Boston Globe

Sunday, July 26, 1998

What about boys?
Some educators see equity concerns

By Margaret Combs, Globe Correspondent
The Boston Globe

This year, the Mark Lee Burbank Elementary in Belmont - a school that promotes gender equity awareness among its staff and students - offered its fourth-graders a chance to participate in a special play promoting reading. Both girls and boys were invited to participate, but there was a catch: The children had to give up recess once a week for rehearsal. The result was, out of 15 children who committed to the project, only two were boys.

Principal Rose Feinberg was disappointed by the imbalance, but says she has been enlightened. ''We're going to have to work real hard next year to recruit and encourage boys,'' says Feinberg, ''and this may mean adjusting for the recess issue.''

Expecting boys to give up recess is just one of several school practices a number of child developmentalists are now labeling as decriminatory against boys' learning needs. As pressure has mounted through education reform to emphasize academics and test scores, recess in many elementary schools has been shaved down to as little as one 15-minute break per day, and sometimes even this little break is used for special academic activities like the play at Mary Lee Burbank. For many girls - who tend to enjoy and excel in language activities and fine motor skills - this may not be as much of a problem. But for boys, whose brains are better wired for spatial tasks and larger motor skills, it can be torture, according to clinical psychologist and school consultant Michael Thompson.

''On average, boys are physically more restless and more impulsive (than girls),'' says Thompson who is co-author, with Harvard public health professor Dan Kindlon, of the forthcoming book, ''Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Lives of Boys.'' ''We need to acknowledge boy's physical needs, and meet them.''

''It's a developmental and physical issue,'' says Burbank's principal, Feinberg, who acknowledges that girls have developmental characteristics that make it easier for them to fit into the current elementary school environment, ''Most girls have an easier time sitting for longer periods than boys, and they can play a quiet game and feel like they've had a break. But boys seem to need a higher expenditure of energy in order to feel they've had the same break."

An increasingly vocal chorus of gender researchers and learning experts believe it is time, after more than a decade of considering girls' issues, to examine how boys are being treated unfairly in elementary school settings which are increasingly geared towards firls' attention spans and learning styles and even role models.

"In (an elementary school) setting where most of the adults are women there is this silent crisis of boys in our culture," states Barney Brawer, former project manager of the Harvard's Project on Women's Psychology, Boys' Development, and the Culture of Manhood. Brawer and other advocates such as Washington state family therapist Michael Gurian (author of The Wonder Boys), and psychologist William Pollack from McLeans Hospital in Massachusetts, decry several current school practices - such as the harsher punishment boys tend to receive compared to girls, the overblaming of boys for altercations, and most importantly, the over-diagnosis of boys with Attention Deficit Disorder.

"Every teacher in just about every class in America has a boy on psycho medication," testifies Brawer, who is currently a school consultant for educational change based at Tuft's University, "The issue of how boys learn self-control and get civilized has been turned into a medicalized solution. It indicates a major shift in our attitude towards boys which is very troubling."

Not only are boys misjudged and mislabeled regarding their learning ability, say boy specialists, but they are punished more harshly than girls and blamed too readily for disputes among boy and girl students.

For teachers at the Fisk Elementary School in Lexington, a school which has spearheaded many gender equity efforts, was surprised to find this happening at their school.

Four years ago, as part of an effort to promote equity for girls, the school hired an expert to come in and observe for bias in the classrooms, the cafeteria, and on the playground. The good noews was that Fiske teachers were making efforts to call on both boys and girls equally in class, but the bad news was that boys were suffering unfair treatment on the playground.

"Our playground aids were always blaming boys for altercations," reveals Principal Joanne Benton, "and we found out it was not always the boys."

"My faculty is always hatsher on the boys than the girls," testifies Thompson, who has served as psychological consultant to four coed schools, and is currently advising Belmont Hill and Charles River School in Dover. "Because boys are active, they tend to naturally illicit a harsher type of (diciplinary) response from adults," says Thompson, who explains that adults are more likely to say 'Cut that out!' to boys; whereas to girls, are more likely to ask: What happened? "We need to understand boy behavior and manage it - not be punitive and harsh at all times, although they elicit that from all of us."

In Raisin Cain, Thompson and Kindlon describe a particular kindergarten class where the girls would provoke the boys, the boys would hit, the girls would cry and go to the teacher, and only the boys would be punished. This system of one-sided justice breeds detachment in which, Thompson explains, can actually cause worse behavior.

"If boys believe the decks are stacked against them and they are going to get punished and get blamed anyway, they figure they may as well go ahead and hit hard," points out Thompson, "This is how boys disinvest in the system."

Acknowledging that boys as well as girls suffer inequities in the school environment is still a new concept in many schools. Most equity efforts still center on encouraging assertiveness in girls and supporting girl's math and science achievement. But some schools and school systems are taking steps to at least include boys issues in the gender equity discussion.

This past September, Newton Public Schools changed the name of its system-wide "Gender Equity Task Force" to the current "Gender Issues Task Force", reflecting its broadening of equity efforts to include boys. At the same time, an administrative mandate went out to all 21 of the town's schools requiring both a teacher and parent representitive from each school serve on the task force.

"Our first goal is to find or create a curriclium for trainig teachers which heightens awareness of gender bias to both boys and girls," reveals task force co-chair Susan Aeschbach, who is a parent of a boy and a girl attending public school in Newton, "We are contacting other towns and universities to find out what they are doing."

One of the resources Newton is tapping for guidance is the Wellesley Centers for Research on Women which issued a special report in 1993 called "How Schools can Stop Shortchanging Girls (and Boys): Gender Equity Stratergies". Designed for K - 12 educators, the manual advocates teachers first self-assess for their own unconscious bias, then offers practical stratergies to combat bias which is going on in the classroom.

"A lot more schools are now focusing on prevention rather than intervention," confirms the manual's author, Katy Wheeler, who has been summoned for gender equity workshops in several Massachusetts schools including Bellrica, Bedford, North Reading, and Attleboro.

Although the intentions of most schools instituting gender equity programs is to support girls and make them more comfortable in a coed environment, many of the same programs are turning out to benefit boys by helping them to manage their behavior.

The "Bullyproof Curriculum" designed by Nan Stein, Project Director of Sexual Harrasment and Bullying in Schools at the Wellesley Centers for Research, is one example. Since the Fiske Elementary School adapted the conflict resolution curriclium four years ago as part of their school improvement plan, Principal Joanne Benton has seen a major difference in how boys and girls behave towards one another and settle disputes.

"It has equalized the playing field (between boys and girls)," confirms Stein, explaining that in addition to giving girls the skills to stand up for themselves with boys, the Bullyproof Curriclium "gave the boys the skills to listen."

Giving boys better communication tools and management skills for their behavior not only makes school a more comfortable and, therefore, better learning environment for girls, but it also does the same for boys, points out Stein, whose most recent research has focused on boys mistreating other boys.

"You can't have much learning going on (for boys or for girls) if you have a lot of disruption or hostility or fear," states Stein, "It impeades your right to an educational opportunity."

Recognizing this, the Framingham High School now teaches every 10th grade student another of Stein's curricliums - "Flirting or Hurting?" - which targets older boy's aggressive and sexist behavior. Not only has the curriclium empowered girls to speak up when they feel sexually harrassed according to Framingham high school teacher Ellen Makynen, but it has simultaneously helped establish that not all boys are not "bad".

"There are a lot of boys who don't harrass," confirms Makynen, who heads the high school's Consumer and Family Sciences Department which offers the curriclium, "Some of the best moments in class are when (certain boys)are bragging about some of the things they do and say, and other boys say: Wait a minute, you can't do that!"

As schools become better at helping boys manage their behavior through specifically designed gender equity and behavior awareness programs, another promising hope for improving boy's school experience lies with education reform. While it is true that schools are being forced to pare down recess on favor of more academic time, they are also being urged thorugh ed reform to create more active and diversified classrooms - a change which educators and child developmentalists agree will serve both gender's needs.

Points out Feinberg: "When you have a classroom where there are a variety of approaches including project based and hands-on learning, and the children have options whether to read or to work on a projecvt, and children are able to get up and to move around you are accomidating a whole range of learning styles and abilities. Really good instruction addresses both girl's issues and boy's."

This story ran on page C05 of the Boston Globe on 07/26/98.
© Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company.