In the early 1970s, many people began to question why girls did not seem interested in science and math and were not engaged in sports. Research demonstrated that it wasn’t because girls were incapable. Instead, socialization practices, teacher and parental expectations, and media messages told girls that these areas were “not for them.”
So, people went into action. Policymakers put legislation like Title IX in place, and companies changed how girls and women were portrayed in textbooks. It took more than ten years, but eventually the situation improved for girls.
All along, everybody assumed boys were doing just fine. But, current research shows that boys — particularly African-American and Latino boys — are being stigmatized in school. They are falling behind in reading and disengaging from school at a very early age, a trend that has disastrous long-term consequences.
In a chapter titled “Improving Boys’ Achievement in Early Childhood and Primary Education,” published in Lessons in Educational Equality by Oxford University Press, 2012, we synthesize international research about the difficulties boys experience in school and strategies to remedy the situation. The chapter grows out of research and curricula around raising and educating healthy boys that we’ve been doing since 2000. In brief, we argue that the lack of success young boys are experiencing is a gender equity issue, and it calls for some of the strategies that have worked to address gender equity in girls’ education. As a first step, we recommend restoring early education to its roots: making time for play, social-emotional development and exploration.
We found that in countries around the world, but especially the United States, even kindergarteners are spending an increasing amount of time being taught or tested in literacy and math. This mandated curriculum leaves little time for child-initiated learning or unstructured play and contributes to a rise in aggression and anxiety in young children. And, importantly, they don’t have the opportunity to develop critical social-emotional skills.
Diminishing opportunities for play and prosocial learning are especially disastrous for boys. It sets boys up for increased likelihood of violence, lower academic achievement and eventually disproportionately high drop-out rates.
International research is also finding that societal stereotypes about gender — ideas of what boys and girls are supposed to be like — contribute to boys’ lack of success in school.
For instance, a focus group of teachers and parents said boys were expected to be strong and to hide their emotions; those who didn’t would suffer a host of consequences such as being bullied and ostracized. They also said that energetic boys were thought to be troublemakers.
These expectations prevent boys from developing into psychologically healthy young men, and they often leave boys with the sense of being scrutinized, disliked or simply “bad.”
We recommend that teacher education include discussions about gender attitudes and how they affect the way teachers relate to both boys and girls. Change will require intentional focus and concerted effort. But that kind of effort is possible. After all, advocates changed national policies and scaled up programs for girls a generation ago.
To be sure, work on behalf of girls is not done. But we can apply some of that movement’s lessons to improving boys’ well-being and success in school. Ultimately, we believe that it is important to understand and meet all children’s needs in the classroom and that effective gender equity benefits both girls and boys.