How to catch a falling son

He was tested as gifted and loved learning. But somewhere along the way, my boy slipped through the cracks and nearly out of the school system. Is it too late to save him?

By Christina Tynan-Wood

When he was young, my son Cole was an entertaining writer, voracious reader, and so curious he exhausted us with questions. In second grade, he was tested as gifted. Now, at 15, he’s as likely to be the teacher in our relationship as the student. But with rare exception, he gets terrible grades. Over the years, I’ve been told he’s learning challenged and so needs special education and medication. I’ve been to every kind of parent/teacher meeting. I’ve tried every kind of school: Montessori, charter, public, magnet, private, as well as homeschooling. I hoped as he got older, this bright boy would be more willing to speak up and demonstrate that his inattention is not incomprehension.

But three weeks ago, as his sophomore year drew to a close, I got a call from a teacher warning me he was unlikely to pass. I had known he was slipping behind. In fact, I’d removed all the distractions I could from our house – Xbox, cable TV – and even set “distraction controls” on his laptop to keep him from wandering to Facebook when he should be studying. Cole and I talked about homework daily. He assured me he was getting caught up and that his teachers were simply not updating the online grading system. His efforts, he insisted with disarming confidence, would be reflected in his report card. But the teacher informed me she had just updated the system. I sighed and took a look. His grades were so low he would have to work to bring them up to Fs. What did he imagine was going to happen when I got that report card?

We'd been here before, but he always managed to catch up at the last minute. This time was different. I sat him down to explain that these grades were scotching his dreams of studying engineering at a good university. He shrugged and looked hopeless. “What are the chances that I’ll get into college?” he asked.

Not 'fit' for college?

What happened? How did that brilliant, curious mind decide it wasn’t a fit for college?

I started troubleshooting. First I called the school guidance counselor to find out what Cole's options were. Should I let him fail so he could learn from the consequences of his inaction? Was it mathematically possible for him to pass? “It’s possible," the counselor told me. "But I doubt he can do it. He has dug himself into quite a hole.” These were not easy classes he was failing. No amount of general brilliance would get him through honors chemistry. “But he can retake the classes in the summer. If he does that, these grades won't affect his GPA — though the incident will appear on his record. But try and get him to fix it. This is too harsh a lesson at his age.” The counselor agreed to talk to him man-to-man to explain the situation and Cole's options.

Next, I did what I always do when I feel lost: research. I discovered that what’s happening to my son is epidemic and has been happening for decades. Boys start falling behind girls in kindergarten and keep doing it right through college. The end result? Colleges that are only 40 percent male and an educated workforce that is increasingly female.

Five reasons boys fail

Dr. Leonard Sax puts forth five possible reasons our boys are failing: boys’ dependence on video games, teaching methods that don’t account for how boys learn, an increasing reliance on stimulants like Ritalin that are designed to help young boys focus but — according to his research — sap their motivation and drive when they are older, chemicals in the environment that disrupt hormones, and the devaluation of masculinity in schools that disenfranchise boys.

I inhaled his book Boys Adrift. It made complete sense. I’ve long been a believer in encouraging the “boy” aspect of boys. Despite the not-so-subtle suggestions starting in kindergarten that I put Cole on Ritalin, he and I refused. But the section on video games seemed to hold exactly the answer I was looking for. Cole loves video games – a love bordering on addiction.

According to Sax, the video game addiction is an indicator of the “will to power” personality. This term, coined by Friedrich Nietzsche, describes the desire to control one’s environment. Sax argues that the “will to power” is among the basic, immutable personality traits, trumping other basic impulses like the will to please. In video games, you experience control — often of a vast, complex world that requires lightning-fast reflexes, nuanced decisions, extensive memory, and ruthlessness. In fact, games are one of the few places Cole achieves what brain researchers call “flow” — where your mind is so engaged you lose track of time.

I had long been responding to this aspect of his nature without having a name for it.

In the fourth grade, for example, his language arts teacher warned me he was failing so I called a meeting. She handed me proof: a test where he’d been asked to write a response to a prompt. She had given it an F.

It was good — and not just the grammar and spelling: he could write a lead, build suspense, and tell a joke. “What’s wrong with this?” I asked. “This is good writing — even for an adult.”

She handed me the rubric she had been teaching from. It stated a sentence had to be six words long. “He used a two-word sentence. I am not trying to teach good writing,” she informed me, the irony apparently lost on her. “I have to teach him to write to that rubric so he can pass the EOGs (end-of-grade tests).” I pulled him out of this school shortly after.

At home, Cole looked at the test and shrugged. “I don’t care what she thinks,” he said. “She calls adjectives ‘sparkle words.’”

“It’s not writing,” I agreed. “And she’s not half the writer you are. This is a word game. And these are the rules.” I handed him the rubric. “I thought you were good at word games. She thinks if you can’t play this game you won’t be good at the EOGs either.”

He glanced at the rubric and nodded. I left it at that. And he went back to his computer game. But he got A’s after that – and top marks on the EOGs.

He may not be interested in pleasing teachers, but he’s always up for winning a game.

School is for girls

“What should I do?” I asked Sax.

“There is only one solution,” he told me. “Enroll him in an all-boys school where the teachers know how to handle this personality.” Not only are the schools he endorses same-sex, but the teachers at the boys schools understand that boys respond to competition and sometimes need to lead. They get the concept of will to power and use it as a teaching tool.

Unfortunately, there is no such school where we live and I can’t afford boarding school. I pointed this out.

“You will have to move,” he answered without hesitation. I could hear him typing and looking up the school closest to us, which turned out to be three hours away – and full. I thought he was joking, so I laughed. There was an awkward silence.

“This is your son,” he said. “I moved so my daughter could go to the right school. You have no choice. If I thought there was another way, I would not have founded the National Association for Single Sex Education.”

I have changed Cole’s school a half-dozen times without success. Although the debate on the pros and cons of single-sex education continues, I’m willing to believe Sax might be right about my son. But Cole likes his school – in no small part because there are girls there – and none of us want to move. I made a note of this idea as a possible last resort. But I searched on for a solution that fit our lives.

Richard Whitmire, author of Why Boys Fail, saw no easy solution either. “I hate to say this about your son,” he said. “But, at this point, he is not likely to achieve his dream of studying engineering at a good school.”

“I dropped out of high school,” I countered. “But I went on to a good college – after a semester at a community college – and have achieved most of my dreams.” I explained that I went to an experimental high school designed like a college. It lost funding in my junior year and closed but I couldn’t face the prison-like atmosphere of my only other alternative. So I got a GED at 16.

Whitmire listened with interest to my story. But he insisted, “You didn’t want to study engineering. And you didn’t have the experience your son is having. He is learning that he can’t do this. It sounds as if your journey had the opposite effect.”

Whitmire has spent years examining the appalling number of boys who don’t do well in elementary through high school and then go on to do poorly in college, if they go at all. This trend has been going on for decades. At this point, in some colleges, he told me, girls outnumber boys by two to one.

The problem, he says (along with Sax and many others) is that academics have been pushed into children’s lives earlier. Kindergarten is what first grade used to be. Girls are often ready to read at this age. Boys? Not so much. So from his very first school experience, a boy senses school isn’t for him, a feeling that worsens as the years drag on. Schools, which once left girls falling behind in math and science, have been revamped to be more verbal. This has helped girls. But boys aren’t as verbal and tend to tune out when there’s too much talking. Homework is another problem: in general, girls do it, boys don’t.

In fact, it was the failure to turn in homework that accounted, for the most part, for Cole’s current grades.

Don’t push the homework button

Dr. Kenneth Goldberg, a clinical psychologist, wrote The Homework Trap because it was the book he wished he’d had when his son was in school.

“Imagine Pavlov’s dog,” Goldberg told me. “Pavlov taught the dog to salivate to a bell by using positive stimulation. And they teach rats to push a button the same way. But you can also teach the rat not to push a button with negative stimulation. That’s what we are doing to these boys (and girls) with homework.”

Some students are fine with homework. But for others this nightly ritual is hell. Maybe they didn’t pay attention in class so they don’t know what the homework is or how to do it. Perhaps they have trouble sitting still again after a long day in school. Some have a low-level learning disability, which leaves them disadvantaged when it comes to processing information that’s spoken out loud. (Boys are much more likely than girls to have one of these.)

Whatever the reason for the student’s difficulty with homework, it’s a big part of school. So concerned parents spend hours on it every night. We lose family time, pleasant after-school activities, and the harmony of family life. It becomes a war between parent and child to get this essential work done.

“People work in containers,” Goldberg says. “We go to school for five hours. We go to work for eight. But a homework-trapped student has to do homework until it is done or everyone is too exhausted to care.”

I thought about all the fights Cole and I have had over the years about homework. It seemed pointless – and cruel.

The solution? “Set a fixed amount of time for homework – ten minutes per class is a good amount,” says Goldberg. When the time is up, he’s done. The idea is that over time you’re changing how your child approaches and feels about homework. Eventually, says Goldberg, Cole will be able to complete all his homework without the usual strife. (Ideally, you work with the teacher to devise a homework solution that works while you’re retraining your child to approach homework differently.)

Would this solution work? And would we get cooperation from the school? We’d have to see.

Let’s make a deal

I would like to give up on this system that’s teaching my son that he can’t succeed and enroll him in a virtual school at K12.com or Connections Academy — or move so he can go to an all-boys school. But Cole wants to stay in this school. So we settled on a plan to get him caught up: if he fails, I get to choose.

I printed out a list of all the missing assignments and tests. He grabbed at it, gratefully. He hadn’t been paying attention and had no idea what was missing.

Then I asked my mother to stop by every afternoon after school. She has never been part of the homework battle, so I thought she might be a more effective person to help him get through it all. She read while Cole plugged away online at the Khan Academy, quickly getting up to speed on chemistry and algebra. In Salman Khan (at the Khan Academy), Cole discovered a math and chemistry teacher he could relate to, as I thought he might.

He also did his best to impress his grandmother with his dutiful attention to work. Though she didn’t do much but sit observing, occasionally she’d gently redirect him back to his studies if he strayed. She stayed for one hour. Once she left, homework time was over. He could do more work if he liked, and sometimes he would. But that was up to him.

One thing was clear: this new method was working. Suddenly, homework wasn’t something Cole put every ounce of his intelligence and effort into avoiding. With a hard stop at the end of an hour — and a lot of work to do — it was easier just to do it.

Cole started turning in piles of homework. He started to look less hopeless. One Sunday when my mother was visiting, he came out of his room, hugged her, and said, “Thanks to you, I got the highest grade in class on my chemistry test yesterday.” His familiar look of failure was starting to wash off. Three weeks later, we got Cole’s report card: Three C’s (math, chemistry, and civics) and a B+ (creative writing, previously his lowest grade.)

He passed. But his GPA will never recover — unless he goes to summer school, retakes those classes, or switches to a virtual school.

We sat down together to look at his bittersweet victory. I made it clear that we were all impressed by what he had accomplished. “Learning honors chemistry in three weeks is no small feat,” I told him. “Not many people could do that. If you had started sooner, you might have made the honor roll.”

He nodded. “I lacked initiative,” he told me. “But I learned my lesson.”

Did he? “He’ll be fine,” Tisha Green Rinker, Connections Academy's senior manager of school counseling told me. “I’ve seen pregnant kids who dropped out at 15 come to us, get a high school diploma, and go on to college. Cole has something none of those kids — or many of the ‘numbers’ your experts are looking at — have: you. You care. You believe in him. And you are willing to do what it takes to help him figure it out.”

She’s right. When I dropped out of high school, I could easily have become a statistic used to support a theory. Many of the experts I spoke to would probably have predicted an unhappy outcome for me. Still, my mother encouraged me to follow the path that was right for me. Finding my way to college by going outside the box may have been one of the most important lessons I learned as a student.

As the parent of a struggling boy, though, it’s not always easy to feel so sanguine. Faced with so many disheartening statistics about failing boys, no parent can afford to sit back and have faith that their care will be enough to pull the kid through. I still don't know if Cole will achieve his dreams — or anything at all — but I choose to believe in him. It’s not even really a choice. I refuse, am unable, to see him as one of these dire statistics. Not today. Probably not ever, however things turn out.

I’ve learned a few things in all these years of helping this boy survive school: even when he seems not to be, he is listening. Even when he says he’s got it, he needs help finding a solution he can’t see or a way to reach a goal he’s given up on.

But the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that people who tell me what this boy can’t do are usually wrong.

I’ve been told he can’t take tests. (He aces them.) That he can’t pay attention without medication. (He’s fine. Pick up the pace!) That he will bring down the class EOG average. (He often gets the highest score.) And that he can’t handle the workload. (Honors Chemistry and Honors Algebra 2 in three weeks! You try that.)

So here’s what I say to ‘He won’t achieve his dreams’: how about we wager some money on that?

Christina Tynan-Wood has written for Better Homes and Gardens, Popular Science, PC World, PC Magazine, InfoWorld, and many others. She currently writes the "Family Tech" column in Family Circle and blogs at GeekGirlfriends.com.