Moving Into the Red: Boys and Education

Jennifer Fink believes our boys are trying to tell us something about the way they’re being educated… and it’s time to listen.

It was the call I’d been expecting.

Yesterday, not even one month into the school year, I got my first call from my son’s first grade teacher.

“Sam’s behavior moved into the red zone today,” she told me.

His elementary school uses a color-coded behavior tracking scale, similar to the one the United States government uses to track the terrorist threat level. All students start the day at Green. If they misbehave, they have to move their clip down a notch, to Yellow. Another incident of misbehavior moves the clip to Orange – and results in No Recess. Continue to misbehave, the clip moves to Red and the teacher calls your parents.

My son reached Red. Not because he’s done anything outrageously horrible, like going into a rage and hurting another student or school property, but because he’d steadily accumulated a list of misdemeanors. He squirmed on the rug. Visited with his classmates when he should have been listening. Ran in the hall when he should have walked. And ran again when sent back to re-try. (“Fast walked, Mom!” my son insists. “I fast-walked!”)

Because he was squirmy and wiggly and sociable and active, he lost recess, moved his clip to Red and had his teacher talk to his parents.

I knew this call was coming.

Boys Move – and are Penalized

My son is a smart, self-motivated kid. He’s a kid who loves farms and machinery, who will spend hours cultivating and maintaining pretend fields in the sandbox or on the living room floor. He’s the kind of kid who lights up when working on a project of his own imagination – and some of his projects have been pretty large and ambitious. Using scrap wood, he designed and built a toy boat, all by himself. Lately, he’s been exploring electrical circuits with our Snap Circuits kit. He enjoys playing board games (and video games), and is becoming quite comfortable with numbers and basic addition. He loves to hear stories, is obsessed with the Titanic and really, really wants to learn to read so he can read chapter books independently.

He’s the kind of kid who learns best through movement, through touching and feeling, and through projects. And guess what? First grade doesn’t work like that. First grade, today, involves a lot of sitting still, either in a plastic chair, at a desk, or on a rug. First grade involves a lot of “sit down and be quiet” and very little free exploration. First graders today get to do very little that is interesting, because the current educational system expects kids to read and write proficiently before letting them explore higher concepts. So little brains (and bodies) who want to physically explore higher concepts are instead told to sit still, follow directions and stay between the lines.

That’s not how my son learns right now. It’s not how most young boys learn. Heck, most girls would do better in learning environments that encourage active engagement! But because the entire school system revolves around desks and passive learning, boys like mine get in trouble – often many times a day – for acting like boys.

For the record, I don’t believe that “boys will be boys” is valid excuse for bad behavior.But why are we asking little boys to adapt to a system that doesn’t meet their needs, instead of realigning the system to meet the needs of the learners? And why oh why are we taking away recess from kids who are already having trouble sitting still in class?


Early Education Sets the Tone

Is it any wonder, then, that boys tune out? That boys very quickly conclude that school is “not for them?” Any surprise that boys’ reading and writing scores are less than girls, that boys drop out and are suspended from school at rates far greater than girls?

Not even one month into the school year, my son got in trouble – major, Red-level trouble – for moving, talking and socializing. The school gets into no trouble whatsoever for failing to provide my son with a learning environment that engages him, that takes into account his needs and knowledge and learning style.

We blame little boys, and then, quietly bemoan the outcomes: low literacy levels. Low high school graduation rates. Decreased college enrollment.

Perhaps, instead of blaming little boys, we should take a long hard look at our boys and their educational needs and desires. Perhaps we should talk to – and listen to! – our boys. It’s not a co-incidence that most boys name “Recess,” “Gym” and “Lunch” as their favorite subjects. Our boys are trying to tell us something.

I think it’s time to listen.


Originally appeared on The Boys Initiative Blog.


Jennifer L.W. Fink is a freelance writer and the mother of four boys. Her blog, Blogging ‘Bout Boys, is All About Boys – Raising Them, Educating Them and Learning with Them.



Photo: OakleyOriginals/Flickr

About Jennifer L. W. Fink

Jennifer L.W. Fink is a freelance writer and the mother of four boys. She frequently writes about boys and education for publications such as Parents, iVillage, Scholastic Instructor and Home Education Magazine. Her blog, Blogging ‘Bout Boys, is All About Boys – Raising Them, Educating Them and Learning with Them.


  1. I am a mother, grandmother & RN for 42 years. I am horrified that schools are suggesting to parents that their (usually) young boys are hyper and need drugs to calm them. They don’t need drugs – they need more fun, physical activity! Yet neither the schools or the parents allow adequate time for kids to be physically active. Kids don’t walk to school, don’t have playground time before & after school starts, and worse – recess is taken away when kids become wiggly!?!. Our kids had 20-30 minuted outside recess mid morning & mid afternoon every day. Riding cars or buses to school has become necessary since neighborhood schools have been budgeted away. And another interesting piece of all this is that in the past 10-20 years that kids have had physical activity cut back and drugs increased – adults have been advised to be more active…jog, walk, yoga etc 30 minutes/day. The benefits are stress-relievers, less depression, better restful sleep. How is it that parents & teachers don’t demand this same active plan for their kids??

  2. Couldn’t agree more. I think Sir Ken Robinson summarizes it best here:

  3. This is partly why the trend of red shirting saw such growth over the past couple of years, especially with boys. I think red shirting was a sad answer to an education system that ought to have found a way to channel our boys’ enthusiasm more effectively.

    • I think you’re right, svtwinmom. Sadly, a lot of the trends in early ed. seem to be counter to how boys typically learn and develop. There’s a lot more focus on sitting and writing and reading, even in kindergarten, today than there was even 20 years ago.

  4. wellokaythen says:

    I don’t think it’s just a problem with a lack of recess or lack of physical movement. I think the schools’ declining attention to art and music also eliminates some outlets for boys.

    Thank goodness there’s still bullying to serve as an outlet for physicality….

  5. I come with a message of hope… change is happening, though it does happen slowly. There are many young scholars entering higher ed that know they were ripped off of their K-12 education… and they are pissed. Furthermore, professors have been trying to counter the declining quality of students who are entering postsecondary ed. They are well aware that most people have the intellectual capacity to succeed, but most kids K-12 are only trained to take tests. It is unfortunate, since the K-12 period is the time when the brain is most malleable, yet brain bending does not happen at the K-12 level. Even comparing the education I received K-12 (I am 24.5), the kids today are disenfranchised. It is sickening.

    There are many contributing factors to the declining performance of students, but the biggest problem is that test preparation does not equip young people with the skills to analyze what they learn. K-12 is all about memorization. Sorry, but no job is entirely dependent on memorization. Currently, there is no goal for developing future professionals. No goals for information synthesis. No goals for critical thinking. No goals for schema diversification. Yet, these are all skills that are essential for succeeding in a competitive adult world. K-12 is only preparing kids to sit down, shut up, and fill in bubble sheets. Sickening.

    It is unfortunate that the current generation of K-12 kids may not experience the benefits of the changes that are taking place. Hopefully by the time your son is in his later school years, he will be in a classroom that is more engaging, and he will be given more opportunities to utilize his very active mind. ….and for goodness sake, hopefully he (and everyone else) won’t be cynical to the educational system by the time these changes roll around. There is no longer mere “awareness” among academic circles. Of course, we will have to wait for those who are hung up in the old ways to either change, retire, or die, but this era of test-taking academics is slowly closing. It is evident in the people I encounter as a TA, as well as the professors who see the purpose of their discipline dying.

    Hang tough, and continue being supportive. For now, it is up to the parents to truly engage their kids. With your encouragement, your son will make it.

    • I think you’re right, Salvice. I think things are slowly changing. I hope so anyway. Our kids deserve better, and our society needs kids (and future workers and citizens) who can think critically, analyze situations and take initiative.

  6. Schools destroy quite a lot of creativity and free thinking…I was someone told to sit down n shutup quite a lot in school, it helped make me hate learning. It wasn’t until I was 25 and WANTED to learn that I found learning fun and enjoyable, hell I probably learned more from google + youtube than I did in highschool. I can lookup how to do woodworking, electronics, fix a car, install a car stereo, hell any topic you can think of there is probably a forum or video on how to do it. It’s sad that it took me so long to finally enjoy learning…

    • Archy, what you say reminds me of when my son was in middle school (12-14 years old), he would go online and go to these highly technical web sites to break down his latest video game. So I knew he didn’t have some sort of comprehension disability. Math was always a tough time for him and 1 year he didn’t get any textbook for it . Instead he had to go online for homework assignments. The site would give him problems and tell him if the answer was right or wrong, thats it! Nothing showing where his work was incorrect to bring him to the wrong answer or for that matter, even how to approach the problem. I mean , I used to skim his textbook to refresh myself on how to do the problems(after all, it was LONG AGO that i did this stuff). When I talked to the teacherabout this problem (as far as I knew, his was one of the few clases without them) the teacher said they were an expense the district couldn’t afford! I’ll never forget I said to him ” 735,000 dollars (the amount an official in the district had just pled guilty to stealing) would have bought a lot of textbooks, don’t you think?”

      • Yeah funding is a problem. What pisses me off is that a year or 2 after I finished school they started to restructure it and bring in things like laptops which would have helped me immensely as I physically write slow, but type pretty damn fast. I use to have so many half or quarter finished notes from the board because I couldn’t write it fast enough, yet gimme a laptop and I’d be done before the others probably.

        Kids with learning disabilities or problems that hinder their performance can have other areas where they excel, I suck at writing but my typing and computer skills are way above average. I also had untreated ADHD, I only got on the medication when I was about 25 and it made it a hell of a lot easier to learn, build stuff, be productive. Infact I did more projects, more work in 1 month than I did in a year, I was finishing stuff off and life is much better whereas before I daydreamed my ass off, or switched fast between things I wanted to do, had terrible concentration. My handwriting also improves DRAMATICALLY on the meds.

        I think many of the kids who don’t do well at school need a different form of learning to excel, I work best by doing it. Like at the moment I am building a desk, I studied about it on google, utube, forums, and now that I am building it I am learning quite a lot. Being stuck behind a desk to me is boring as hell, get a laptop and be out building something or even just having class on the move I think is a great idea.

        Staring at a textbook, being told to remember a bunch of useless shit, school was basically teaching us how to memorize random bullshit to spout on a test instead of really thinking n using initiative, building on creativity, etc. The only time I can remember in school where it was both fun to learn and rewarding was on a leadership camp in year 11 where we had to make our own raft, we did abseiling, a big hike, and other activities building on team work, solving problems, etc.

        Sure there is a place for learning from a textbook n sitting at a desk but not for nearly every damn lesson. Let kids blow shit up in science more, teach them leverage by giving them a task to move a heavy object, hell make a stock market game in senior business where you try to make money buying n selling fake shares. One great idea I saw was getting the kids in the mechanics course to rebuild a nice car. Engage them!

        • Yeah, lots of ‘Busywork’, almost like they’re ‘Wharehousing’ the kids until they’re of age.

        • Archy, you bring up a lot of good points. A lot of boys (and many girls) learn best by doing, but most schools don’t have a lot of room, time or space for that yet. Which is too bad because kids can learn all kinds of things while *doing* things — think about the math in woodworking, the science in electronics and mechanics, etc.

          BTW, I love your comment about letting kids “blow shit up in science more.” MythBusters, anyone?

          • Damn straight, blowing shit up is fun. Nothing teaches you better then seeing something fun, exciting, amazing, with a hint of danger exploding to really show you how exothermic reactions work, etc.

  7. Jennifer, does your son’s school provide any recess or physical activity time? I have noticed with my godson, who is also very physical, that letting him burn off his energy helps keeps him quiet. He is perfectly capable of sitting still for hours at a time when he is interested. But since he is ahead of his class, he gets bored fast, and that is when he starts talking and moving about.

    Also, you mentioned in your piece that boys do not learn the way we are trying to make them learn. I think that is true, however, this method has been around for years. As far as I can tell, students in most countries have been expected to sit and listen rather than freely experiment. I think the difference is that we no longer balance that with physical activities. I was not the most athletic child, but I did love to run around during recess, and that made it easier to sit through rather boring classes the second half of day. If we provided boys and girls with an outlet for all that energy, I think we would see fewer problems with boys.

    • It seems you missed this, but the problem isn’t that the school doesn’t provide a recess – it’s that when the child ‘misbehaves’ (emphasis on the scare-quotes), then they DON’T get recess. Which is crappy child-rearing practice at the best of times, and downright absurd when the ‘misbehavior’ in question is that the child isn’t keeping still!

    • Yes, they get a 15 min. recess in the morning and a noon recess; the length of that one depends on how long they spend eating. But as Niks (below) points out, part of the problem is that recess time is lost when kids misbehave.

      I know my son has it better than many. At least he gets recess. But back in the day (30 or so years ago), we had 3 recesses a day at that level. Now it’s 2 — if you’re lucky. By the time the kids reach 7th grade, it’s 0. I think that’s a big problem.

  8. PsyConomics says:

    I was/am one of the few boys who could/can sit/deal with that type of education.

    As a perspective from the “other side of the tracks” so to speak, I remember being taken aside in middle school by a teacher and congratulated for being one of 2 boys (and 13 girls) to receive recognition for a 4.0 in math for the quarter. I hadn’t noticed it until he had pointed it out, but afterwards I started noticing all sorts of things like that. Another time a whole group of people were called away for a discussion from another teacher about varying levels of “delinquency” in a “career-preparation” course I was the only boy left in the class. In high school it got worse in some ways, better in others. Teachers stopped taking kids aside, but conspicuously missing from the top of the class was any male content. There was 1 man in the top 10 students.

    I would have happily given up recognition if it meant that some of those other boys were better able to succeed. To this day I feel othered from men in any type of school situation (even in a college department noted for a gender imbalance favoring men). There has got to be a better way than crushing most boys and punishing those who do succeed.

    • Very interesting perspective! Did you face any retribution or ostracization from the other boys for doing well in school?

      BTW, I fully agree with this sentence: “There has got to be a better way than crushing most boys and punishing those who do succeed.”

      • PsyConomics says:

        Not so often explicitly, but more implicitly.

        In general my best friends were (and continue to) tend to be women. Whether that is self-selection on my part or subtle aggregated othering is up for debate. That being said, the “chicken and the egg” problem becomes even worse if one asks the question where my self-selection preferences came from.

        I remember once I was able to explain the word “fasting” using the word “breakfast” as an example of a compound word containing “fast,” in the “not eating food sense” and I received crap about that for days. The two people went on to belittle my choice of planned college majors then sort of ignore me.

        I was lucky enough to always be in AP and honors classes in highschool and I went to a magnet school in middleschool, so chances are I avoided the worst of any explicit hatred by being in just the right environments.

  9. Thats’ it – I’m moving myself to the Red Zone. In Grade 1 , the only reason I went at school was Recess. This is outrageous.

  10. I am listening. I was raised in the 50’s and 60’s when I was supposed to act the way my parents wanted me to act. I heard the terms “Damn Niggers” and “Damn Jews” more than I can count, AND it was acceptable…. my parents were ‘good parents’ for encouraging me along those lines. It is time to take a stand, and I stand with those people who realize and acknowledge that we are all connected, and connectedness comes from communications, not standing in line with your mouth shut. Bravo to your son. I stand with him.

  11. Ele Munjeli says:

    The kind of education that your son is getting is likely not even endorsed by his teacher; it’s the result of overcrowded schools and underpaid teachers. Much has been written about changing the education paradigm by reformers from John Holt to Ken Robinson, but the implementation of better school systems ultimately rests with parents. Either you need to pay more, and send your son to an alternative school, or homeschool. Most public and private schools simply do not have the resources to allow children to pursue open ended exploration. This is a common issue beyond first grade, we have the same thing going on at my college. Girls are punished by the same system, even if they can sit still, that doesn’t mean they should, or like to. My mother spent more than thirty years as a teacher in the public schools and frequently commented that schools had become a place where parents warehouse their children when they go to work.

    • You’re right, Ele. I’ve often said the same thing your mom did. Sadly, that’s how our society is set up these days; we value adults as workers, not as parents, and do very little to support parents as parents.

      Homeschooling is a great alternative; our family homeschooled for over 7 years. Our family situation changed, however, and now all 4 of our children are in school full-time. And perhaps that’s why these educational situations stand out to me so much: I know what learning can look like. I know that boys (and girls) can and do learn without sitting for hours a day. And I know that our kids — all of them, not just the ones whose parents can afford an alternative school or homeschool — deserve a better option.

      • Ele Munjeli says:

        I’m afraid that if you haven’t heard it yet, you will: someone will suggest your son needs medication. For ADHD or something else… there’s a fine line between schools and asylums these days. I’m glad you weren’t offended by my comment; it’s not an option for everyone to homeschool, but if you’ve done it, schools seem pretty scary. Medication is becoming a common tool for controlling active children.

        • “Underpaid Teachers”? My wife is a T.A. in the local High School. The teacher she ‘assists’ (which in educrat mean runs the class) makes 190K a year! Not bad for 180 6 hour days! If you don’tbelieve me check it out at The athletic director makes almost 160K! My point is , thisis a nice comfortable gig for a lot of people, and I don’t see a whole lot of desire to change things from those with the power to do so. Ms. Fink, your sons dilema sounds like the same thing my son went through (and probably countless other boys). Unfourtunatally, he learned if he stayed still and shut up, he’d get by. He might not get the work, but he’d avoid the wrath of the teacher. It’s really sad. Kind of like the weather, everyone talks about it, but no one does anything .

          • “Unfourtunatally, he learned if he stayed still and shut up, he’d get by.” — That’s a powerful line, and a powerful lesson that we are teaching our boys, whether we mean to or not. We put them in schools like that for 12 years or more, and then wonder why they lack initiative when they come out.

            • I sent three daughters through the same school system before him and if ever they stumbeled, there was an array of people to help or assist them. With my son (and other parents of young boys have told me the same) if it wasn,t for the fact that state aid was tied to attendance, I feel the ‘Powers that be” in the school would have been quite content with him not even showing up!

              • Interesting comment, bobbt. It’s worth noting, perhaps, that most teachers are female. Do you think more male teachers would help create a climate that’s more welcoming to boys and their learning styles?

                • Absolutely! If you look at elite ‘Prep’ schools (20-30-40K a year tuition) you’ll see they have certain things in common ; 1) single gender classes, 2) usually , if possible, the gender of the teacher matches the gender of the class.. Now, I’m not stating one gender to be more profeccent as either a teacher or student. It’s just that these elite schools seemed to have realized this to be an optimum learning enviorment. Something our top ‘educrats’ seem reluctent to embrace (even though I read an article stating that the ‘well to do’ educrats often send THEIR children to just such schools!)

          • CajunMick says:

            I defin. need to check on ‘’ for jobs like this. I’d even consider going back into teaching.
            When I was a teacher, we made approx. 28K. I got to work at 7a, left at 5p, and graded papers till 10p-midnight, M-F Those summers off? Very appreviated. Workshops, Cont. education, and going back to school weeks early to prepare your classroom, lesson plans, etc. for the upcoming school year.
            Yeah, we got the holidays breaks off, which was great, because I was a sinlge dad, and I didn’t have to pay for day care (and was able to spend time with my son) for the holidays.
            Anecdotally, the only educators I know of who make that kind of money you mentioned in your post are people at the high end of collegiate level at our state flagship university.
            Again, I’ll have to check out web site for these dream jobs.

            • Check it out, William Floyd School District (Ironically, we’re known as a ‘low wealth’ or poor district!

              • Joanna Schroeder says:

                I can tell you that even in the highest-paid school districts here in California there are no teachers making almost $200K.

                I know teachers at private schools here with tuitions over 25K per year, and they don’t make that much.

                Something is amiss. It certainly is NOT indicative of what’s happening in the rest of the world.

                • It’s right there in black and white! Check it out. I believe the starting salry is somewhere around 42k or so. Look, here on Long Island, if your paying less than 10K a year property tax (of which 80% or so is school district tax) your ‘Getting away cheap’. My district isn’t even the highest paying one! I have friends who live in Smithtown School district who pay over 18K a year property tax! (This, by the way, is for a modest 1500 square foot cape cod style house) Hey, you,re a lot more profecient than I on a computer, so go online and check out some of the saliries on these Long Island school districts!

                  • In fact, if you search the archives of Newsday (the local daily newspaper) you’ll find several articles about the high cost of education on Long Island, Like the Superintendent of the Syosset school district (about 1200 students I believe) who’s comp package is over 500K a year! My wife met TA s from there at training seminars, and they said their package was over 40K annunally!


Speak Your Mind