When Eric was four, he loved counting money, easily tallying 10 dollars of change without help. He learned to play chess the same year, and in elementary school began earning trophies at state chess tournaments. Throughout elementary school he did well academically, but by middle school something had shifted, and at one point in 8th grade he had 33 missing assignments. He told his mom his grades didn’t matter until high school. Now in 10th grade, Eric still struggles with organization and motivation for school.

The Statistics on Boys

Eric’s challenges aren’t unusual, nor is he at particular risk of failing. But the bigger picture for boys isn’t pretty. Seventy percent of D and F grades given out in school go to boys; boys receive 80 percent of discipline referrals, and 70 percent of suspensions. Eighty percent of children diagnosed with ADHD are boys, and significantly more boys than girls are diagnosed with other learning disabilities. More boys than girls drop out of high school (before 1980 more girls dropped out). And in 2014, a higher percentage of girls went to college, 70 percent versus 61 percent of boys, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics study. The gender gap isn’t confined to the United States. In an international student assessment study of 65 countries, girls outperformed boys in reading in every country, and the gap widened between 2000 and 2012.

Why They’re Struggling

The reasons for boys’ struggles are complex and as individual as boys themselves, from learning issues to family poverty to lack of a male role model. But even when accounting for such differences, boys overall perform less well than girls. What’s going on? Experts point to differences in male and female brains, increased academics at younger ages, less tolerance for active “boy” behavior, and boys disengaging if they start to feel stupid or can’t relate to class content.

In the early years, boys’ and girls’ cognitive abilities develop at different rates. On average, boys start kindergarten developmentally 18 months behind female classmates in the oral language and fine motor skills required for reading and writing.

“Girls also hear subtle phonemic differences in words better than boys, and have better scores tracking small visuals up close, such as the printed word,” says Kelley King, principal, education consultant, and author of Writing the Playbook: A Practitioner’s Guide to Creating a Boy-Friendly School. “Five-year-old boys have better depth perception, better hand-eye accuracy, and are better at kicking a ball and climbing.” She says it’s imperative to honor these differences because boys who are pushed too early academically without feeling engaged may become discouraged if they’re not successful. The majority of boys catch up in these skills, but as early as 1st grade, both boys and girls already believe girls are better learners, she says.

Additionally, the brain’s frontal lobe—the area responsible for planning, organization, and time management—is the last section to develop and takes longer in boys. In adolescence, what looks like low motivation may be simply poor organizational skills. However, if boys like Eric fall behind due to poor skills, they can lose confidence and motivation for school.

Boys are also wired to move and have more trouble paying attention, which can spell punishment if teachers don’t understand boys’ temperaments (girls benefit from movement, too). Called out on disruptive behavior too often, a boy may decide school isn’t for him. Dakota Hoyt, veteran educator and executive director of the Gurian Institute, an organization that trains educators on how boys and girls learn differently, says in her trainings with teachers she recommends incorporating movement when kids get fidgety, such as jumping like bunnies during a bunny story, or offering antsy kids a “fidget ball.” Changing things up won’t interrupt teaching, she says, but it can eliminate potential discipline problems.

The Engagement Gap

Even if they’re doing generally fine, boys may check out if they don’t find schoolwork relevant, and then fall behind on schoolwork and earn lower grades. Boys’ learning needs are different from girls’. They do better learning for a purpose through challenges and goals, which is why they like video games so much, says Edmond Dixon, educator, researcher, and author of Helping Boys Learn: 6 Secrets for Success in School.

In an international student assessment study, boys around the globe reported enjoying reading and writing far less than girls, leaving educators to wonder how to help boys develop a passion for literacy. King says 81 percent of the reading “achievement” gap between genders could be closed by addressing the “engagement” gap. Allow boys reading materials that appeal to them—comics, graphic novels, nonfiction—and consider letting them write on subjects that include some aggression themes. She and Dixon recommend incorporating competition such as beating the clock, at home or in the classroom. Collaboration has replaced competition over the last 30 years, but competition builds great emotional capacity and confidence in both genders, King says, teaching kids to cope with disappointment, as well as how to win and take risks.

Dixon also attributes boys’ disengagement to the information age. At no other time in history have children had access to information as they do with today’s tablets and smartphones. “Think about how you do learning now and how much the world has changed, but how the inside of a classroom hasn’t changed that much,” he says. “Kids are used to being self-starters in other areas.”

He sees a pronounced lack of interest in 5th to 8th grade before dropping out begins, and views this as a critical time regarding school engagement and learning. Dixon isn’t suggesting schools reinvent themselves. Instead, he has defined six pathways into learning—movement, game, humor, challenge, mastery, and meaning—so parents can determine their son’s style and help him apply it to school (take a quiz at www.helpingboyslearn.com).

Liven Up Learning

Tapping into boys’ learning styles is key to boosting motivation and confidence. Create challenges and games with humor and action thrown in, and learning should come more easily. Try these strategies to build on his strengths.

  • Toss and talk, Dixon says. When your son successfully defines a vocabulary term, toss him a soft ball that he tosses back after correctly spelling the word.
  • Beat the clock. Have him predict how long writing out answers will take, and then set the timer so he “gamifies” his homework (little jolts of testosterone from competition give him positive associations with schoolwork).
  • Go for a walk to study for a test. Movement increases blood flow to the brain, improving mental processing.
  • Let him stand during homework (or lie on the floor) and skip sitting.
  • Encourage passions in print (skateboarding or gaming magazines, graphic novels, nonfiction).
  • Give him responsibilities at home to develop mastery and confidence.
  • Have him write for his dad or another male (boys want to impress other boys).
  • Find outside pursuits that appeal to him.

Most important, don’t be discouraged by statistics. Learn what works, be positive—and don’t compare your son to his sister.