" is often laden with stigma about stupidity and failure.

"Talk to your son about his unique learning style and tell him how the school will assist him through his challenges while emphasizing his strengths," explains Brcak.

Founded in 1931, Bradley Hospital (www.bradleyhospital.org) was the nation's first psychiatric hospital operating exclusively for children. Today, it remains a premier medical institution devoted to the research and treatment of childhood psychiatric illnesses. Bradley Hospital, located in East Providence, is a teaching hospital for Brown Medical School and ranks in the top third of private hospitals receiving funding from the National Institutes of Health.