Can we prevent boy’s underachievement?

At BDP we have been targeting boys in reception and year one (4-5 year-olds) to prevent boys underachievement. While most wait until secondary to address the issue, we think there are strong indicators that earlier is easier and more effective to prevent underachievement, read on….

When Darren came into reception, he wasn’t much of a talker, enjoyed the outside and tended to avoid the reading and writing areas. He did what he was told when he liked the activity, but refused when he didn’t. He was very likable, which meant that staff saw him as ‘cheeky’, ‘lively’, ‘a bit of a character’ and most thought he would be one of those boys that ‘developed later’. Speech and language were of concern, but again staff thought this would develop on its own.

He stood out a bit more in year 1. As the curriculum became less play focused and he started to refuse and say “NO” more. He also started to get left behind with his phonics and writing, and his behaviour became more of a focus for staff.

By year 2 his language had not developed much, and his Speech & Language were assessed. This resulted in the family being supported by a specialist, who had a positive impact, but by the end of year 2 his behaviour had resulted in two internal exclusions and a number of visits to the head teachers office.

Year 3 saw him with a teacher who seemed to get more out of him. His behaviour improved, his mum reported that he was enjoying school, and he began to make progress, with his language improving and his interest in class increasing. A good year 3 was followed by a more difficult year 4. Darren started to spark off other boys and he began to get into difficulties in the playground. Arguments often led to fights, which became more regular and impacted on his attitude in class and his general level of compliance.

The schools learning mentor became involved, offering support at lunchtimes (for general behaviour and conflict), as well as classroom support, especially with literacy and writing (with Darren still finding these difficult and at times un-engaging). While his playground behaviour began to improve, his classroom engagement did not.

By year 5 Darren was having some good days, but also some significantly bad ones. On those days when his class had a supply teacher; the learning mentor was with other children or other’s wound him up. He was often out of class, in another or outside the head teacher’s office. More of his time was spent out of class and away from his learning. His teacher started to notice an increased disengagement and a higher interest in the playground than the classroom. Disputes, disagreements came into the classroom and his behaviour dipped again.

This case study is based on a number of boy’s experiences of primary school that we have looked at over the last two years. Having identified boys that are underachieving by years 5 and 6 (especially because of their behavior), we have tracked them back (through end of year reports and conversations with teachers whose classes they were in in reception and year 1) in an attempt to identify the skills areas we could target in reception and year one.

We could have written up boys who were a little more dramatic. Those that ended up at a Pupil Referral Unit, or eventually assessed by the local CAMH’s with an ADHD diagnosis and now on medication. Instead, we decided to go for boys that ‘stand out’, but not in such a big way until years 5 and 6.

Most teachers in reception and year one are quite rightly reluctant to label boys as problematic too early in their school life. Teachers want to give them the benefit of the doubt and hope ‘they will grow out of it’. Our experience has been that increasingly ‘growing out of it’ does not happen. As in the case of Darren above, a number of boys go through primary in fits and starts. School’s can learn to manage their behavior, but not change it. Darren’s language improved which gave him a boost; he found a teacher that liked him and who was able to give him firm boundaries, but these provided respite, but not cure.

Boys like Darren, we think, are becoming more common place, and we are of the view that early intervention provides both an effective method of addressing boys needs and also a cost effective way for schools to deal with some boys challenging behavior.

What we know: 1. Early assessments of child development have shown to be reliable indicators of future outcomes (see Plewis (2004), and Hawkins, et al. (2000)). The Millennium Cohort Study (2012) reported big differences in cognitive development between children from rich and poor backgrounds at the age of three, with this gap widened by age five. There were similarly large gaps in young children’s social and emotional wellbeing at these ages.

While there is of course a risk of labeling children before they are walking and talking, these assessments can be very effective indicators for early intervention (Allen, 2011a).

2. Recent developments in brain scanning and neuroimaging have allowed neuroscientists to observe changes in the brain as a result of action and activity and have generally concluded that baby’ brains become connected and operational as a result of the right stimulation (see Shore (1997) and Stiles & Jernigan (2010)). Repeated experiences lead to stronger connections and pathways being formed and the brain becoming more permanently structured. The longer areas of the brain are left unconnected, the harder it is to link them up, and the more difficult it is to ‘create’ these pathways. So, if a child has not been spoken to regularly, the longer this continues the harder it becomes to spark and connect, and if left for too long the neurons will die away.

This suggests that intervention (experience) can have an impact on children’s behavior and habits quickly, if consistent and repetitive. Neuroscience also suggests that children’s brains have more ‘plasticity’ and therefore the earlier the intervention the more impact it is likely to have (Kolb, 1995).

3. Tracking boys like Darren back to reception and year one have led to the identification of characteristics that we think contribute to the kind of difficulties boys can have in year 5 and these are:

Low verbal (boys that came into school with little vocabulary or a reluctance to use what they had. Some were EAL, but most were not, they had got by early in school without using language, often pointing, making noises and / or relying on one word answers).

High physical (boys that came into school and found the classroom very restricting. They would be first to the door when there was outside play, and often got into physical conflict especially if they were low verbal as well as high physical).

Unwilling or unable to take instruction’s (These boys either said NO a lot or ignored staff when they were given instructions. They also might listen the third time, but would be back doing the same activity five minutes later. On those occasions when class conformity was required these boys often found this difficult).

High emotions (those boys who would get upset easily and sulk, or get angry, and give up, and generally are driven by their emotions).

Low social skills with other children (boys who often played alone or in parallel with other children or were reluctant to engage with others unless they were very interested in the activity. These boys were usually low verbal as well, or high verbal and emotional).

4. Boys like Darren can increasingly be a drain on staff time and impact on other children’s learning. In the low level case study there are regular enough incidents to warrant teachers time to resolve; head teachers time dealing with Darren, and also his parents, and the conversations that follow with other senior staff members and teachers. We have a significant investment of the learning mentor, and in this instance speech and language support.

We believe that by targeting boys in reception, who exhibit the characteristics above, enable us to intervene at a time when brains are more ‘plastic’, so easier to address, rather than risk waiting for them ‘to grow out if it’ and have to deal with a much bigger issue later.

If you are a teacher, or regularly in class, does this resonate, fit your experience?


Allen, G (2011a) Early Intervention: The Next Steps (an Independent Report to Her Majesty’s Government). Cabinet Office.
Hawkins, D. Herrenkohl, T.I. Farrington, D.P. Brewer, D. Catalano, R.F. Harachi, T. and Cothern, L. (2000) Predictors of Youth Violence. Juvenile Justice Bulletin, U. S. Department of Justice. April, 2000
Kolb, B. (1995) Brain Plasticity and Behaviour. Lawrence Erlbaum Associaties, New Jersey, USA.
Millenium Cohort Study (2012) The Age 11 Study. Centre for Longitudinal Study.
Plewis, I ed. (2004) Millennium Cohort Study First Survey: Technical Report on Sampling 3rd Edition June 2004
Shore, R. (1997) ‘What have we learned?’ in ‘Rethinking the brain’. New York: Families and Work Institute, pp. 15-27. For further details visit
Stiles, J & Jernigan, T.L. (2010) The Basics of Brain Development. Neuropsychology Review. 2010 December; 20(4): 327–348. Published online November 2010.

Trefor Lloyd
Boys Development Project

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