Ten tips to help boys succeed at school

Retired school principal Paul Tracey, and expert on boys' resilience and motivation Professor Andrew Martin, give their best ideas on helping boys to excel at school.

At a glance

  • Boys thrive when they are respected by their parents.
  • Show your son that homework is worthwhile by getting involved in it with them.
  • School attendance is critical to a boy's success at school.
  • Point out things that your son is doing well at school before moving to a specific area where they may not be doing so well.
  • Help your son value their learning by pointing out the connections between what they do at school and what's going on in the world.

1. Good relationships are vital

If boys feel liked and respected, they'll respond in a really positive way.

'As a parent or caregiver, show that you respect and care for them, that you want them to do well, and you really like them,' says Paul Tracey.

'For boys to be receptive to the positive messages we send them you've got to be on the same page and you've got to have credibility,' adds Professor Andrew Martin, Scientia Professor and Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of NSW.

Characteristics of a good relationship include:

  • giving respect
  • showing patience
  • having a sense of humour
  • actively listening to them
  • knowing who they are, who their friends are, and what they like and dislike
  • seeing things from their perspective.

2. Get involved in your son's homework

Sit down with your son and show interest in his homework, says Paul.

'It's not so much being able to do it, but being able to talk with them about what they're doing and to make sure it's seen as really important.'

This makes boys feel like homework is worthwhile, which is great for motivating them.

3. Ensure your son goes to school every day

Research shows that school attendance has a critical role to play in a boys' academic success, Paul says. Children who miss out on eight days of school a term will miss a year's education by the time they finish primary school and not much less for high school.

'When a boy comes to school they are able to learn. If they stay at home, they can't. It's as simple as that,' he says.

4. Ensure your son is learning using a variety of styles

Boys thrive when they are given opportunities to tap into the way they learn best, says Paul.

'As parents, we have to make sure that kids are being given possibilities to learn and get assessed in a whole variety of ways. If they're coming home with the same sort of projects, that would ring alarm bells for me,' Paul says.

If his work is not varied, discuss with your son if there are options as to how the task can be done. The school's year adviser can also talk with you about ways your son can approach his learning.

Assignments using different learning styles include:

  • group projects
  • speeches
  • written stories
  • technology-based research, or building wikis or blogs.

5. Keep an eye on technology use

With access to technology and laptops at school, boys have the opportunity to read and communicate using many different forms, but it doesn't mean technology should take over to the detriment of books, magazines and talking with people, Paul says.

'Parents need to ensure their boys don't spend too much time on the computer; there are other ways they can access information and communicate with people. That's one to really watch,' he says.

6. Recognise the good things in boys' lives

Shutters come down fairly quickly if the first thing you do is point out negative aspects of your son's school life or behaviour, says Andrew, also author of How to Motivate Your Child for School and Beyond and How To Help Your Child Fly Through Life. Point out things that your son is doing well at school before moving to a specific area where they're not doing well.

'It's a nice way of saying you don't think the whole thing is going badly,' he says.

7. Help boys experience success often

Boys love success, Andrew says.

'They gravitate to teachers where they experience competence and they gravitate to subjects where they feel better about themselves and their capacities.'

When your son comes home with an assignment, suggest ‘chunking' the project into smaller tasks so that he can experience ‘mini successes' along the way.

Boys can achieve 'mini-successes' in their assignments in the following ways:

  • break the question into key parts
  • really understand each part
  • search for the information on the internet
  • visit the library for some good books
  • sort the information into major themes.

8. Help boys experience even more success

Not all boys have to come top of the class to be successful.

'Too often people labour under a narrow view of what success is – marks, pecking order, rank,' Andrew says.

Success in the steps of learning such as improvement and knowledge building are equally important, if not more important, for a boy's ability to do well after school.

'All of these are achievements in the academic domain,' Andrew says.

'They're the attributes that walk a boy through life.'

Success in the steps to learning include:

  • improving in marks or grades
  • achieving personal bests
  • developing skills
  • understanding something
  • participating in class.

9. Help your son value school

The best way for your son to value their learning is by pointing out the connections between what they do at school and what's going on in the world, Andrew says. This may include connections between their current interests and their future work life. Valuing school yourself is also important.

'Boys won't value school if parents are running the school or teachers down in front of them,' Andrew says.

'Parents will have issues and gripes with the school and the teacher, that's inevitable across 13 years of school life, but it's important for that to be conducted between parents and not with the child,' he says.

10. Be courageous about failure

Boys can have a disproportionate fear of failure and hate making mistakes or looking dumb. Parents need to help their son develop the courage to have a 'frank and fearless' view of mistakes, Andrew says.

'Mistakes are information for future improvement; setbacks are windows of opportunity,' he says.

It's where boys can learn something about themselves and learn to do things better next time.

'Parents really need to encourage their boys to see that effort sets them up for improvement, not a fall.'

A note for young boys

All of the above principles can be used as early as preschool, Andrew says.

'Just valuing and modelling the importance of learning, the importance of falling over and getting up again, always having conversations and discussions about the wonders of effort ... these ideas all cater very nicely to young boys,' he says.

'If you're building up these principles in those infant and primary years, it then doesn't need to be such an explicit exercise in high school.'

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