What Works

A Book About Raising Boys, Engaging Guys, and Educating Men

What Works book cover

What Skills Do Boys Need to Excel in School?
By Dr. Abigail Norfleet James

Language-based communication skills are the foundation of education. The difficulty for boys is that many of them do not develop language skills at the same rate as most girls. It is thought that differential patterns of brain development may account for the observation that the average 20-month-old boy has half the vocabulary of his female age-mate. Although boys will likely make up the difference later, at school entry, girls may be more ready to deal with the language requirements than boys.

Additionally, many boys do not listen well. This may be due to a difference in hearing sensitivity which has been noted by some researchers or perhaps simply because parents do not talk to boys as much as they talk to girls. Whatever the reason, it takes time for many boys to develop the listening skills that are required to be successful in school.

Boys are very competitive. Whether that behavior is learned or is an innate characteristic is not known, but if a boy can't compete successfully, he may not bother to engage in the activity. Many boys decide that school is not for them simply because when they enter school it seems as if the cards are stacked against them.How can parents and teachers help boys develop the skills necessary to succeed in school? These steps will provide experiences to help boys get ready for school.

  1. Read to boys every day. Although an infant may not understand language, by the time a baby is eight months old, he is babbling in sounds that mimic the speech of those around him. This indicates his early attention to language, so he needs to be read to long before he begins to talk. It doesn't take long, 15 to 20 minutes, but it should be a regular habit and it will help boys to discover that books are fun.
  2. Turn off the TV and the computer. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under two years of age see no TV at all. Ever. And older children should be limited to one to two hours per day. Research is clear that children who watch a lot of TV while they are young develop verbal skills more slowly than children who watch less TV. Additionally, children who watch a lot of TV or play computer games are more likely to have trouble paying attention. Teachers see attentional problems as markers for learning disabilities; encouraging a boy to play outdoors or with non-electronic toys will give him practice in paying attention.
  3. Talk and sing with boys. The poor communication skills of young boys can limit their ability to interact with teachers and classmates. Research discovered that boys got into trouble in kindergarten more frequently than girls not because they were misbehaving more often, but because the teachers assumed boys who didn't respond were guilty.
  4. Let boys play by themselves or with others without adult interference. This allows boys to develop skills in problem solving and in getting along with others. Children whose parents hover over them are not as confident when they go to school, and this can result in a child who is reluctant to try new learning approaches or make new friends.
  5. Allow him to take risks. For boys, motivation depends on either competition or risk, and if neither exists, they are not interested. The recent concern with physical safety for children has resulted in limiting the opportunities for boys to take chances. Consequently, many boys have turned to video games where they can take virtual risks. This doesn't teach the dangerous consequences of behavior in the same way that physical risks will do. Yes, we want to protect boys, but if they don't take risks when they are young, they are likely to take risks when they become adolescents and are no longer under our control; those risks may be very dangerous.

Language skills and motivation are what boys need to do well in school. Reading and talking to boys gives them experience in those skills. Letting them have the space to explore their world on their own helps boys find out why school is interesting and important.


Abigail Norfleet James (B.A. Duke; Masters in Counseling and D. Ed. University of Virginia) is a world-renowned teacher and expert on gender-based learning. She is the author of Teaching the Male Brain: How Boys Think, Feel & Learn in School.

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