Boys are struggling in schools. Maybe the one-size-fits-all education system is the problem

When sharing the experience of homeschooling her now 15-year-old stepson, Ryley, Katie Mathews doesn’t hesitate to use the D-word: discipline.

“When we first got custody, he seemed like he was a…

When sharing the experience of homeschooling her now 15-year-old stepson, Ryley, Katie Mathews doesn’t hesitate to use the D-word: discipline.

“When we first got custody, he seemed like he was a lot more impulsive,” she said. “He would do stuff without thinking about the consequences. He didn’t really seem to care that much about them. And I think it was just a lack of discipline because he had a lot of love, but not a lot of discipline.”

After pulling him from public school, Mathews realized Ryley’s behavior was changing. Not only did his academic performance improve, but also his behavior, she said.

“He’s making better personal decisions,” she said. “He’s less impulsive. He had these symptoms, of them saying he was on the spectrum, or having ADD. And I just think a lot of that sometimes is attention and nurturing.”

By virtually every metric, boys are performing worse than girls at school. Very few schools are adjusting their classrooms in response to these challenges. But parents like the Mathews are leading the way in showing solutions can be as simple as changing students’ educational environments, not trying to change the students’ themselves. 

‘Unfriendly to boys’

One common challenge for boys involves their energetic behavior. They receive a disproportionally higher number of punishments for perceived inattention and hyperactivity, according to a report from the American Psychological Association. 

But parents question whether these punishments are justified in the face of boys’ desire to move around, especially if they’re required to sit at a desk for long intervals. 

For example, Ivana Greco received reports from her son’s kindergarten teacher that he had trouble sitting at his desk. 

But once Greco began homeschooling him in second grade, she found he learned best while moving – completing worksheets on the floor, reading upside down on the couch, and jumping rope before a math lesson. 

“Is part of the problem faced by boys not precisely maturity, but rather the inability of most schools to accommodate little boys’ need to run, skip, and climb?” she wrote. “Many of these wiggly children are equally able to learn, including by tackling complex subjects. They don’t lag in their ability to comprehend — rather, they lag in their ability to stay seated at a desk.” 

Dr. Leonard Sax, author of “Boys Adrift,” goes further to argue schools should take more responsibility for their role in alienating boys from education altogether. 

“American schools, with a few exceptions, have become unfriendly to boys,” he wrote in a 2021 article. “Reprimanding an elementary-school boy for chewing his pastry into the shape of a gun does not change that boy into a flower child who wants to talk about his feelings.” 

Although boys tend to include more fighting and building in their play than girls, this needn’t be a liability. 

Parents and educators can help encourage these tendencies to benefit children and society, said Christendom College philosophy professor Dr. John Cuddeback. 

“In addressing some of the more vexing, even outrageous, manifestations of boy-ness, we can make an interior shift from ‘what in the world is wrong with this child?’ to ‘how can I discover something natural at work here?’” he wrote. “This shift could have dramatic fruits in yielding constructive engagements and improved relationships.” 

Parents also see the importance of setting constructive boundaries for boys as they learn to navigate the world around them. 

“They have a bedtime, they have a certain amount of video games,” Mathews said. “They can’t just have unregulated sweets. If they want a treat, they do have to have a fruit and a vegetable first.” 

Setting boundaries can help children know how much their parents care about their well-being, she said. 

“Children in general need a lot of structure,” she said. “I’m not shy about having standards for my kids. There’s a culture of entitlement now, but I think people should have accountability and structure.” 

Strong role models

Mathews also believes boys need strong male role models now more than ever before. 

“I was raised by my dad and my brothers,” she said, adding her mom left the family and moved out of state when Mathews was 13. “I like to stand up for men. I like not to see them vilified. … I was very lucky to have a dad, and two big brothers, and they really watched over me. I’m a real big tomboy now, but I was always safe.” 

Boys need direction and guidance as they become future leaders in our country, Mathews said. 

“We got to take care of those guys. They have the highest rates of suicide. They go to war and die for us. Men do a lot for us,” she said. 

“We’re the same in some ways, and different in others, but I think we should recognize our differences and how they strengthen each other and make a cohesive family unit. I think the nuclear family unit’s a good thing. It can’t always happen, and that’s fine too, but it’s not a bad thing.” 

Sax also encourages families to find positive male role models for sons – whether they’re teachers, coaches, pastors, or family friends. 

“A generation ago, boys were inspired by the heroes in movies with stars like Gary Cooper, Paul Newman, and Sydney Poitier—actors who portrayed actual men overcoming real-life challenges,” he wrote. “Today’s movie blockbusters feature cartoon figures, such as Marvel Comics characters, who are caricatures of masculinity. Despite their best intentions, boys living in the real world cannot deploy superpowers or jump between universes.” 

Sax also criticizes the widespread use of video games, adding these can further contribute to the lack of motivation among boys to study. 

“Video games have shifted motivation for many boys away from the classroom to the video game console,” he wrote. “As a family doctor, I see firsthand many boys who are more concerned about being the first in their group to complete all the missions in the latest release of Call of Duty rather than studying for an exam.”

Mathews agrees. She’s noticed how children’s attention spans are decreasing over time and blames the abundance of screentime available to families.

“They put on a lot of video games or whatever as a babysitter nowadays, and it just saps them of motivation, and it’s highly addictive,” she said. “I think it kind of robs them of their love for learning.” 

However, Mathews is pleased with Ryley’s progress since leaving public school. He went from being functionally illiterate to a voracious reader of novels, she said.

“He’s a bright boy, but he’s just doing amazing now,” she said. “He’s a straight A student.”