Breaking down barriers to boys' success

Linda Tallent
Thursday, May 7, 2015

Beware the stereotyping of 'Boys will be boys!', says Linda Tallent.

Society must value and celebrate the special quality of boys, their strengths, their character, their enthusiasm for learning and their zest for life.

Boys’ underachievement is an issue across the entire developed world and it is not going away.

Only in Scandinavia do boys achieve at roughly the same rate as girls, and there they don’t start school formally until they are seven. Prior to that, they are learning actively, outdoors and largely through play.

It is a simple sum: for many boys in this country and elsewhere the demands made upon them to read and write before they are emotionally and physically ready to do so can give many an early taste of failure from which many of them never fully recover.

It is not all boys that underachieve. It tends to be poor, white, working class boys that are at the bottom of the heap, as always.

My advice and suggestions for improving practice are not to the detriment of girls because anything that addresses the attitude, the behaviour and subsequently the performance of boys will have a positive effect for all. The themes and activities that I suggest are more often than not enjoyed by girls as well.

Positive, supportive work by pre-school providers and early years practitioners can be absolutely vital in breaking down some of the barriers to boys’ achievement at the very beginning of their educational journey.

Sometimes very simple adjustments to the excellent practice of early years’ staff can make a difference.

For example, the amount of time spent on developing fine motor skills will greatly reduce issues that may develop when beginning to write. The time boys spend learning through play outdoors will give them the opportunity to be themselves and learn in an environment where there is space and ample natural resources to make noise, have freedom to move and explore and develop a real zest for learning.

Language plays an important part in boys’ development. Girls can use between ten and 30 times as much language in their play than boys. We can help them to become more confident in their use of language by ensuring that we create a wide variety and number of opportunities for talk in their early years. We also know that girls, by and large, tend to be more capable of talking about their emotions than boys.

Even at a young age, boys can be encouraged to hide their emotions, often by their own peers, with phrases such as ‘Boys don’t cry' and often by their own fathers too: 'Pull yourself together. You’re a boy! What’s the matter with you?'

In teaching, the development of emotional intelligence in youngsters is an essential element of what we need to nurture and this should impact upon how we talk to boys and how we talk to girls.

By ensuring that practitioners are aware of the importance of looking at how they talk to boys and how they talk to girls, they can make a significant difference to the way boys perceive themselves as learners. By giving boys the words with which to express their feelings, something at which girls are far more adept, their emotional development will be significantly enhanced.

Engaging with parents, practitioners and teachers can help reduce parental anxieties and help their boy succeed. Showing parents how they can actively support their boy’s developing language skills and develop a love of reading and a positive attitude toward learning can have a major impact.

By making parents aware of the necessity to develop independence in their boys will help make them effective, independent learners, something that many boys lack as they grow.

Being aware of the negative stereotyping of boys will help to ensure that, as practitioners, we don’t fall foul of thinking 'Boys will be boys!' Wrong! 'Boys will be …., brilliant!'

Above all, perhaps, is the need for what is virtually an entirely female workforce to have the knowledge and the confidence to link into what’s going on in a boy’s head, a boy’s world and a boy’s universe.

In early years education, as in all education, we need to value what it is that boys bring to the table. With the commitment of informed and reflective early years practitioners, we can challenge such negativity.

We love working with boys don’t we? We love to see how enthusiastic and engaged they become when we work or play with them in ways that relate to their interests. We love their openness and honesty. What you see is what you get!

We love the fact that they can be a little more challenging, which means that they can be that little bit more rewarding.

We love their sense of fun and sense of humour, and we love the way that every day is a brand new day for them. Together we can strive to make every day an exciting and rewarding learning day for them.

Linda Tallent is an early years education consultant and a specialist in tackling boys' underachievement.

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