Mag­gie is a pas­sion­ate advocate for a com­mon-sense ap­proach to rais­ing boys in or­der to strengthen fam­i­lies, schools and com­mu­ni­ties.


I am a for­mer teacher and the mother of four boys, now adults.

Think­ing back to their child­hoods and ado­les­cence, it’s a whirl­wind of move­ment and phys­i­cal­ity, ad­ven­ture and in­jury, rough and tum­ble play, of fart jokes and stinky shoes, short and to-the-point com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and lots of food and Milo.

This de­scrip­tion of life with boys won’t sur­prise most peo­ple – yet why is it that the one place chil­dren spend most of their time, school, is stacked against meet­ing boys’ needs?

In 2002 Bren­dan Nelson, then Ed­u­ca­tion, Sci­ence and Train­ing Min­is­ter, is­sued a white paper on boys in ed­u­ca­tion in Aus­tralia and things were not good. Noth­ing was done.

Now, 16 years later, things are worse and still noth­ing is happening. In fact, the ‘schoo­lifi­ca­tion’ of early years as an un­in­tended side effect of NAPLAN has a lot to do with in­creas­ing con­cerns about boys.

We are see­ing dis­turb­ing num­bers of boys in re­me­dial classes and in be­hav­iour man­age­ment units.the statis­tics show a mas­sive in­crease in the num­ber of 4 to 6 year-old boys be­ing sus­pended or ex­pelled from the early years of school­ing.

We have huge in­creases in the num­bers of boys be­ing di­ag­nosed with ADHD and ODD, and there have been no sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ments in lit­er­acy.

In­deed, the Aus­tralian Early De­vel­op­ment Cen­sus (AEDC) shows chil­dren are turn­ing up with more de­vel­op­men­tal vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties than ever be­fore (na­tional av­er­age was 22 per cent in 2015) and boys and Indige­nous stu­dents fea­ture highly.

A new dis­turb­ing trend too is the in­crease in self-harm among boys aged 6 to 10 across Aus­tralia.

In WA girls now out­per­form boys in maths and sci­ence. The OECD says girls con­tinue to out­rank boys in ed­u­ca­tion across the de­vel­oped world and some com­men­ta­tors are call­ing it a ‘boy cri­sis’ – where one gap is closed, an­other one has opened. Great for our girls, but can’t all chil­dren do well?

It’s long been ac­knowl­edged that the low num­ber of male pri­mary teach­ers is an is­sue and un­less a fe­male teacher has brothers, how can we ex­pect her to un­der­stand the boys in the class un­less we ac­tu­ally talk about the dif­fer­ences be­tween boys and girls, po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect as that might be?

Steve Bid­dulph in his book Rais­ing Boys shares re­search that shows boys are de­vel­op­men­tally dif­fer­ent phys­i­cally, emo­tion­ally, and so­cially.

Per­haps al­low­ing our boys more time to de­velop be­fore feel­ing the pres­sures of our ear­lier-than-ever for­malised learn­ing sys­tem might im­prove the statis­tics.

Boys have been shown to de­velop their right brain be­fore their left, whereas girls de­velop both at the same time and this par­tially ex­plains why boys are of­ten up to 18 months be­hind girls when they start school and why girls are gen­er­ally more emo­tion­ally and ver­bally savvy.

The right brain is more about ‘do­ing’, cre­ativ­ity and in­tu­itive pro­cess­ing (rather than log­i­cal) and spa­tial growth and aware­ness. This may be why many boys pre­fer the sand­pit to craft cor­ner.

Neil Farmer in his book, Get­ting it Right

for Boys, ex­plains some key dif­fer­ences in how most boys’ and girls’ brains func­tion. He says girls have bet­ter abil­ity for ‘cross talk’ be­tween their right and left hemi­spheres, bet­ter mem­ory stor­age, and are more ver­bal and bet­ter lis­ten­ers.

“A preschool girl has a large vo­cab­u­lary, has bet­ter gram­mar, and forms longer sen­tences than a boy of the same age,” says author Ruth Han­ford Morhard in her book, Wired to Move.

These dif­fer­ences ex­plain a lot of the angst that hap­pens in our homes and schools where boys are of­ten mis­un­der­stood.

One of the most no­tice­able ma­jor dif­fer­ences (there are al­ways ex­cep­tions) be­tween girls and boys in the class­room is boys tend to learn bet­ter with reg­u­lar move­ment. Pas­siv­ity numbs them to a de­gree.

The need for move­ment has be­come even more im­por­tant with to­day’s screens. I cel­e­brate the schools that have ac­knowl­edged this and changed class­rooms to al­low more free­dom to move with wig­gly stools, stand­ing desks, and low desks that al­low stu­dents to sit on the floor.

I recently vis­ited Im­manuel Pri­mary School in Ade­laide and they have changed the class­room environment to sup­port the need for all stu­dents to find a pre­ferred learn­ing place that suits them – and the boys are no­tice­ably more en­gaged.

Class­rooms, es­pe­cially those try­ing to get ev­ery­one up to scratch for NAPLAN, aren’t re­ally con­ducive to flex­i­bil­ity.

The fad of ex­plicit in­struc­tion is fol­lowed in the hope it will im­prove grades, how­ever I have heard of stu­dents spend­ing up to an hour in in­tense ses­sions of ex­plicit in­struc­tion. Even I would strug­gle to stay en­gaged for that long.

The sec­ond ma­jor dif­fer­ence be­tween boys and girls is that the amyg­dala is big­ger in boys so they are bi­o­log­i­cally driven to want to be war­riors and su­per­heroes and to take risks – of­ten per­ceived as naugh­ti­ness.

This also ex­plains why boys get con­fused around emo­tions. Many boys will take any emo­tional state – even sad­ness, con­fu­sion, frus­tra­tion and hurt – and turn it into an anger re­sponse. So much ag­gres­sion masks other emo­tional vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties.

Com­bine this with their ex­tra testos­terone and we have a sit­u­a­tion where if we don’t pro­vide our boys with plenty of op­por­tu­nity to dif­fuse pent-up en­ergy and process feel­ings, it will man­i­fest it­self in dis­rup­tive, ag­gres­sive and even bul­ly­ing be­hav­iours.

The re­turn to na­ture play es­pe­cially in WA is help­ing many boys spend time at re­cess and lunch be­ing ad­ven­ture­some and ac­tive. This floods the brain with dopamine, which im­proves ca­pac­ity to con­cen­trate. Play also helps build so­cial skills boys can of­ten strug­gle with, again es­pe­cially in our screen-driven world.

Aus­tralia’s ‘ed­u­ca­tion rev­o­lu­tion’ has eroded crit­i­cal play­time and the op­por­tu­nity for phys­i­cal­ity in our schools.

The cost is high for all chil­dren but even more so for our boys – and per­haps for their teach­ers who end up de­vot­ing more time to be­hav­iour man­age­ment.

Most boys tend to have shorter at­ten­tion spans and need more stim­u­la­tion to be­come en­gaged in ac­tiv­i­ties they per­ceive as ‘bor­ing’ with lit­tle fun and light­ness. With the fas­ci­na­tion and pas­sion for gam­ing out­side of school this is be­com­ing a greater is­sue.

An­other chal­lenge is boys tend to hear less than girls, and that’s when they’re en­gaged. If a boy is ab­sorbed in an ac­tiv­ity, or fac­ing away from his teacher, he will gen­er­ally not hear a thing be­ing said.

He also strug­gles with in­for­ma­tion overload – so mak­ing too many re­quests in one com­mu­ni­ca­tion can cre­ate a glazed look as he fails to un­der­stand what is re­quired.

We need to fac­tor in these gen­der dif­fer­ences when we’re com­mu­ni­cat­ing with boys. They need all the help they can get to en­sure they can suc­ceed and thrive in our schools and in life, and re­verse those scary statis­tics.

Al­low­ing young boys more time to bloom, en­sur­ing they can find some suc­cess some­where in the school ground, hav­ing a grownup who cares about them and ac­knowl­edg­ing that just be­cause they have slightly dif­fer­ent needs this does not mean they are not a prob­lem – are great start­ing points.

Boy cham­pi­ons who get boys, whether male or fe­male, are es­sen­tial in set­tings where boys are be­ing taught and we need to se­ri­ously ques­tion old so­cial norms that tend to blame and shame boys for mak­ing poor choices.

What we can­not do is con­tinue to ac­cept the aw­ful statis­tics as the norm. Mag­gie Dent has be­come one of Aus­tralia’s favourite par­ent­ing au­thors and ed­u­ca­tors, with a par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est in the early years, ado­les­cence and re­silience. A for­mer teacher and now an author with 10 books to her name, she is a ded­i­cated advocate to qui­etly chang­ing lives in our fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties. Mag­gie is the mother of four sons and a very grate­ful grand­mother.

“We need to fac­tor in these gen­der dif­fer­ences when we’re com­mu­ni­cat­ing with boys.”

(Left to Right) Par­ent­ing author Mag­gie Dent with Finn (8) and Conor (10) Irvine.

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