Can Boys Really Not Sit Still in School?

ByABC News
January 26, 2006, 3:00 PM

Jan. 26, 2006 — -- Doug Anglin complains that his high school makes it easier for girls than for boys to succeed academically, and the Massachusetts teenager is now trying to prove it to the federal government.

It may sound like sour grapes, but some experts believe Anglin has a point.

In the complaint that he lodged with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, Anglin, 17, claimed that girls faced fewer restrictions from teachers at Milton High School in Milton, Mass., and that boys were more likely to be punished.

"The system is designed to the disadvantage of males," Anglin told The Boston Globe. "From the elementary level, they establish a philosophy that if you sit down, follow orders and listen to what they say, you'll do well and get good grades. Men naturally rebel against this."

The complaint comes at a time when boys' struggles in school are getting close examination. According to a 2005 report by the Educational Equity Center of the Academy for Educational Development in Washington D.C., boys around the country are increasingly falling behind girls academically, and are more likely to get suspended. And experts told ABC News that Anglin's assessment has merit and describes what prevails in most American classrooms.

"I think he's got it basically right, although I don't believe the system was set up purposely to hurt boys," said William Pollack, director of the Centers for Men and Young Men at McLean Hospital of Harvard Medical School.

Pollack and others noted that in general young boys in kindergarten and first grade are not able to behave as well as girls due to biological and social differences. He said that up until fifth grade, boys require five to seven recesses a day, though most get just one. "With a boy who squirms, you take away his recess," he said, "so then he either acts out and we say he's a discipline problem, or he's very active and we say he has hyperactivity."

Kathy Stevens, co-author of "The Minds of Boys" and director of training at the Michael Gurian Educational Institute, said boys' physical composition makes them learn differently than girls.

"That's a biological predisposition," Stevens said. "Take a little boy who's a year to a year-and-a-half behind developmentally. Sitting down, listening, learning to write the alphabet are going to be more difficult for them in a traditional setting."

Pollack and Stevens acknowledge that many boys excel in school and thrive in the classroom. But they say they may have to overcome their natural urges to do so.

Boys have a "biological imperative" to move more, Stevens said, because they have 15 percent more spinal fluid. "Their body is really an extension of their brain," she said.

Because they are unable to follow directions as well as girls do, she said, "Boys get identified from the get-go as behavior problems, ADD. Maybe he's just a boy and he can't just sit still."

Anglin's complaint focuses on his high school, where girls outnumber boys almost two to one on the honor roll, and almost 60 percent of the students in advanced placement classes are female, according to information provided by school officials.

A soccer and baseball player who plans to attend college, Anglin hopes the Education Department will react to his complaint by coming up with national guidelines on how to boost the academic achievement of boys.

Teachers must change their attitudes toward boys and look past their poor work habits to find ways to encourage them academically, said Anglin, whose complaint was written by his father, a lawyer. Too many boys give up too soon, he said.

Anglin has several suggestions about how Milton High School can help boys -- it could give credit for playing sports, allow students to take advanced courses pass/fail, and forgo the school's community service requirement -- but school officials say they are unlikely to adopt his ideas.

The Education Department is evaluating whether Anglin's complaint has merit, spokesman Jim Bradshaw said.

But Stevens said national guidelines are an excellent idea. Teachers need to be trained about "how boys' and girls' brains are wired differently and what that means in terms of how we structure our classrooms," she said.

For example, she said, most teachers believe if the children are sitting quietly, good teaching must be happening. "That's absolutely false," she said. "How quiet the classroom is has nothing to do with how much learning is going on."

She said it's important to create more experiential lessons and to make sure kids participate in activities like recess, music and art.

Similarly, Pollack recommends a curriculum for boys that's currently in the pilot stage at 30 California schools. "We have to recognize their behavioral tempo, to let them move around," he said. "We've actually put rolling coasters on the chairs. Kids move around the room [to different activities]. They're not given a demerit; they're given support to get out of their chair and manipulate things."

Critics of these changing methods ask why, if boys have always been predisposed to behavior and learning difficulties, is the issue suddenly becoming apparent now? And shouldn't boys have to learn how to behave appropriately to succeed in life?

Pollack said there are several reasons. First, fewer kids have two-parent families that encourage them to fight against their impulses and conform. In addition, he said, class sizes have grown and teachers deal with many more children with special needs, so boys "who just can't hold it down" are seen as more disruptive.

The increased focus on testing in schools has also ratcheted up pressure on young students, he said. "In kindergarten, I had to learn ... to socialize," he said. "Today they read and write. Some boys can. Most can't. There's a biological component."

There's also an attitude that boys should just learn to behave and follow rules -- period -- just as previous generations did. "That's similar to 'If I have to not cry and show my feelings and get an ulcer, what's wrong with you, a young adult male who wants to be a full person?'" Pollack said. "Can you make them grin and bear it? Yeah, in maybe 50 percent you can. But why would you?"

Pollack stressed that changing teaching methods to accommodate boys does not mean hindering girls. Girls, he said, often enjoy the same hands-on activities.

"We have the data about learning-style differences and behavior-style differences," he said. "This is not a win-lose circumstance. It's not teachers against parents, parents against schools, boys against girls. It's a win-win. We recognize what we now know and use it."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.