Parents – here are the steps to help your young men succeed academically.
That boys are languishing in our public schools remains a puzzling, disturbing, and largely unaddressed fact. In 2013, The Atlantic published an article by Christina Hoff Summers excoriating American public schools and politicians for ignoring the rising disengagement of boys in school. Where other western countries experiencing a similar trend – Canada, Great Britain, Australia – had commissioned task forces to identify the causes and propose solutions to male underachievement, the United States did… not.
That was just one of numerous news items on the subject; two years later, the landscape remains unchanged. Public schools are reasonably conducive to female learners, but seem increasingly ineffective in igniting the interest, participation, and success of boys.
Unfortunately, system wide change remains unlikely any time soon. But don’t despair – there are practical steps you can take in the meantime to help the young man in your life succeed academically.
As a former middle and high school teacher, I have taught hundreds of young men the art of reading and writing. I have likewise met countless times with concerned parents.
And during that time, it became clear that many parents are unaware of some simple changes that can help their sons stay focused and actually learn at school.
While this list is by no means exhaustive, these three suggestions provide some of the biggest academic bang for the buck.
- Limit Screen Time – At home and at school
As any parent knows, you have to choose your battles. But trust me – this is a worthy hill.
The pernicious effects of technological distraction have been well researched and widely documented. I recently wrote about how technology is hurting male students here.
But some of the most compelling data comes from workplace studies, where researchers have found it can take adults up to 23 minutes to refocus after being interrupted, whether by a text message, email ding, or phone call.
This has disastrous implications for classroom concentration. When your son checks his text messages, he doesn’t just miss that 5 – 10 second instruction window. He could be setting himself back for a good twenty minutes. Yanking one’s brain in and out of concentration – the way current technology all but forces us to do – is anathema to real learning.
If you can swing it, giving your son a phone with simple talk and text ability would at least erase the impulse to escape into Apps, Facebook, Twitter, etc.
Even better? Petition your local school and district to implement mega restrictions to cell phones in the classroom. Whatever innovative ways a handful of teachers have devised for using personal cell phones (and some teachers have a magical touch here, it must be admitted), the benefits are outweighed by the drawbacks.
- Be on your teacher’s team
The first time most teachers hear from a parent is when there’s a problem. Unless you work in customer service (in which case, my heart goes out to you), this is not the typical way two adults begin a conversation.
So if at all possible, try to go to back to school night, even if your son is a high school senior. That way, you are a real person in the teacher’s mind, and vice versa.
If your son does struggle with a class, by all means get in touch with his teacher. We love to hear from parents, because we love that you’re involved, and that you care about your son’s education. We care too.
I usually preferred in-person meetings. For all the convenience of email, it rarely accomplishes nuance and detail in an efficient manner, and every student’s learning journey is full of nuance and detail.
Just make sure that – barring serious abuse or neglect on the teacher’s part – you convey the knowledge that you’re in this together. The vast majority of teachers are doing their absolute best, and they want your son to succeed.
And please: never send an email with a Subject Line in all caps. It is a sure way to make the receiver DEFENSIVE. See what I mean?
- Know your resources
An astonishing number of parents I spoke with over the years had no idea a website for each of my classes existed, with a detailed calendar, and loads of class notes and other resources.
Imagine my dismay, when hours that could have gone to grading, lesson planning, and yes – parent contact – had instead been funneled into making sure said website was up to date and ready to use.
So get to know your son’s school policy on websites. Many schools now also offer online access to grades, updated in real time. Think of the conversations you could have, when instead of asking, “How was your day?” you can rather ask, “What did you think of the violent death of Jay Gatsby?” Or “How did you do on that math test” you ask “I saw you got a 68% on Mr. Harding’s test. Let’s study for that makeup test tonight.”
Additionally, many teachers offer tutoring hours, and some schools have general tutoring programs, usually held before and after school.
And please know: the school library is the unsung hero of many a struggling student. Often open before and after regular school hours, the library offers a comfortable, quiet space for students to work on homework. Or even, heaven help us, just read.
The librarians I’ve been lucky enough to meet and know over the years are some of the most erudite human beings out there. They are also, to the best of my knowledge, downright fearsome in enforcing respectful silence in their libraries. So if your son needs a place free of noise and distraction, take advantage of the library.
A final, anecdotal tip:
Many families I know with older children who are struggling academically seem to have intuitively stumbled upon the same solution: finding an unorthodox space conducive to learning.
One family takes their two teenagers to Red Robin once a week, where after burgers and fries, they pull out the study materials and remain tucked into their regular booth until closing. It’s “study night,” but it’s also burgers and fries.
Another family goes to their local coffee shop, for the same reason. It’s still the same books, notebooks, calculators, and syllabi. But the place is quiet, the furniture is different, and the draw of a hot chocolate makes the experience of studying Milton or Astronomy somehow more bearable for the otherwise disinterested teen.
The point is that these kids are not at home, where they may be confronted with messy rooms to clean, multiple screens, attention-hungry pets, and all manner of other distractions.
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