February 25, 2015 By Jennifer L. W. Fink
Since the Washington Post published my essay, Why Schools Are Failing Boys, I’ve heard from dozens of parents & educators. Sadly, my essay struck a chord with a lot of frustrated families. And what I’m hearing from those families is It’s so reassuring to know I’m not the only one and What can we do?
It’s easy to feel hopeless when your son is struggling in school. After all, most of us have already tried talking to our sons’ teachers, and all of us deal with resource limitations. But you have more power than you know.
A teacher who “gets it” emailed me shortly after the article appeared online. She teachers 2nd graders and understands their innate need for movement, so every 20 minutes or so, she’d turn on music in her classroom and let her students dance. Administrators put the kibosh on those dance breaks; six minutes an hour is apparently too much instructional time to sacrifice to something as silly as physical movement. This educator asked me to share one message: Parents, she said, are the ones with the power. Parents need to let their voices be heard.
If your son is struggling in school, don’t give up! Here are some suggestions to help you improve your son’s educational experience. These steps can help your son, his classmates and, ultimately, thousands of boys:
Share information about boys with your sons’ educators. Some of my sons’ best teachers were also — and not-so-coincidentally — men or moms of boys. These educators possessed an intuitive or hard-earned understanding of boys. They understood and appreciated boy humor and boy culture, and that understanding infused their interactions with boys. Unfortunately, not all educators understand how boys think and learn; gender differences in learning and education aren’t extensively covered in teacher education. So share some helpful resources with your sons’ teachers and school administrators. Our Resources page contains a wide variety of books & websites. Consider donating books about boys & education to your sons’ school. (I strongly recommend Kelley King’s book, Writing the Playbook: The Practitioner’s Guide to Creating Boy-Friendly Schools.)
Discuss your concerns with other parents of boys. You’ll likely find that your son isn’t the only one struggling. Sharing your concerns with other parents of boys allows to compare notes, brainstorm solutions and organize as necessary to get things done. One parent complaining about a lack of recess time (or the use denial of recess as a discipline strategy) might not get much done. A group of organized parents stands a much better chance of affecting change. I heard from one parent who is organizing a phone list of other concerned parents; together, they plan to approach the school’s principal to ask for a clearly defined recess policy that respects students’ needs.
Compliment your sons’ school. As the old adage says, you’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. It’s so easy to get fired up about whatever is wrong at your son’s school — and so hard, when you’re fired up, to recognize the steps educators are taking to try to meet the needs of all of their students. It’s also really easy, as a parent, to forget about the fact that educators are working with limited resources, under a great deal of pressure. Taking the time to acknowledge educators’ efforts –– especially when they do something that helps your son — will help you build a productive working relationship, instead of an adversarial relationship, with your sons’ school.
Stop making such a big deal about homework. Listen: your sons’ value, and your worth as a parent, does not depend on the grades your sons earn in school. Do not allow homework to damage your relationship with your son, and don’t let homework occupy your the entirety of your sons’ evenings. If your son is resisting his homework, try to find out why. If he doesn’t understand the work, he made need some extra academic support, either at school or at home. If the homework is pointless, it might be time to talk to the teacher. And if he’s perfectly capable of doing the homework but resisting it anyway, try some of these options.
Support your sons’ interests. The world is much bigger than Science, Social Studies, Reading and Math. Unfortunately, many of the things boys are interested in don’t fit into neat academic categories; in fact, many aren’t considered “educational” in the academic sense at all. But an interest in anything can lead anywhere, and real learning is all about setting goals, gathering information, trying things, adapting and rejiggering your strategy as needed. So instead of squashing your sons’ non-academic interests — think video games, motorcycles, paintball, ballet, farming or Pokemon — encourage them. Boys tend to learn best when something matters to them. I know plenty of boys who learned to read while playing video games or collecting cards.
Stand up for your son. Despite the fact that school is ostensibly for kids, their voices are not often heard or considered as part of educational planning. And most kids are well aware of the fact that their voices and opinions (regarding what they’d like to learn, how they learn best, why they’re struggling to sit still) are not welcome at school. It’s up to us to politely and firmly share our sons’ concerns and to stand up for their interests. That’s why I’ve been talking to my sons’ school about recess. It’s why I regularly email my son’s teacher. If you have a question or concern regarding your sons’ education, don’t be afraid to call the school and ask for an appointment with his teacher or principal.
Explore educational alternatives. Be creative: full-time public school, private school and homeschool are not the only alternatives out there. One parent who emailed me worked out a deal with her son’s school: when he was in kindergarten, he attended school four days a week; each Friday, he’d do an activity or field trip with his mom instead. Another parent has enrolled his kids in a virtual academy; the kids are home, but attend a public school online. The school’s flexible schedule gives his kids plenty of time for music lessons, field trips and free play. Other parents have found ways to combine paid employment with homeschooling.
Advocate for change. Want to bring about change in a big way? Support the efforts to establish a White House Council on Boys & Men. Consider education and your sons’ needs when you vote for government officials. Take a stand against educational practices that you consider harmful to your son and others and support efforts to create learning environments that respect students’ need to move and to learn via discovery.
Share your story. Odds are, your story will resonate with another family and give them strength to find educational alternatives and solutions. When we share our stories and solutions, we empower others to join us in creating a better world for boys. As one mom so eloquently told me, “All we can do is help each other. We have much power as parents to change the school system — and we should wield it.”