How your disruptive boy can thrive in the classroom


Over the years I’ve taught many kids who struggled in the classroom environment, but one boy sticks out. Derek (not his real name) was in my Year 6 class. He was a bright boy, but was unaccountably lagging two years behind in numeracy and literacy scores. At the beginning of that school year, Derek’s previous teacher sought me out to give me the run down on all his failures from the year before. Things like not paying attention, distracting other students and playing up during quiet work time. It was a sorry tale! However, I thought it said more about the teacher’s struggle in creating an environment where boys could thrive, not Derek’s individual learning and behavioural problems.

When we think of making learning more accessible to boys, here are some of the questions we ask:

  1. Are ‘boy-friendly’ classrooms possible?
  2. What does a ‘boy-friendly’ classroom look like?
  3. If we help boys in this way, will we hinder girls?
  4. Can one classroom cater for all students or is this just wishful thinking?

Many teachers are finding ways of engaging boys. They know that they are onto something, because if teachers engage the boys in a co-ed classroom then they will likely create an environment where all can learn, girls included.

So what really engaged Derek in my Year 6 classroom?

In the first months I intentionally created an environment with lots of physical activity. As a rule, I changed the learning activities every 20 minutes, and traditional bookwork tasks were ‘sandwiched’ between other active learning tasks.

In Term 2 we began a four-week entrepreneurial learning activity. In the simulation ‘marketplace’ the children worked in teams to create businesses by providing goods or services. This created a new classroom economy, which required governance, collaboration and evaluation. This was the moment that the Derek woke up from his ‘schooling daze’. He and his classmates were swept up into this exciting real-world experience.

In a ‘land’ auction at the beginning of the learning experience where classroom spaces were allocated to students, Derek decided to bid for multiple properties while other children waited for the premium sites to become available. He ended up with 10 or more of the properties, bought at a fraction of their value. He created a business leasing them to others. Derek saw an opportunity and seized it, showing business sense well beyond his years. He decided to develop a spreadsheet to track all the money he was earning from his properties. Then he began to see other opportunities in leasing furniture, lobbying government and providing cleaning services. He employed more staff. As he encountered a new problem, he found a way to find a solution.

Throughout the entire experience Derek was engaged and motivated. Unsurprisingly, he excelled during the bookwork-based assignment at the end of the unit of study. The assessment involved each student choosing their preferred mode of response from a list of activities, based on a rubric of Bloom’s Taxonomy and Multiple intelligences. In just four short weeks, Derek underwent an extraordinary transformation!

What was it about this learning environment that stimulated Derek? They are strategies that teachers have instinctively known but not always implemented. Here is an overview of the current thinking on boys and education.

Boys require more physical activity.

They generally have more energy to burn, so teachers need to harness this positively. Boys generally love exercise early in the day and sporadically throughout to ‘wake up their brain’. In a boy-friendly class, the style of learning activities will change regularly so they can remain more engaged.

Boys typically lag behind 1-2 years in literacy skills, so this needs to be managed very carefully.

Lagging in literacy can put many boys in a very frustrating and tenuous position. They can feel they are never really comfortable in the classroom because everything revolves around reading, the very thing they struggle most with. An obvious coping mechanism is for boys to muck up when they are out of their depth. A boy friendly classroom will make learning to read and write purposeful and real. It will uphold the dignity of these children. A variety of text types preferred by boys and spatial and visual learning methods need to be used.

Boys need more ‘hands on’ tasks rather than communicative tasks.

Teachers need to pay attention to certain learning methods so boys have the same opportunity to learn as girls, in ways matching their preferences. Experiential learning activities tend to be more active in nature and therefore engage boys more holistically and effectively. However, the reality is that this style of activity take more time to prepare and is more ‘risky’ than simple bookwork. For this reason passive and safe learning techniques tend to dominate the classroom. Girls and boys enjoy experiential learning and learn richly and deeply from these tasks.

Boys prefer a cooler classroom.

One reason for this is that research tells us that boys prefer to work at 21°C while girls work best at 24°C. This is why boys work better earlier in the day. A classroom suitable for boys and girls will be set at 22.5°C.

Boys are stimulated more by challenge and risk.

This is because the autonomic nervous system of boys and girls reacts differently to threat and stress. Girls can find challenge and risk stressful, whereas boys thrive on this.

The teacher of a boy-friendly classroom will use challenge and risk as a motivator for learning. It’s a shame that many schools in this current generation have become sterile and predictable to accommodate health and safety litigation fears. However, children can learn powerful lessons by taking appropriate risks and learning from their mistakes, as this school in New Zealand shows.

Boys need extra help to manage their time.

Homework, assignments, timetables and self-discipline can be problematic for boys because the executive function of their brain is less developed in the earlier school years. A teacher who gives specific instruction and mentoring around time management will see a huge improvement in their male students’ ability to organize themselves. Boys will learn time-management skills when the process is clear, positive and relational, rather than punitive and strict.

A learning environment that caters for boys is possible, it just requires greater awareness and skill by the teacher. For many teachers, a disengaged boy is far more than a puzzle, they make us feel ineffective and out of control. At times we can even resent them for disrupting the learning of others. Our education system must continually help teachers to up-skill and develop sophisticated and nuanced teaching tools to create classrooms a friendly place for both boys and girls.

Please note: The differences between boys and girls is statistically significant, however individual differences of children will always mean that some children do not follow these trends.