Lighting a Fire: Motivating Boys To Succeed

By The Duke Talent Identification Program

You’ve got a bright child on your hands! As a preschooler he loved books, drawing, and creating with blocks. He was excited by the things around him and was a bundle of energy, wanting to explore, handle, and figure out his world.

The Disconnect

When he started school he was enthusiastic and looked forward to the wonderful adventures you told him were in store. In elementary school you started getting notes from his teacher indicating that he was “having some problems.” The list included comments like: doesn’t stay on task, fails to turn in homework, doesn’t complete projects on time, can’t seem to stop fidgeting and sit still. In middle school your bright, gifted son is getting by with mediocre grades and an attitude that you find disheartening. He just doesn’t seem motivated to succeed in school the way you and his teachers know he could.

What happened when he entered the classroom? Too often, boys find they are asked to behave in ways that they are not prepared developmentally to do: sit still, be quiet, and use fine motor skills to learn to write. They find that their natural learning behaviors are less acceptable in the school environment. This disconnect can cause difficulties early on. While your son may never become a behavior problem, he might lose his excitement about learning and motivation in school.

This story repeats over and over in the hundreds of e-mail messages we receive from parents of boys all over the country. The names and specifics change, but the underlying concerns are the same. Why isn’t my bright child motivated to succeed in school? Why can’t he seem to finish his homework? Why doesn’t he turn it in when he has finished it? Why doesn’t he seem to care when he gets poor grades on tests and report cards? What can we do to help him perform up to his potential?

Being un-motivated can keep a child from being successful in school and can make home life a constant battleground. What can we do to keep our sons from going through this painful experience? Help them develop a love of learning long before they step into a classroom and educate schools about how boys learn best.

How Boys Learn

The physical connection between the male body and brain causes boys to learn best when they are on the move! In their cribs boys are already interested in the spatial world around them—the revolving mobile overhead, the sights and sounds outside the home. Physical activity, such as running and jumping, keeps male brains developing in healthy ways that promote learning.

To encourage a boy’s natural learning style provide opportunities for him to use his energy to learn. Letting him explore, touch, and manipulate will help him develop the skills he will need to be successful in school. Puzzles, Legos, play dough, and other small toys develop fine motor skills that will prepare young boys for holding a pencil and learning to write.

Read to a preschool boy—a lot. Let him squirm or fiddle with his toys while he listens. If you think he isn’t attending to the story while he’s playing, check in periodically and ask him, “What just happened in the story?” Probably, you’ll find he knows exactly what’s going on. The fidgeting may well be helping his comprehension. Have your librarian help him choose boy-friendly stories, which are becoming more available as authors realize that boys enjoy reading stories that are centered on boys and the activities they like.

Connect Home and School

Check out the school your son will attend before he starts. Talk to the administrators and teachers to find out if they are aware of the current research on how boys learn best. If they aren’t, provide them with resources like those listed in the sidebar. If you are a member of a parent-teacher organization, suggest that your group help fund resources and professional development opportunities for your school to help teachers and administrators translate theory about gender behavior and learning into the classroom. This helps both boys and girls.

At home, continue to involve your son in activities that are consistent with his interests and make learning fun. Pay attention to what motivates him and provide incentives (not rewards) to encourage ongoing learning. If he’s interested in animals, help him get into a youth program at your local zoo. If he’s fascinated by how things work, connect him with a local engineering organization. If your son likes sports, show him how math and science are involved. Help him connect the dots from what he is expected to learn in school and how it will help him succeed in his chosen interest or activity.

Make Time Trades

Your son needs to recognize that he will have to spend time doing things that he doesn’t necessarily want to do. Create time trades with him to help him become accustomed to doing those undesirable activities. For every minute he dedicates to doing those things he needs to do (homework, chores, his own laundry) let him trade an equal amount of time doing something he wants to do from a list you develop together. You can limit some trades, such as television watching or video-game playing to certain blocks of time (no more than 30 minutes at one sitting) or bank time for a big trade like an overnight campout or trip to a theme park. Establish the rules of the trades together.

Make sure the list is made up of things he wants to do, as long as they are appropriate (even if they don’t necessarily appeal to you). Remember motivating your son is about him and his interests. Both of you can be responsible for maintaining the time record, working on the details for the trade, and planning the activities. Besides encouraging self-confidence and self-regulation, more learning opportunities will open up to your son—math, geography, and more (but you don’t have to tell him that).

Create a Personalized Work Space

To help your son feel good about spending time doing schoolwork and reading, work with him to design his own work space. Encourage him to make it personal and functional. If that involves some paint or furnishings, find ways to let him earn those items. Be flexible and be willing to accept that it might not match your taste. Agree on a time frame before any modifications can be made; this will help your son learn to think about his choices and yet lets him know he can make modifications later. Personalizing his workspace can make sitting down to work more appealing even if the work itself isn’t!

Have a Surprise List Ready

Let your son drop notes in a jar dedicated for surprises—out of the ordinary things he would love to do sometime. Then, when you observe behavior that you want to reward (does his homework for a week or cleans his room without having to be reminded) pull a surprise from the jar and reward him. Don’t use the surprise as a bribe; for example, don’t say “If you do such-and-such, I’ll choose a surprise.” Make it truly a surprise. Don’t do it every time either. Make it random enough that while he might think a surprise is coming, he’s not quite sure—encouraging him to exhibit desired behaviors regularly.

Introduce Him to Male Role Models

Listen as your son learns what interests and excites him. Then find ways to let him meet men who are interesting and willing to share their stories, perhaps even provide some mentoring or an apprenticeship. If your son thinks cars are cool, find someone in your community who builds stock cars or restores vintage automobiles and arrange a visit. If your son loves rock music, find a local musician that will let him attend a rehearsal or even a concert. These activities could become time trades.

Motivation is something we want our children to internalize. Helping your son learn to harness his physical energy to set and achieve his own goals is one of the best gifts you can provide. It will help him become a life-long learner, someone who is always looking just past the horizon to see what adventures might be waiting down the line.

Kathy Stevens, MPA

Kathy Stevens is the director of the Gurian Institute training division. Her work has been featured inNewsweek, Reader’s Digest, Educational Leadership, Education Week, and Library Journal.

Resources and Further Reading
  • Gurian Institute Training Division
  • The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons From Falling Behind in School and Life, by Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens, Jossey-Bass, 2005
  • Boys & Girls Learn Differently! by Michael Gurian and Patricia Henley with Terry Trueman, Jossey-Bass, 2001
  • The Wonder of Boys, by Michael Gurian, Putnam, 1996