Ploys for boys

How to reduce bad behaviour and get great results from the boys in your school.
With 20 years’ teaching experience in a wide variety of schools, I’ve frequently encountered staff who despair at the behaviour of boys in their classes. Frankly, I love teaching boys, and perhaps my experiences as a P.E. teacher, often teaching single-sex groups, prepared me well for managing the classroom behaviours of boys. Perhaps being (at the very least) a cheeky student myself, frequently preferring attention-seeking behaviours to concentrating in class, I am able to relate to much of what is seen in classes every day. Or maybe I was just under-stimulated and over-confident. Regardless of the circumstances, I certainly have some successful strategies for teaching boys and am happy to share them. So here are my tips on improving behaviour, engagement and outcomes for boys.Why focus on boys?

At the primary school stage, around 10% fewer boys compared to girls make expected progress. As they move through to secondary school, close to 9% fewer boys achieve five good passes at GCSE. Into Key Stage 5, males are entered for A-levels in much smaller numbers than females (around 60,000 fewer males per year), and even once on a course, males are 5% less likely to achieve A*-C at A Level. There are currently around 9% fewer males in the UK university population.

On top of those facts, when it comes to behaviour and sanctions in schools, the numbers are even more worrying.

Boys are 3 times more likely to be Fixed-Term Excluded than girls. And this starts early, with boys in reception classes being 7 times more likely to be excluded than girls! Even in Y10 (the most common age to be FTE), boys are still more than twice as likely to be excluded as girls in the same cohort. And boys are more than 3 times more likely to be Permanently Excluded.

Angry face

So the system we have is not serving boys as well as it is girls. When faced with such enormous disparities, we as professionals are surely obligated to at least try to redress the balance.

According to the research of Moir & Jessel, (1980) those with the more typically ‘male’ brains show higher levels of aggression and competitiveness. As a result, behaviours may at times become more aggressive and therefore less acceptable in a classroom environment. At this point, can I stress that for the sake of brevity I have assumed the generalities below, but a boy may well have a predominantly ‘female’ brain and vice versa. To get into gender politics and nature vs nurture requires a far lengthier post!

That being said, ‘male’ brains may have;

  • A greater dominance in the right hemisphere
  • A better ability to handle space and shape
  • A desire to know the ‘big picture’
  • Greater impulsiveness
  • Shorter attention spans
  • Love of (or near addiction to) risk
  • Preference for learning through experimentation
  • A more random and impulsive attitude to tasks
  • Capacity for working on one task at a time

Those with the more female brains show;

  • Higher levels of passivity and greater tendency to co operate
  • A greater dominance in the left hemisphere
  • A greater capacity for language and early use of words
  • A more systematic approach to tasks
  • A preference for detail
  • Better longevity on tasks
  • A reduced ability to handle shape and space
  • A capacity to multi task

Boys love status and their social groups have clear hierarchies. I’ve found it successful to give the ‘clowns, stars and rebels’ of my classes responsibilities. These may be simply collecting/distributing equipment, etc, but this seems to acknowledge a need for attention and status and reduces other attention-seeking behaviours.

Many boys love competition. This ties in again to status.  Fill your classes (and room) with competitions.  Here are some ways I introduce competitions;

Top Gun – Top student in the latest test is my ‘Top Gun’ who we defer to on any contentious discussion points until replaced by whoever is top of the next test.

Funniest joke – Create some space for the class clown by allowing time at the start or end of class for volunteers to tell a joke.

Academic league tables – Posting a ‘League Table’ on the wall (complete with images of the top teams/players in the Premier League) to show test results and whether pupils have climbed or fallen down the table is very popular and motivational.

Extreme HW – Set HW tasks that relate to the course but lead in new and surprising directions.  Make it applicable to real life and publish the best efforts on Twitter.

Boys particularly need role models.  Where a student needs extra support or is disengaging from study, giving them a role model who’s interested in their progress can help.  This does not need to be complex but can simply mean arranging for their favourite teacher to check their homework before they submit it or spend 2-3 minutes a day just ‘checking in’ with them. This helps them feel valued and worthwhile, and that they belong in the school community.

Peer mentoring schemes where older boys (possibly from the 6th form) support the study or homework for a younger student work really well.

Student-led action teams can be effective, creating small groups who compete to see who can improve their grades or test scores the most over a given time period.  

Leadership Roles – Make the students who need attention and want to be the ‘star of the show’ group leaders, responsible for getting the best work from other group members or feeding back information from research.  The pressure of responsibility often channels their energy positively when they know their need for an audience will be satisfied during the lesson.

Develop a ‘club’ ethos.  Boys want to belong to something.  I like to develop small routines that are unique to that group and catchphrases that become an ‘in joke’ with that class. Validate them by reminding them that this is how WE do things because they are THE best class and WE will be successful together: classic team sports psychology giving the group a clear collective identity and purpose.

EWAP (or WIIFM?).  Some of the toughest students to motivate are those who can’t see the link between what you’re asking them to do and their future dreams and aspirations. In my experience, boys are more likely to question the point of work rather than passively follow instructions, so ensure that lessons and tasks are planned with deliberate aims and outcomes (Everything With A Purpose) and ensure that these are clearly communicated to the students (What’s In It For Me?).

Boys often respond well to ‘real-life’ situations and like to see the ‘big picture’ with tasks.  Rather than teaching sports injuries through paper tasks, I might set up a crime scene in the classroom and ask students to successfully triage the ‘victims’.

Relationships are everything.  The most ‘challenging’ boys in your class (and if you take issue with that term, check out  Tom Starkey’s brilliant piece on ‘challenging’ schools’) will probably have already faced numerous disapproving looks, stern words and detentions during the week to undermine their positive intentions. To balance this, they need to be made to feel valued and respected in school and this takes time and effort to develop.

To this end;

Have a sense of humour.  That doesn’t mean trying to become the entertainer in the classroom, but if they are genuinely trying to be funny, laugh along with them rather than setting a counter-productive sanction. Appreciate their culture. You don’t need to act cool but show an interest in the things they’re passionate about and avoid being dismissive of their interests.

Trust them. And find opportunities show that you trust them. Boys respond really well to being treated with that level of respect.

Get them talking. Sometimes it can be difficult to do so, but almost everyone will speak when you find the right topic, and once they start communicating properly with you, the quality of their work is likely to improve.

Be willing to appear to compromise. I often use haggling tactics in discussing sanctions with students, giving the appearance that they’re getting off very lightly because really they should be getting X, Y, Z when I’m prepared to settle for U, V and W (although I only ever really felt it deserved U, V and W in the first place).

Give structure and routines. Small things like ways to move around the classroom (or outdoor space), routines with equipment and resources, standard formats for doing the register (I like to ask a question and each child responds with their answer when I call their name) can work well.

Believe in them.  Never, ever, ever, ever, ever diverge publicly from believing that every single one of them will get a minimum of a grade 5. Not once. And don’t allow them to express any doubts without that being challenged.

Final Tips

  • Don’t lose perspective and make a mountain out of a molehill, or lose your self-control
  • Don’t be afraid to be fair but firm
  • Include opportunities for movement and practical tasks at regular intervals
  • Know your sport (or at least fake it!)
  • Finally, don’t ‘show them up’ (and bear in mind that showy praise from females sometimes does this)

If you have any strategies to add to this list, please share them in the comments section.

Published by

thesportsobserver2020

Melburnian, living in Bath, U.K. Teacher, eternal student, sportsman and sports fan. Dad to Casper.

9 thoughts on “Ploys for boys”

  1. Mike, you’ve always liked a word or two, but even by your standards it’s stretching it! Let me provide a condensed version, using just 3 of your words; ‘Relationships are everything’ – thank you and goodnight! (Only Joking, fella – great work 👍).

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  2. Excellent! As a preschool teacher for over thirty years, I see much the same things that you see with boys. Not only are your observations spot on, your “how to” methods are far more than just managing behavior, they help boys grow and thrive. The one thing I would add to the list is movement. Boys need to move! And, movement stimulates neurons in the brain that sharpen cognitive development. Win-win, especially for boys. Thank you for a terrific post. -Jennie-

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    1. Totally agree… as a PE teacher originally, not sure how I forgot that in my list. Any excuse to get them out of seats midway through a lesson works so well! Thanks for the comments. I’m currently accepting suggestions for my next topic… Any thoughts?

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      1. How about, how to incorporate movement into a structured classroom where the teacher has to meet the demands and mandates from the state. In simple words, teachers are strapped. Here in Massachusetts, teachers feel they are teaching to the state test. Much to be done and not enough time. Sad. So, all that PE and movement is huge! Finland has it nailed, while we cut back recess in order to learn (which does the opposite). Sorry to ramble. Maybe this will give you some ideas. Thanks!

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