It’s time that we rewrite our playbooks for teaching boys

Kelley King

When little boys were being handed out, I got my son for a reason. I had been a teacher for eight years and I had a lot to learn about boys. Connor taught me that little boys learn by smooshing, smearing, rolling, colliding and that not all boys want to sit on your lap and read. He taught me that some kids want to run around and hit things with big hammers and jump off things. He taught me that homework doesn’t always get done at the kitchen table. Sometimes it gets done under it – or not at all. And, he taught me that not all kids want to work hard enough to get an A. Some are perfectly satisfied with a B…or a C. I know you have met a boy like Connor. They make us scratch our heads, they test our patience, and they push us to get better at what we do. And that benefits all students, both boys and girls.

As Connor was entering kindergarten, I was entering the elementary school principalship. Ah! How my worlds collided. I was faced – day and night – with the challenges of how to effectively educate boys. By day, I talked through behavior problems with little boys on the bench and attended “student concern” meetings with their parents. By night, I fretted about my own son’s reading progress and the seemingly impossible task of getting a single worksheet done. As both an educator and a parent, I needed more effective strategies and this is what set me on a journey to find answers.

After co-authoring two books on classroom strategies in 2008 (Strategies for Teaching Boys and Girls: Elementary Level and Strategies for Teaching Boys and Girls: Secondary Level) and speaking with thousands of parents and educators about how to effectively raise and educate boys, I realized that a critical part of the conversation was missing. Leadership! A parent or a teacher can make incredible changes in his or her setting with a child, but we know it takes more than a single person to transform an entire school organization. It takes a team to become more thoughtful, proactive and transformative in meeting the needs of boys. And don’t all boys deserve this?

Why am I emphasizing the needs of boys in my work? Might this be at the expense of girls? Well, first off, I’m the parent of a son and a daughter, and I discovered that they tackle life and learning very differently. Do I value my daughter’s success in school and life? Absolutely. But here’s the bottom line: the school system, as it stands today, is much more attuned to our daughters’ social/emotional/physical/intellectual make up than to our sons’. Secondly, I’m a principal and I have observed children and studied the achievement data over large groups, across ages and geographic locations, over the last decade. Boys are way under-performing on just about every single measure. Thirdly, when I ask parents and teachers, “Who are you having the most difficulty reaching in your classroom? Who is struggling most?” the answer is, almost unanimously, BOYS!

So now back to my point about leadership. If we believe that too many boys are struggling through our K-12 system and beyond, we need to move beyond change at the level of individual classrooms. In order to change the frightening national and international trends for boys, change needs to happen on a larger scale – across and throughout organizations. And that takes leadership from building and district administrators, headmasters, deans, teacher leaders, instructional coaches, professional development directors, department chairs, parent leaders, and school board members. All those who are committed to turning around the low performance of boys in the preK-12 and higher educational systems need to take a comprehensive look at their schools.  Personally, having done this in my own school and now, as I continue to feel so compelled by the persistent crisis for boys, I embarked upon writing a third book – this one directed to school leaders as a blueprint on how to create a “boy-friendly” school. Writing the Playbook: A Leader’s Guide to Creating a Boy-Friendly School will be released in June 2013.

But there’s no reason to wait for the book. You can get started now by pulling up your schools’ data by gender – early literacy assessments, special education referrals, discipline referrals, state or national assessments, attendance and discipline data, student perceiver data and more. Get your hands on any and all of it. Do you have a gender gap? Does your staff have a clear picture of what is going on? Start a dialogue with your community about ways to tackle boys’ under-performance.

Next, take a look at your Student Handbook. Highlight the policies that you suspect might be causing more difficulties for your boys versus your girls – Zero Tolerance? Late homework? Grading practices? Playground rules?

Start these conversations now and you will be ready to take it to the next level once Writing the Playbook comes out. Resources such as The Boys Initiative website can help you find answers and chart a course for improvement, as can the many books on the topic of boys’ education. As trends worsen for boys over time, boys and young men can’t afford to keep waiting. If you are a principal, I urge you, from one principal to another, to tackle this issue. You will see your school achievement rise and your behavior problems go down. If you are a teacher or a parent, I urge you to make a compelling case to your school’s leadership. Without a doubt, all schools should create an educational environment that is responsive to the developmental trajectories, needs and learning styles of both boys and girls.

Kelley King is a 25 year veteran of the public school system. As a teacher, Kelley worked in regular education, special education and gifted education. As a school principal, Kelley led her staff to close the gender gap in reading and writing in just one year and has had her school’s success featured on The Today Show, in Newsweek magazine, in Educational Leadership, and on National Public Radio, among others. As an educational consultant, Kelley provides professional development internationally and has co-authored two books (with Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens) in the education field. Kelley’s third book, Writing the Playbook: A Leader’s Guide to Creating a Boy-Friendly School, is due to be released by Corwin Press in June 2013. For more information, please contact her at

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1 Response to It’s time that we rewrite our playbooks for teaching boys

  1. Life of Liz says:

    I can’t wait to read your book! I am going to gather the info you’ve suggested so when the time comes I will be prepared to help chart a course for improvement…and btw, I have 6 daughters (aged 21-6 years) and then our youngest who is a boy. He’s in kinder and I am suddenly very aware of how geared towards girls the classroom setting is set up. I mean, trying to get him to sit still for 15 minutes is doable … but 30-45? No way! It leads me to ask, “Don’t any of the teachers (predominantly female) have sons?” and “Wouldn’t they want to give their son’s an environment that benefits both sexes?”. It is very encouraging to me that you are the principal of an elementary school and an advocate for your son. ~Liz

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