Speaker: Boys learn differently than girls

For the Tidings

“Boys will be boys” is the cliche often used to explain male actions that are very … well, male. It’s also a phrase Janet Allison, creator of Boys Alive!, likes to analyze so she can give parents and teachers a better understanding of what the cliche really means.

Allison explained what she’s found out about “how to bring out the best in boys” to a group of parents and educators at The Siskiyou School, a Waldorf School in Ashland, last week. Her Portland-based organization, Boys Alive!, focuses on the key research of male youth development and the best ways to nurture boys. Allison spends her time sharing her findings in communities all over the world.

“We can’t expect boys to learn and behave like girls,” Allison said.

It is a multi-faceted topic, but in short, she says: Boys learn through moving their bodies, they tend to process inwardly and they don’t mentally develop at the same speed as females. In a society fueled by mostly female educators and standardized tests, one where movement and distractedness can be quickly diagnosed as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), many educators are not encouraging proper development in boys. In fact, they can stunt their development by comparing them to girls in terms of attentiveness and verbal cognition.

Allison said the organization was founded after she taught at the Waldorf School of the Rogue Valley, The Siskiyou School’s predecessor, in the ‘90s. The first-time teacher’s first-grade class consisted of 10 boys and two girls.

“No one had talked about how different boys would learn from girls, and behave, and what they needed in the classroom,” Allison said. So, she began researching the differences in brain activity, communication and how the different genders best learn.

She calls it a “boy crisis” and said it’s amplified in the past couple of years with the “me too” movement and the increase in mass shootings. Discipline referrals are 85-90 percent boys, Allison said.

“It’s all pointing towards the fact that our boys are failing,” Allison said. “I don’t believe that it is our boys, it’s the context, the way we set up schools.”

In recent years elementary schools have increased their expectations for kindergarten and first-grade classes.

“Many of our boys are not developmentally ready for academics (at that stage), they still need to play and move their bodies,” Allison said.

About 93 percent of preschool and elementary school teachers are female.

“We tend to look at boys through our female eyes and the idea that ‘sit still, listen and learn’ is counter-active to the ways boys learn,” Allison said.

Allison works as a family coach and spends much of her time with parents to help them better understand their boys.
She also works with teachers to professionally develop better learning environments for boys, which in turn gives them more time to teach all students rather than managing their rambunctious male students.

“We need to look at boys and girls, and men and women, and realize that we all have our strengths and we’re different ... and when we can understand and embrace those differences, we’ll be stronger together,” Allison said.

In her lecture on April 5, she focused on some areas of the “boy crisis” to consider, including what she says is an over-diagnosis of ADHD. By high school about 20 percent of boys are diagnosed with ADHD. A lot of diagnoses stem from the high energy young males have in school and are unnecessary, according to Allison.

Allison quoted psychologist Michael Thompson, who said, “Girl behavior is the gold standard in school and boys are treated like defective girls.”

The easiest way to keep boys focused is to make sure there is ample movement throughout their day – before, during and after school, advises Allison.

“We need to stop taking away recess as a punishment and instead create service tasks for them to do,” Allison said, “Teachers need to know how boys learn, and they learn by moving their bodies.”

She emphasized that everything done for boys in turn helps girls too. Girls need as much movement and competition as boys. She said she’s the mother of two girls, and so she doesn’t forget about female development, but she sees the need for male advocacy.

“When we decided about 200 years ago that we would bring our children into a school setting with all the same-aged children and teach them the same material,” Allison said. “That teaching turned into a lot of speaking, and not much doing … that’s when it began to fail for our boys.”

Allison collaborates with colleague Jennifer LW Fink on an educational podcast called “On Boys,” which can be found at on-boys-podcast.com. She’s also written a book on the developmental differences for parents titled “Boys Alive! Bring Out Their Best.”

A 75-minute audio lab on boys and anger can be found on her website boysalive.com. For more information, visit the Facebook page facebook.com/boysalive/.

“We have to join together to support our boys,” Allison said. “To raise healthy, happy men.”

— Contact Ashland freelance writer Caitlin Fowlkes at Caitlin.fowlkes@gmail.com.

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