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A Day Steeped in
'Boy Behavior'

Males in a third-grade class proved challenging with their inability to be quiet, sit still, and cooperate. But I left school wondering if it was all bad behavior or if some of it was "boy behavior." Included: Examples of boy versus girl behavior.

Education World In The Classroom

Education World news editor Ellen R. Delisio is spending one day a month as a substitute teacher in one of the Middletown (Connecticut) Public Schools' elementary or middle schools. She is learning and writing about the daily challenges substitute -- and permanent -- teachers face.

Numerous studies and articles lately have examined the problems boys have in school. More boys than girls are in special education classes, more boys are discipline problems, more boys drop out of school, and the percentage of the male population going to college continues to decrease.

Some studies argue that the reason many boys are not doing well academically is that schools are not "boy friendly." Boys are not wired to sit quietly and listen, the expected behavior in school, which comes more easily to girls, so the argument goes. Boys need to move around more than girls do, and learn better with hands-on activities. The restlessness and inattention attributed to some males in classes is not bad behavior, it's "boy behavior," according to the theory.

This month, I had a third grade class overflowing with boy behavior. Or bad behavior, depending on where you stand on the "school-is-not-boy-friendly" issue.

I was assigned to an elementary school I had not been to before. As I was walking around the room and reading lesson plans, Mr. S, a fourth grade teacher, opened the door between his classroom and mine.

He encouraged me to call on him if I had problems, adding that there were several in the class who could give me trouble.

Anyone else hear Jaws music in the background?


The students filed in noisily through the backdoor from the playground just after 9 a.m., and took their time putting away their things.

I noticed that three boys -- Barry, Sven, and Ken -- had seats by themselves in different parts of the room. Sven's desk was directly in front of the teacher's. But as it turned out, he wasn't there much.

Barry and another boy, Dennis, told me it was their job to collect homework, and set themselves up at a table in the back.

This month, I had a third grade class overflowing with boy behavior. Or bad behavior, depending on where you stand on the "school-is-not-boy-friendly" issue.

I took attendance while they were doing that, and caught the second part of an argument between the homework collectors and a large boy named Michael. Michael apparently has a very short fuse, which his classmates know how to ignite. Michael objected to a comment about his spelling words, and responded by shoving one boy and kicking the table.

I noticed in the lesson plans that Michael was assigned to take the lunch count, and quickly asked him to do that, hoping that would settle him down. The lunch count was taken after several tries, and I asked Michael to sit down, but he said he did not want to.

When he did go back to his seat, he kept saying he did not want anyone talking to him, periodically kicked a chair, and said he hated everyone, his voice rising.

Mr. S. stepped into the room and told Michael he could hear him next door, and took him out of the room. He told the class their regular teacher, Ms. F, would not be happy with their behavior. Anyone else who was not behaving, he added, could spend the day in his classroom as well.

I thanked him and hoped I was in the clear.

Shortly afterward, the principal, Ms. L. arrived, and after talking with Michael and Mr. S in the hall (I noticed Mr.S's class was pretty quiet) she asked what happened and students gathered around her, complaining about Michael, and saying he had hit a girl in the chest. (How had I missed that?)

Ms. L told the complaining students that they knew Michael had a bad temper. "Well," said the principal to Dennis, "if you could see he was irritated, should you have kept arguing with him?" Dennis considered this thoughtfully for someone his age, then whispered, "no."

She reminded the class to be respectful, adding she was not coming back, but wanted to know right away if anyone else was causing trouble.

I think the day was about 30 minutes old.

Michael apparently has a very short fuse, which his classmates know how to ignite. Michael objected to a comment about his spelling words, and responded by shoving one boy and kicking the table.


Michael wound up spending the day in the resource room. Ms. M., an aide who worked with a student with disabilities, joined us. She told me the class usually was a chatty group, but today the children seemed chattier. She added that they usually got bad reports from substitute teachers.

I soon saw why the three boys were off by themselves. They were constantly talking, fidgeting, getting up, and could not take two steps without turning an opportunity for movement into a fall, a jump, or a tour of the room. They certainly were acting like the classroom was not "boy-friendly."

Two or three girls, on the other hand, barely made a peep all day. They quietly copied notes, finished assignments without prodding, and did whatever was asked. By the end of the day, I felt badly for them.

Several students told me they were entitled to 20 minutes in the computer room; they had coupons showing they had earned the reward. One girl said she had earned the privilege of helping out in kindergarten for 20 minutes. But the grueling morning had left me feeling a bit draconian -- I had not been able to cover any of the two reading lessons before morning recess -- so I said because so much time had been wasted in the morning, there would be no privileges today.

When the class returned from morning recess, I moved on to the scheduled language arts lesson, which had to do with identifying parts of a story. They took turns reading aloud and answering questions, and most stayed focused.

Barry, though, wasn't paying attention at all, choosing to draw industriously in a notebook, which I confiscated. But when I called on him, he almost always had the right answer.


Before I knew it, it was read aloud time, which found me with two more third grade classes in the room, listening to me read a chapter from a book. Mrs. P, another third grade teacher, reminded the children of the rules for read aloud and assigned some of her students to report transgressions. But with three classes, skirmishes were everywhere, although most were pretty minor. I did not make it to the end of the chapter.

At the end of read aloud, Mrs. P's class stayed for a science lesson on emperor penguins, and my class went elsewhere for a health lesson.

Shortly after my class returned, it was time for lunch and recess, and getting ready for that also took a while, as kids scuffled and talked while getting their coats and lunches. As they struggled to line up, Ms. M noted that they did not transition well. "You really have to learn to behave when going from one activity to another," she scolded the class.

She offered to send the ones who were behaving to the cafeteria, while I corralled stragglers.

I must have looked a bit haggard, because as she left, the aide said, "There is aspirin in the nurse's office."
As the last of the class was leaving the room, Michael came in with an aide to get his coat and lunch, and the aide assured me rather quickly that he was not coming back to class that day, which is when I learned he was spending the day in the resource room. I must have looked a bit haggard, because as she left, the aide said, "There is aspirin in the nurse's office."

Mr. S was leaving the teacher's room as I came in and I thanked him again for the morning help, and he assured me it was not a problem.

Over lunch, I heard my group described as a "tough class" and learned that Michael often had problems keeping his temper in check.

The resource teacher asked me what happened with Michael, and I said I didn't know exactly what started it, but saw him shove someone and kick a table. I thanked her for taking him off my hands for the day, and she said, "All you need is one who's a problem."

Only one would have been fine.


The class was still wound up after returning from recess.

I noticed Barry was once again drawing in his notebook, and when I asked if he took it off my desk, he said Sven gave it to him. I re-confiscated the notebook.

Sven, I had quickly learned, was a nudge. Earlier, he tried to persuade me to give him back some cards Ms. F had taken away, saying she told him he could have them back today. But I told him I couldn't do that, and he should ask her for them when she returned. "But they are right in this drawer!" he protested, reaching for the handle. Not long after that, he poked at a pile of books on the top of the teacher's desk until they slid across the desk and onto the floor.

Math followed the five minutes of relaxation after recess, and I realized I was supposed to go over the math homework that had been collected. The homework was redistributed, and we went over the problems, which had to do with measurement.

During math, I told Barry and Thomas twice to turn over cards with their names on them, each color change signifying more trouble, because they kept leaving their seats to talk. I finally sent them both to time out, which didn't stop them from talking across the room.

Sven also went to time out later, sulking, and soon was throwing pens at people.


I was dismayed by my inability to keep track of every skirmish. A paper-passer fell and hit her head on a desk -- the cause of the fall was in dispute -- slipping or tripping. I sent her to the nurse.

When Sven was released from time out, I turned to see him punching and pushing another boy, Marcus.

I swallowed my pride and called the office.

The principal, Ms. L, arrived and took both boys to the office. Other students had complained about Sven that day as well, she said.

Nearing the end of the day, students copied down their homework assignments in notebooks and I stamped them. As had been the pattern all day, Thomas could not seem to write down the four lines of homework. "Oh, I never finish anything in the morning," he assured me. "I'm always talking. I was born talking."

After that, the class was allowed to read books and listen to a CD of poems by Shel Silverstein, which they loved. The lesson plans said to select students who were behaving to pick a poem to play, and at last I had a chance to reward the handful of well-behaved girls.

Waiting for dismissal also was a struggle for the class. Boys seem determined to roll on the floor and wrestle. Michael returned and handed me a note of apology. Sven and Marcus also returned to collect their things.

The aide, Ms. M, said to be sure to include all of this behavior in my note, adding that they have done the same to other subs.

I was dismayed by my inability to keep track of every skirmish. A paper-passer fell and hit her head on a desk -- the cause of the fall was in dispute -- slipping or tripping. I sent her to the nurse.


Finally, they were off, and shortly afterward I am called to the phone.

Sven's mother.

She said Sven came home crying, saying no one would listen to him. She was upset that he received detention and wanted to know if the other boy did. I said I did not know and it was not my decision to assign detention.

Did I see what happened? she asked. Sven told her Marcus had him in choke-hold, and she said Sven would fight back if that was what happened. I said I did not know what exactly sparked the fight, which is why I sent both boys to the office.

Sven's mother complained that a lot of things happened in class that no one seemed to see. Did I see the girl fall and hit the side of her head? Yes, I responded, but I didn't see what caused it.

Sven often comes home bloody and beaten up, she said. "I just want to find out what happened because his father comes down hard on him when he gets in trouble," she said.

She often speaks with Ms. F if there is a problem, she added, and Ms. F lets her know during the day if Sven has been in trouble, not waiting until the end of the day. I told her Sven had been a problem all day, including throwing pens from time out.

I listened as she turned away from the phone to ask Sven if he'd been throwing pens while in time out, but I did not hear the answer. She asked if I would be there the next day, and I assured her, no. She said she would speak with the principal about the detention.

As I hung up, I began to second-guess myself. What else didn't I see? Did I come down too hard on Sven? Was the punching and pushing worse than the rolling around on the rug I saw later? Or was I just aggravated because he had been disobedient -- a nudge -- all day? How do teachers learn to "grade" offenses, I wondered?

I also could not stop thinking about the striking differences in boy-girl behavior in this class. The behavior was similar to anecdotes I had read in books and articles about school expectations favoring "girl behavior." What was the behavior norm? Sitting quietly and listening. Who found it easiest to comply with this? The girls. (Two girls were the only ones to whom I gave cards for good behavior.) What was Barry, Ken, Thomas, and Sven's major problem? They could not sit still. They were looking for any excuse to move around.

I wondered if they would ever adapt to the average classroom expectation of sit, listen, read, work.


(Editor's Note: All students' names have been changed)