Boys may struggle in school—but it’s not an unsolvable problem. Here’s how you can help the teacher help your boy to succeed.
Teaching boys can be equal parts frustration and exhausting and hilarious and profound. Boys and young men in school don’t have it easy; psychologist Philip Zimbardo outlined ‘The Demise of Guys’ on Ted. I’ve seen the students I teach struggle to organise and motivate themselves to achieve.
But never mind the teaching—what about the parenting? It can be difficult for parents of boys to bridge the gap between effective support and constant nagging.
From my perspective as a teacher, I found myself noticing common things I would appreciate from parents of boys.
1) Ask ‘what is your homework for xyz?’
Too often parents aren’t sure how to help their sons. A simple question can often turn into a session of nagging. This breeds mistrust and doesn’t help young men develop their sense of independence or organisation. The more usual question parents ask is: ‘Do you have any homework?’ To which a common answer is a one-word ‘yup’ or a ‘yeah – but I’ve done it at school’. It’s hard to know how to provide support from this.
An alternative is to ask a more specific, but open-ended question such as: ‘What is your English homework?’ A question like this can lead to a more constructive dialogue—but also act as a memory cue. ‘Oh—I’ve got to write that essay for Mr. Whoever’. It’s then much simpler to offer help with research or to look over some work—or leave them to it and check in on their progress.
2) Build structures of support
This is perhaps the most important. By structures of support, I’m not just referring to the more obvious: a clear workspace, decent stationery etc. but also more intangible things. Boys need boundaries. It might be the male way of doing things to test everything to destruction but I know that in the classroom, young men appreciate knowing where ‘the line’ is. At home this can refer to things such as: use of mobile phones before 9pm only; limited time using computer games; no screens one hour before bed…there are lots of variations.
It can also be more creative – such as breaking up studying time with breaks – that consist of doing household tasks: washing up; loading/ emptying the dishwasher; vacuuming; ironing – you know the small, repeated, regular activities that keep a household going? The kind that boys at home often get nagged about doing? Incorporating these as a break from studying can actually help reset his brain after a period of intensive studying – especially as they’re active and don’t involve the screen of a smartphone…
Related to the limits are routines. It might seem childish, but having a bedtime or waking routine reduces the thinking resources required (also called ‘cognitive load’) and frees young minds to rest, or engage in challenging intellectual tasks (such as writing that essay…) Although—a word to the wise—the routine is there as a guide for building good habits. Becoming rigid about the routine can end up being counter-productive.
Taken together, structures of support can help reduce tension in the house too—as well as giving parents a chance to support their son.
3) Have a healthy skepticism about what your son says
Boys sometimes have a tendency (we all do) to take the path of least resistance. As a teacher, what I think qualifies as enough time spent on a piece of work very rarely equates to what most young men think is adequate. They don’t (always) mean to be malicious—it’s more they ‘can’t be bothered’—so they do the bare minimum. Which is: 1) never a reflection of their true ability and 2) more than about 15 minutes. So—be aware of that young boy saying he’s done all his work…
As he grows up, so he’ll test the limits of all his relationships. There may be times where you’ll receive a call from a teacher about your son. It may come as some surprise that he’s a pleasure to teach. Instantly believing everything your son says is not always effective (see number 5).
Therefore, if he says he’s done all his homework—ask him what it was (see number 1) or show some interest in the work itself. Taking a genuine interest in their school work will surprise, shock and ultimately delight him (it’s that English essay right?) It’s also guaranteed to keep teachers on their toes if you can ask specific questions about what they’ve written in your son’s exercise book…which is always nice to be able to do as a parent.
4) Develop the art of conversation
As a teacher, it can be frustratingly difficult to get boys to think, engage and write more deeply. One of the best ways I’ve been able to develop analytical thinking with my pupils is through controversial conversation. When I was growing up, it was the law in our house that we ate around the dinner table and had a good conversation. It often ended up being a heated discussion (with the occasional argument) but it certainly developed my ability to express my views more coherently.
The dinner or weekend breakfast table is perhaps the easiest and most structured way of doing this (see number 2). I’ve also recommended parents have a conversation with their son about a news article that is particularly interesting to them or subject-related. Reading and discussing a well-written article helps develop the thinking required to put ideas down on paper (and we’re back to that essay again…)
5) Trust teachers’ professionalism
My last point is that the vast majority of teachers have your son’s best interests at heart. We are human too. Despite the latest local initiative or political policy, teachers run their classroom in a way that seeks to benefit everyone that sits inside it. As parents, it’s your choice whether you trust them to do this. Ask questions by all means, but do this on a foundation of trust.
Ultimately, there’s a shared commitment to your son’s development. That’s the common ground for building an effective relationship with your son’s teacher. This can only help him. And that takes courage on both sides.
By James D’Sousa
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Photo: Flickr/Marin Primary