by Andrew Fuller

Helping boys learn: tips for parents and teachers

Child scratching head with question mark around head concept for confusion, brainstorming and choice

Boys are the masters of minimalism and the practitioners of ‘just-in-time’ management. Asked to do almost any task, their immediate response is “later”. If they are asked to write a 50-word essay, they will count the words and if they write 51 words most of them will think they have overdone it.

Whether you’re a parent or a teacher, if you have predominantly boys in your family or class, there are a number of things that you can do to improve behaviour and learning. These methods are likely to work with the majority of boys.

  1. Respect

Boys are constantly checking to see if you respect them. They respond well to people who have expectations of them and see them as capable of meeting those goals. If a boy has a sense that you respect him, he will walk over coals for you.

  1. Have clear signals about who is in charge

Boys need boundaries. They need to know who is in charge. They respond to adults who are fair, funny and respect their points of view. At school, boys generally do better with teacher-led learning. Open-spaced learning areas where no one clearly owns the space can be quite anxiety provoking for boys, and that anxiety converts into expressions of low motivation and clowning type behaviours.

  1. Use a physical signal when you want quiet

Boys need more signals than girls, partly because they are less tuned into facial cues. Boys are more able to screen out white noise (white noise to them is a parent or teacher requesting quiet!). Deliver instructions in silence. Use visual cues such as raising a hand, turning lights off and on, and/or moving to a particular part of the room. Never, ever yell.

  1. Fewer rules and fewer words is better

Have a couple (no more than three) clear rules that you apply fairly and consistently. Base your classroom/family management on the idea of, ‘I won’t let this happen to you and I won’t let you do it to anyone else.’

  1. Value them and they will be heroes

Boys are tuned into hierarchies. This means the predominant values of a classroom, family or school will play a powerful role in determining their actions. Have a couple of core values (e.g. compassion, generosity, being part of a team). Live by them and insist upon them.

Help boys to learn that they can be heroes and victorious, but that winning doesn’t mean someone else has to lose.

  1. Move regularly

Teaching and parenting boys is like being a cross between a matador and a traffic cop. Keep on the move and mingle with the crowd.

Boys see things best in motion. Use visuals and animations as often as you can. As James (2009) notes, boys love targeting. If you have ever watched boys put rubbish into bins you will see that they don’t place it in, they take a shot. For this reason, movement and aiming to achieve a set target are powerful strategies with boys.

  1. Boys are loyal and funny

Boys love the inside word, the cheat sheet and they love to score. Giving them hints, suggestions and a way to succeed builds their loyalty to you. Boys buy popularity through achievement, jokes and skills. Humour is an essential quality. Make it cool to listen and to be smart.

  1. Give them a whiff of success

Most boys (and men) waste an incredible amount of time completing tasks that don’t need to be done and avoiding tasks that don’t need to be avoided. Help them to structure tasks and to improve on early attempts so that they gain mastery and success. Once a boy believes he can be successful, he’ll almost always live up to it.

Brought to you by Brighton Grammar School

Andrew Fuller clinical psychologist, author, speaker and expert in the wellbeing of young people and their families. This article is about