Society’s emphasis on masculinity teaches children, especially young boys, that being a “strong man” is about playing sports, being competitive and establishing power. Very seldom does masculinity connect to studying, getting good grades and pursuing higher education.
Ioakim Boutakidis, a Cal State Fullerton professor of child and adolescent studies and member of the American Psychological Association’s National Taskforce on Boys in School, examines how gender socialization and developmental psychology impact boys’ success and performance in educational settings.
“Often, boys who do well in school are tagged with pejoratives. They are called ‘the nerds’ or ‘the kids who aren’t good at anything else.’ Boys see this and are more likely to withdraw from positive academic behaviors,” Boutakidis said.
Males tend to earn lower grades and test scores and experience higher expulsion rates than females, explained Boutakidis. This data has been widely researched and collected, and until recently, little has been done to explain why those differences exist.
Boutakidis began his research by studying young boys’ academic success in elementary classrooms. He said that all children start school with different levels of “academic readiness,” which are defined by performance markers, such as how well a child can pay attention, how likely they are to listen and follow teacher instruction and how successful they are at retaining information.
“Studies have shown that boys may be a bit behind girls developmentally when they begin formal classroom instruction. When it comes to the parts of the brain that are about executive functioning, delayed gratification and self regulation, those mature later for boys than they do for girls,” said Boutakidis. “Once boys are on this trajectory, it tends to generate these self-sustaining effects, and the gap continues to widen as they go through high school and college.”
A featured expert in the American Psychology Association’s cover story, “Supporting boys’ success in the classroom,” Boutakidis explained that if this gender gap in classroom performance is not addressed, it will lead to severe consequences for men in their futures.
“Barriers in education can lead to higher unemployment and incarceration rates as well as increased risk for mental health struggles,” he said.
He added that men of color, especially males from Black and Latinx communities, face the greatest educational challenges.
“The general issues that are true for all boys intersect with discriminatory structures and adult biases as to what they are capable of,” he said.
In addition to understanding why this gap exists, Boutakidis’ research also focuses on resources and interventions that create safe academic and emotional spaces for children of all learning abilities and increase their opportunities for success as they transition into high school and higher education.
In examining early education and grade school classrooms, Boutakidis said he’s noticed that male students struggle more with paying attention, sitting still and staying focused on a task. In the aftermath of the pandemic, he said it’s not surprising that students exhibit this behavior given that many of them became accustomed to online environments riddled with distractions.
“Across the public school systems, you see these gaps. When you talk to teachers, they’ll tell you that they don’t have a playbook for how to address these issues and how to mitigate them,” he explained. “I want to tackle this the way we tackle equity and opportunity gaps, and the first step is educating people.”
Addressing The Issue With Education and Intervention
Boutakidis said the first step is to create fact sheets and briefs that can be widely distributed to policymakers, parents, school officials and educators. Created by organizations like the National Taskforce on Boys in School, these fact sheets address such topics as boys’ academic readiness, how socioeconomic status influences learning habits and the importance of promoting emotional learning in the classroom.
Increasing education on this subject will promote tangible changes in the educational system, said Boutakidis. Starting in elementary education, he said that schools can make such changes as revising discipline strategies to include warnings and constructive conversations, and diversifying lesson plans to better align with students’ interests and backgrounds.
On college campuses, Boutakidis suggested such changes as expanded mentorship opportunities and training for faculty mentors who support male students as well as partnerships with local schools to establish a pipeline for young boys who need additional support to get to college.
“I want all students to have as much opportunity to succeed as possible,” said Boutakidis. “We want to get to a place where people are able to express their identities in a way that is true to themselves and in a way that they’re comfortable with, so that they can reach their potential.”