Guest Post: Jennifer Cypher on Why Boys Tune Out

574I’m sitting in one of those plastic chairs designed for kids. My son’s kindergarten teacher is saying things I don’t understand. “Your child doesn’t participate at circle time. He doesn’t do art, or like to draw. He does not respect his classmates.” Is she talking about my child? Because I’m getting 6 drawings a day coming home in his backpack. But then she hands me his report card, with his name on the top. This is my child at school?

I take a breath. I ask about the 6 drawings that come home daily. Those aren’t “art” because he doesn’t colour them (true, they are all in pencil) and he doesn’t like to colour and doesn’t colour in the lines. Why doesn’t he participate at circle time? She explains that he can’t sit still so she removes him from the circle, ergo he can’t participate. Disrespect? He blurts out answers and doesn’t give other students a chance. Oh, and another thing, he talks to the adults in the room too much, and follows their adult conversations. This is not appropriate.

I take another breath. Our time is almost up, so I ask about his reading. He came into kindergarten reading. “Is he reading a lot,” I ask. “Reading to others, reading in French (this is French Immersion)?” “There’s nothing special for him, that’s not a focus for us.” So, no enrichment for him, and you aren’t even using his skill to help other students? Oh. I suggest that he may be bored. This does not go over well.

I hear on the playground, that this teacher “doesn’t like boys” so all of his normal behaviours (not sitting still, needing to move, needing to get his words out, needing to draw freely, not caring about where the lines are) are “problems” that stem from being a boy. Two months into school he becomes his behaviour: disruptive, mouthy, disrespectful.

Every year since then it has been some version of this. There are no attempts to harness this energy, or to accommodate it, or allow it to just be. The suggestions his father and I give to “deal with” him are met with incredulity. Let him work standing up, I say. Not an option. Give him more responsibility, we suggest. It might make him feel included, and give him some skin in the game. Responsibility must be earned, we are told. Through compliance, we surmise. I literally tell a teacher that if she won’t accommodate him as he is it’s her funeral.

Why are we still doing it this way? No wonder I spend half of my energy as a university professor trying to get 20-year-olds to stop colouring in the lines and show a spark of something other than lumpen lack of enthusiasm and total compliance, or the appearance of compliance. Sometimes I make fun of them for how well they comply, not to be a jerk but to drive home how weird it is. But after years and years of molding themselves into the school system’s image, they don’t think it’s weird at all. This is not what I want for my son, more importantly it isn’t what he wants, nor does it honour who he is or what he is capable of.

When my kid does his homework, he is slow to start. He’s working on cursive right now, and doing pretty well with it. I can’t help much, he’s a lefty and I am profoundly right-handed. He stands up, writes a line or two, then does a sprint: diningroomlibrarycouchjumpstanduplibrarydiningroomkitchenfloorslide. Back to the table for another couple of lines, repeat. I know this would be difficult to accommodate in a classroom, but surely not impossible. It would be nice if anyone, just one teacher, tried.

This year, it might be different. He has a teacher who is trying different strategies, and who sees him as a human being, not a bundle of behaviours to be managed. It’s early days yet, but we’ll see. I can only be partly hopeful about this, because this is one teacher in a larger system that isn’t geared for kids like him, which means they are probably not responding to perhaps 48% of the people they are supposed to serve. I might be hopeful for my child, this year, but in the face of the larger picture I’m not hopeful at all, and I can see clearly why boys tune out. Mine is certainly on the verge, and that makes me angry and afraid.


Jennifer Cypher is an academic, community activist, parent, and late-bloomer hockey player. She has a PhD in Environmental Studies from York University, where she teaches part-time.



14 thoughts on “Guest Post: Jennifer Cypher on Why Boys Tune Out

  1. Is this distinctly a “boy” thing? My daughter is just like this. I have hopes for the teacher this year too, as I understand he lets the kids get up from their seats more and regularly runs them around the school yard when the group is getting feisty (which I haven’t heard of any other of the teachers). Interestingly, he is the only male teacher in our school. Maybe it really is a “boy” thing — only not at the student end of the equation.

    • No, it is never *only* a boy thing. Some traits may appear more often in one gender than another (e.g. maybe more boys are kinaesthetic learners, who thus aren’t great at sitting still), but it’s a dramatic oversimplification to leap to saying that all boys and no girls learn kinaesthetically.

      People like to equate certain experiences and behaviours with gender, since it makes the world seem simpler and more predictable. Some of us call this “gender essentialism”–the belief that genders have certain innate essential qualities.

      It’s easier to argue for better support if you can claim that an entire gender is being underserved! It’s an appealing idea, but it breaks down under closer inspection. The truth is that very little of anything correlates 100% with gender. There are boys who are well-served by school, and there are girls who are alienated. There’s also LOTS of variation within genders: there are tom-boys and sissies, there are boys who grow up to become women, girls who grow into men, people who never figure out which gender they belong in, and much more. People who mostly fit into the prescribed norms for their gender frequently like to believe that such variation is extremely uncommon, but the data shows the opposite.

      IMHO, those who are calling for a return to gender-segregated schooling in response to these issues are proposing a regressive one-size-fits-all solution to a problem that has far more heterogeneity than that.

      What’s needed is perceptiveness, flexibility, and accommodation–individualized education for all. Unfortunately, this would cost more money, so it’s easier to blame it on parents, gender, and probably a few other scapegoats I can’t think of at the moment.

  2. This brought me to tears. You are writing my son’s story (now in third grade). Luckily, he has always had wonderful teachers who love him and “get him”, quirks and all. I am blessed that his teacher is open to trying things to satisfy his need to move/fidget. She is currently is looking into a FitBall seating disc for him. My son also has an almost compulsive need to speak about whatever thought may pop into his mind. This doesn’t work so well when trying to discuss the main idea in reading group. His teacher suggested starting a journal for him to jot down his thoughts and place it on her desk. She plans to journal her thoughts back to him. I am excited to see how the FitBall and the journal affect his learning experience. I am so sorry your child and family have been going through such a frustrating experience. Your situation brings to mind an old Harry Chapin song called, Roses are Red
    The lyrics speak to the gap between some teachers’ rigid expectations, and a child’s inborn desire to “draw outside the lines”. I wish you the best.


  3. One word: homeschool. That’s the route we are taking to let our kids be themselves and to learn in the ways that they learn best, not how someone else thinks they should do it (ie: sitting, coloring the grass green inside the lines). I know it’s not an option for everyone because of life, but it’s also not just for those who want to teach their religion to their kids either.

    • I was homeschooled for a while – my folks took me out of school, among other things, because the teacher didn’t want me to read books or do maths – apparently you have to show you can play nicely with the idiot kids who cut up your work before you count as mature enough for maths and written words… Are there other schools in your area? Not all teachers are awful (thank goodness!)

      • I’m not saying that all schools or teachers are awful, I am not at all anti-school. My daughter is only in pre-k and we chose homeschooling partly because they passed all-day pre-k here in New York State, and also partly because I’m all ready home with my toddler son. But the more I read of people’s experiences year after year with different teachers doing mostly the same uninspiring things, I’m glad we considered it in the first place. I love doing it all ready, it’s so much fun, I don’t want to send my child to school. I just think that the outdoor school sounds awesome too.

  4. So glad my son isn’t the only one. He thrived in a half-day Montessori preschool, managed through an understanding kindergarten teacher who had 2 young boys of her own, and is now struggling in first grade. It’s so hard to see him, his teacher, and us continually frustrated, but it feels like there just aren’t many options… Ugh

  5. My son was similarly averse to sitting at carpet-time, doing “art” the way they wanted him to do it, and waiting his turn rather than blurting out answers. I spent years listening to him cry each Sunday night and at the ends of vacations, deeply frustrated by my inability to make things better.

    His experience each year depends largely on the teacher. We’ve had teachers who would work hard all year building an evolving set of accommodations, and others who would refuse to read the notes that last year’s good teacher had dutifully set down.

    This year, he’s in grade 6, and I think we’re out of the woods. He still loathes school, but he now has an IEP (Independent Education Plan), which legally obliges the teacher to accommodate his needs. If you get a teacher who does support your child, and you’re in Ontario, get them to help create an IEP.

  6. Thank you all for the fantastic feed back and comments! I agree that it isn’t just a “boy thing” but a “learning styles” thing, but many teachers seem to like to put stuff in boxes and one of those boxes seems to be labeled “BOY.”

    Homeschooling is a good option for many people, some of the most interesting university students I’ve had have been homeschooled, but it wouldn’t work for us. My kids is very social, so life without recess with enough kids to field a baseball team would not be worth living. Plus I am not qualified to teach math, in fact I may have to re-learn the basics along with him this year!

    I am happy to report that his new teacher is excellent. We met her last night and she seems really in tune with the kids, and committed to making learning interactive, including involving movement for stimulation and focus (yoga in the classroom). She is a very experienced teacher, which I think may be unusual in elementary/primary classrooms, and I am grateful that she seems to be using her years of experience in creative ways.

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