Recent years have seen a lot of speculation on the differences between boys and girls with special needs.
But when it comes to educating young people with SEN, is there a difference in the way males learn?
If so, how do teachers and tutors cater to these variations and engage young men’s developing minds?
SEN Tutor John was a secondary school teacher for more than twenty-five years and has extensive experience working with children with a variety of SEN. Despite being the proud father of two daughters, he has a passion for supporting boys – an interest that was sparked in his years running a unit for excluded teenagers.
“I began to ask myself, ‘How do you engage boys?’” he recalls. “It is important work. Boys and young men are significantly more likely than young women to be less engaged with school, to have low skills and poor academic achievement, and to leave education less ready for the world of work and life.”
Boys Learn Differently
Although, John emphasises, every child is different, many of these challenges are the result of boys’ physiological make-up. According to research, he says, young male brains tend to focus on spatial awareness and produce less dopamine and serotonin than girls – meaning shorter attention spans and a greater need for physical activity. Testosterone also fuels a need to move around.
Another statistic, he continues, is that boys, on average, have 35% less hearing than girls. “Odd, I know, but it helps to explain why they don’t always seem to comply with instructions – they don’t hear them properly. If a boy doesn’t pick up instructions, to avoid ridicule in a classroom setting, he is less likely to ask for help, less likely to successfully complete the task.”
However, John points out, that parents and teachers can make life easier for boys of all abilities by accepting that they mostly learn in a different way.
Positive Relationships are Crucial for Young Men
“Every boy has special needs in a sense,” he carries on. “We, as a society, often blame young men. We problematise them when they are just being boys. When I take on a new student, I read their EHC Plan and factor in their diagnoses but that doesn’t help as much as spending time with them.
“Building a relationship with a student is one of the most powerful things that you can do to transform their learning,” he continues. “Children want to know that they are liked by their teachers. Boys will work harder for a teacher with whom they have a great relationship. Equally, they can switch off if they feel they aren’t valued or respected.”
Many young men, especially those with SEN, John maintains, lack positive role models. A male teacher who can show students how to function as a human being, as well as how to study and learn effectively, can be a great asset. “Boys usually respond well to humour and banter,” he says. “And let’s face it, most blokes retain a working knowledge of schoolboy humour!”
Boys Engage with Exciting and Adventurous Stories
“When it comes to English, it helps to choose dramatic, action-packed texts that will engage boys. I remember one GCSE text a few years ago that asked students to think about how a girl in a hat shop was feeling – how many young men are likely to be interested in that?
If students are engaged with a text they find interesting, they are more likely to engage with underpinning language skills. For example, sometimes we read a text, a true story, about a man who was killed by his pet spider and was then eaten by ants.
Students love the story, and it gives us the focus needed to explore how language is used in the text. Or students can learn about how to use imperatives when reading a text about how to mummify an Egyptian body.”
Some of John’s tips to boost boys’ learning
- Involve boys in the learning process and encourage them to set their own goals.
- Use mind maps and video clips.
- Model behaviour that is consistently positive, fair, and fun.
- Give clear instructions and structured lessons with manageable chunks of information.
- Make learning kinaesthetic (that is, ‘hands-on’ and physical).
- Meet boys’ individual learning styles.
- Change activities including some they like – and at least one testing a skill they struggle with.
“Working one-to-one with a boy can make all the difference,” John concludes. “In the classroom, there is sometimes a lot of stress on boys. They may be unfavourably compared to their female classmates. Tuition offers a safe space to make mistakes and improve their skill set, and a safe place to improve and express their emotional literacy.”