Understanding the Minds of Boys: Strategies for Student Engagement


By Dakota Hoyt

Hoyt Stratagies for Boys 300x300By almost every benchmark, boys across the nation and in every demographic group are falling behind.

—Peg Tyre, “Education: Boys Falling Behind Girls in Many Areas

That statement was made back in 2006 in a Newsweek cover story. The article went on to discuss the education world’s response to this unfortunate fact:

With millions of parents wringing their hands, educators are searching for new tools to help tackle the problem of boys. Books including Michael Thompson’s best seller, “Raising Cain” (recently made into a PBS documentary), and Harvard psychologist William Pollack’s “Real Boys” have become must-reads in the teachers’ lounge. The Gurian Institute, founded in 1997 by family therapist Michael Gurian to help the people on the front lines help boys, has enrolled 15,000 teachers in its seminars. Even the Gates Foundation, which in the last five years has given away nearly a billion dollars to innovative high schools, is making boys a big priority. “Helping underperforming boys,” says Jim Shelton, the foundation’s education director, “has become part of our core mission.”

Sadly, it is now 2015, and the story is still the same or more desperate.

  • Boys make up over three-fourths of school discipline referrals.
  • Boys are several times more likely to be expelled from preschool.
  • Close to 80 percent of students on Ritalin are boys.
  • 80 percent of children from ages 10 to 19 who commit suicide are boys.
  • Boys receive two-thirds of the Ds and Fs on school report cards.

Check out the “Boys in Crisis” video for more statistics and information about the discrepancies between males and females in education.

What Is Being Done?

The Gurian Institute, which works with schools and districts who have disaggregated their academic data by gender, has found that it is generally boys who pull the scores down. Of course, this not intentional. It is simply a phenomenon that has occurred over time for any number of reasons: the increase in the number of female teachers, the increase in time dedicated to “sit-and-get” instruction, the reduction or elimination of lunch and recess time, the elimination of vocational classes, and so on. The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons from Falling Behind in School and Life and Boys and Girls Learn Differently: A Guide for Teachers and Parents by Michael Gurian explains the more than 100 neural differences between the male and female brain and how these differences affect learning and relationships.

The Gurian Institute works directly with teachers to give them the “gift” of the gender lens and demonstrates best-practice gender-friendly strategies they can use immediately to engage more  students. The Gurian Institute offers on-site training, online classes, Summer Institute, a Winter Institute, books and videos, and support to communities to offer a Helping Boys Thrive Summit. All of this information can be found at www.gurianinstitute.com

What Can You Do?

The following chart provides some areas to consider as you are working with boys as a parent or a teacher.

Strategies for Engaging Boys

Boy Energy

  • Allow and schedule movement
  • Allow choices for seating
  • Stand to answer
  • Hand fidgets
  • Get outside
  • Allow for structured movement in discipline (do not take away recess)
  Getting Things Done

  • Competition
    • Timers
    • Challenges
  • Short-term rewards
    • Positives instead of take-aways
    • Acknowledge success
  • Transitions
    • Nonverbal cues
    • Visual cues

  • Pick a time when they are not focused on something else
  • Talk side to side
    • Walk and talk
    • Go for a drive
  • Be concise (female teachers tend to use more words)
  • Be direct
  • Give them time to process

  • Affirm their talent
  • Find funny books that may seem gross
  • Make fun of your mistakes
  • Be silly
  • Understand humor as a stress reliever

  • When they are being emotional
    • Expect there may be a physical outburst
    • Have them drink water
    • Give them time to find their words
    • Encourage them to move
    • Ask what they think, not what they feel
Risk Taking

  • Support and encourage curiosity
  • Let males take the lead
  • Provide positive opportunities for taking risks
  • Teach by example
  • Remember that failure is often our best teacher

  • Allow them a way to be physical with one another (aggression nurturance)
  • Encourage games of competition
  • Allow them to solve their own problems
  • Remember that intentional violence is not acceptable
  Reading, Writing, and Speaking

  • Give them authentic writing opportunities
  • Provide novelty
  • Use the Think, Pair, Share strategy
  • Draw before writing
  • Offer reading materials based on interest
  • Allow themes of “protect and provide”
  • Encourage humor
  • Use audience influence (older boys)

Join Dakota Hoyt at the 2015 ASCD Conference on Educational Leadership where she will present “Understanding the Minds of Boys: Critical Information for Increasing Student Success,” an interactive session to explore concrete strategies for increasing student success—especially for boys.


Dakota Hoyt has been in education for 30 years as a teacher, a math/science specialist, an assistant principal, a director of professional development, and an educational consultant. Hoyt has been associated with the Gurian Institute since 2004 as a master trainer and became the executive director in 2012. She coauthored From Boys to Men: All about Adolescence and You and Understanding Guys: A Guide for Teenage Girls with Michael Gurian.


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