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Tackling male underachievement: enhancing a strengths-based learning environment for middle school boys.

During the past decade, there has been an increasing gender achievement gap with male students lagging behind their female counterparts on a number of important indicators of school success. This article examines recommendations and strategies for school counselors working with middle school boys to enhance the learning environment, to promote strengths, and to encourage positive attitudes toward academic achievement and future planning. Collaboration with teachers, administrators, parents, and community members as important stakeholders can offer combined resources to promote school success. The strategies described have resulted from a local collaborative action research project conducted by counselor educators and students, the county supervisor of guidance, and middle school counselors.


The achievement gap between White students and students of color with regard to educational achievement and scores on high-stakes achievement tests in public education has been a major issue over the past decade, with the No Child Left Behind Act (U.S. Department of Education, 2001) providing an impetus for closing these gaps. A gender gap with male students lagging behind their female counterparts on a number of important indicators of school success also has emerged in recent years and is receiving increased attention (Clark, Oakley, & Adams, 2006; Kafer, 2004). National statistics show that boys are having more academic difficulties and are achieving at lower levels across most school subjects as a group than are girls, as shown by test scores, grades, and dropout rates (U.S. Department of Education, 2004). Further, they have a significantly higher incidence of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, special education referrals and placements, behavioral issues, and school discipline referrals (Kafer; National Center for Educational Statistics [NCES], 2006). In addition to achievement data, there are attitudinal and motivational data that indicate boys as a group do not seem to think school is as important in their lives as do girls (Clark et al.; NCES, 2005).

When attempting to summarize the reasons for these trends, factors such as lack of male role models in schools, cultural attitudes about gender expectations, disinterest in subject matter, lack of organization and planning for the future, learning styles, and the need for physical space and movement seem to be reoccurring themes. Counter arguments have been brought up in the popular media claiming that there is no "gender gap." Yet, statistics show that women have significantly surpassed men not only in high school graduation rates, but in university enrollment and degree completion, and this trend is predicted to increase through 2015 (NCES, 2006).


As school counselors and educators, we have found that taking a strengths-based approach in working with middle school students is more likely to achieve results in promoting their academic achievement and overall well-being. Such an approach includes highlighting individual and group assets, assisting to create a positive school and classroom climate, and viewing our students in their environmental and cultural contexts (Galassi & Akos, 2007). This approach also emphasizes directly assessing student needs, both through quantitative and qualitative data analysis. We benefit from examining data, sharing it with students, and listening to what our students tell us about their needs. We then develop evidence-based interventions that incorporate this information. Helping students realize their strengths and then building upon them, as well as conveying these strengths to teachers, administrators, and parents who can reinforce the strengths, is key to this approach.

Middle school appears to be a time when the gender achievement gap widens (Graham & Hardy, 2006; Tyre, 2006). Data analysis in our district showed gender differences at the middle school level with significantly higher numbers of girls than boys earning grade point averages (GPAs) that were "B" or higher, and significantly more boys than girls earning GPAs of "C" or lower. Discipline referrals for boys were significantly higher than for girls. These gender differences were shown across Caucasian, African American, and Hispanic students.

Middle school helps set the stage for future success at the high school level, so motivational and organizational issues become of paramount importance during this time. This article examines recommendations and strategies for school counselors working with middle school boys to enhance the learning environment, to promote strengths that male students bring, to encourage positive attitudes, and to use culturally and gender relevant learning materials with which boys can identify. Part of our approach also involves helping boys develop strengths that they may not recognize in themselves or which they do not believe currently exist, but are desired by them.

In a longitudinal national survey of a group of U.S. 12th graders over the course of a decade, researchers found that girls not only reported that coursework was more meaningful and interesting than the boys did, but the girls also saw the importance of their schoolwork as related to their futures more often (NCES, 2005). Possible selves theory (Carey & Martin, 2007; Markus & Nurius, 1986; Oyserman, Bybee, & Terry, 2006), which focuses on the motivational power of students' views of themselves in the future, can help counselors better understand the link between boys' motivations and goals and their achievement in school. Possible selves are the various ways that individuals envision themselves in the future, offering counselors a framework to understand the motivations and achievement of middle school students, and boys in particular. Possible selves can be positive, with qualifies and lifestyles that the individuals want to strive for, or they can be negative, with characteristics that individuals want to avoid, or are afraid of having, in the future. Additionally, students can develop separate possible selves for academic, social, and physical domains, and often these various possible selves present conflicting desires.

In our work and observations, as well as in narratives from our male students, it appears that many boys are more oriented in the present than in the future, and academic achievement may not be a priority when compared with social and physical status, particularly with regard to peers. Having well-articulated and visualized positive possible selves within the academic domain can be a position of strength for boys. Counselors can help boys elaborate on and articulate their future possible selves, making the image of a successful self much clearer. Taking a strengths-based approach, counselors can use an analogy from a boy's interests and talents such as sports, music, art, and specific academic areas to point out how one typically does not become talented immediately, but instead must practice consistently to improve. Making deliberate connections between academic possible selves and social (or peer group) identity also can help boys believe that these successful future academic selves are possible, acceptable, and desirable for others like them. Middle school boys need encouragement to recognize academic skills and efforts in peers and adults like them, rather than aspiring to a vague or unknown ideal. This concept of using like role models is significant in an era in which professional sports heroes and rock stars appear to be the ultimate, though predominantly unattainable, models. Thus, assisting boys to recognize their talents and encouraging them to work to develop their skill sets are essential.


As a result of a local and international research project we have conducted over the past 2 years (Clark, Thompson, & Vialle, 2008), several themes have emerged regarding male underachievement in public education. In conducting student focus groups with middle and high school students and interviews with educators and parents, the following themes emerged that are important in working with male students: (a) helping males to envision the future with positive roles and outcomes for themselves; (b) teaching and reinforcing organizational and study skills; (c) examining the learning environment, to include physical space, movement, learning styles, and materials/tools; (d) promoting positive role models; and (e) grouping students by gender in small group settings. We have drawn upon these themes to develop specific strengths-based plans for a middle school intervention for underachieving male students.


Our research team collaborated to identify and work with an eighth-grade male group at a local middle school with a diverse population of students. The group consisted of 17 members who were identified because they were deemed to possess high academic potential based on statewide test scores and teacher recommendations but had lower than expected GPAs. Some members had referrals for classroom disruptions and perceived low motivation for academic success. Over half of the participants were from economically challenged homes and communities and were on the free/reduced-price school meal program, and many were from single-parent homes. About 40% of the members were enrolled in a gifted, magnet program on technology, and the other 60% were considered "mainstream" students. Four boys were receiving exceptional education services. Each of the boys was contacted individually and agreed to participate in a strengths-based group with 12 sessions over the course of the academic year. Goals for the group included to increase motivation in school, to decrease discipline referrals, to assist with identifying and building on strengths of the individual participants as well as the group as a whole, and to provide information and resources to assist students in future planning for a successful high school and postsecondary experience. We hoped the group sessions would provide an impetus for improved academic achievement.

A pre-evaluation was administered to the group to identify members' perceived strengths, interests, and areas of concern to determine topics of focus for the group. The group members identified various strengths they had such as sports, friendship skills, and technology. Their top ranked areas of interest to explore in the group included (in order) career and educational planning, time management and organizational skills, personal finance, study skills, mentoring, healthy living habits, and community service. In addition, group members recorded specific questions they had regarding these topics, and their input was used to plan the corresponding lessons. We also integrated group members' Student Interest Profile results from a school-wide administered career inventory. We believed that if the boys had active participation in identifying their strengths, interests, and needs, they would be much more involved in the group process.

The group facilitators and contributors included our research team, two graduate students in school counseling, one male and one female, and a volunteer male law student, the husband of the school counselor. Previous experience in working with boys' groups, as well as data from focus groups in a cross-cultural study (Clark et al., 2008), suggested that males may benefit from movement and hands-on instruction, so the sessions were formatted to be as interactive as possible. Partners, small breakout groups, open discussions, guest speakers, field trips, and the use of technology were incorporated to make the material enjoyable and motivating.


Results of the pre-evaluation showed a variety of topics of interest held by the group participants. The two overarching themes were about relationships and self-care (e.g., negotiation, healthy living habits, mentoring) and future planning and school success (e.g., organization and study skills, financial and career concerns), and we organized the schedule of sessions around these themes. Each session was held during alternating class periods of 45 minutes once every 2 weeks, ensuring that the students did not miss any one class on a regular basis. Our group met in the media center of the school, as it provided flexible space for the variety of activities in which we engaged. Laptop computers were brought into the media center as needed. Following are the topics for each of the 12 sessions:

* Session 1: Introductions, ground rules, pre-evaluation, and "getting to know you" activities. These initial activities were conducted with the group.

* Session 2: Motivational guest speaker. A university student talked about his experiences growing up in Africa as a refugee orphan and being relocated to the United States to begin a new life at age 16. We discussed overcoming obstacles, building on strengths, and reaching goals, even when the end goal seems difficult and overwhelming at times. The concepts of resilience and fortitude as well as supportive relationships were themes in this session. Future selves theory came into play as the speaker outlined his visions for thinking about his future and taking small steps over time to reach goals. This session included questions and answers about pathways to community college and university education that were initiated by the group members and reinforced by the speaker and facilitators. This session reinforced the strengths-based philosophy of school counseling in assisting boys to think about resiliency, to build on their existing assets, and to develop additional ones.

Sessions 3, 4, and 5 were positive, strength-building sessions based on areas of interest to the boys as determined by the group pre-evaluation. A key to these sessions was being able to frame the topics of lifestyle, organization, and communication skills as ways to enhance and develop competencies to encourage a positive possible self.

* Session 3: Healthy life choices. A coordinator from a community agency, Family and Behavioral Health Services, spoke on healthy life choices and facilitated a discussion on drug abuse prevention as well as making smart choices regarding health and lifestyle. The group members mentioned this topic as an important one for them, and they actively participated in this session.

* Session 4: Organization and time management. This session focused on organization tips and benefits. A time management chart of the boys' afternoon schedule was used as an activity. An "Extreme Makeover, Backpack Edition" was carried out as a hands-on way to have the participants reorganize their backpacks. Processing questions were used to guide the follow-up discussion. Although the boys had not indicated that organization was a strength of theirs in the initial formation of the group, they rated this skill as an important one to learn about and improve. They seemed to appreciate the activity and the shared realization that each member needed to reorganize his backpack.

* Session 5: Mediation and negotiation skills. In this session, communication skills were introduced as a positive way to help boys negotiate with peers and adults. Role-plays and discussion of results were part of the session. A number of the group members had indicated in the pre-evaluation that friendship skills were a strength, but they also mentioned they were interested in learning about negotiation in working out differences with their friends, teachers, and parents. This session was an example of building on existing strengths to develop new ones.

* Session 6: Exercise and nutrition learning stations. This session included an exercise station, which involved playing basketball or another group activity of choice, and a healthy snacks station, in which the boys were able to create their own snacks using a variety of healthy foods from all five food groups. They learned about the food groups and healthy calorie intake for their age and gender and discussed ideas for healthy eating. This session focused on the boys' perceived strengths in sports and physical exercise, and their interest in food.

* Session 7: Memory strategies and test-taking tips. Using tips from Student Success Skills (Brigman & Webb, 2004), this session introduced study skills and memory aids that were practiced by the participants. A number of these strategies involved physical movement.

* Session 8: Preparing for high school, part I. Participants were introduced to high school graduation requirements, magnet programs, and career academies available in the district's high schools. Choosing a high school major of four related courses, now required in our state, was a topic for discussion as were scholarship opportunities for postsecondary education. Presenting this information in a smaller group format was helpful to reinforce what is usually offered in classroom or assembly-style settings.

* Session 9: Preparing for high school, part II. Individual and small group sessions were held with preservice school counselors from our university who visited the students at the middle school. The counselors-in-training worked with the group participants about their experiences in school and helped them explore feelings, concerns, and opportunities about their upcoming high school careers as well as envision "future possible selves." Assisting the boys to envision a positive view of themselves as successful students who could make appropriate decisions on course selection and postsecondary access and opportunities was a primary goal of this session. The counselors-in-training commented in a debriefing session that all of the boys were able to articulate goals and possible future plans with appropriate steps they would need to take. For example, each boy in his individual session with a counselor-in-training was able to articulate what goals and dreams he had for after high school graduation, including college and degree earning.

* Session 10: Career planning. This session was facilitated by a school counselor intern who demonstrated Web sites relating to career development and future planning. Students used laptops to enable them to explore these sites independently. A group activity utilizing Holland codes was introduced to assist students to connect their personality types with career possibilities. The counselor helped the students make connections between their codes and careers of expressed interest.

* Session 11: Financial planning and budgeting for the future. A counselor education student presented the topic of managing money, the cost of living, and investing for the future. Web sites that helped students to develop budgets and to see the monthly cost of their desired lifestyles were used. The larger group was divided into three smaller groups of 5-6 boys to allow for greater ease in facilitation.

* Session 12: Where we've been; where we're going. A culminating activity, reflection, and group evaluations were used to provide closure, to discuss perceived strengths at the end of the sessions, and to offer future resources. The group participants were given an opportunity to reflect and share their thoughts and feelings about their education, career possibilities, family, strengths, talents, and life goals.


The results from the group intervention for eighth-grade male students were positive overall. The attendance of the participants was excellent each week. Discipline referrals for this group were reduced greatly; there were only two referrals for two of these boys during the last grading period as compared with a total of 21 referrals for 8 of the 17 boys the previous semester. The grades for 88% of the "mainstream" boys increased during the last marking period but the grades of the "gifted" boys did not improve. It is our belief that some of these boys will need further interventions to improve their academic achievement. However, perceived attitudes of the great majority of the participants toward school became increasingly positive, and they expressed more focused interest in looking to the future, as they prepared to leave middle school and enter high school.

In our culminating activity during the last session, all of the boys were able to articulate future goals and to offer visions of themselves 10 years from then. At the same meeting, each eighth-grade boy was able to write about personal strengths he had discovered or developed over the course of the 12 sessions. The perceived strengths varied from one participant to another, but they included such issues as organization, writing, study skills, time management, responsibility, and group cooperation. They also mentioned specific talents such as sports, writing, and their minds. The participants were each asked to write two goals they had for themselves as they prepared to enter high school. The most frequently mentioned goals were making good grades, graduating from high school, joining activities, and playing sports. Several wrote about careers and going on to college. Teachers commented on improved behavior, participation, and grades for the majority of the boys. We believe that these boys have discovered some of their strengths, have enhanced others, and have started to develop positive images of their "future selves."

Helping the eighth-grade boys envision their futures, offering skills and information on topics of importance to them, and assisting them in communicating positively with their peers and adults have been important strengths-building activities as they learn to become more independent and responsible for their actions and envision future possible selves. Channeling their energy and offering positive outlets for it, offering a variety of activities including exercise and food preparation, technology, and group interaction, and responding to their concerns are keys to fostering their strengths and meeting them on their level of participation. Collaborating as a team with a counselor educator, professional school counselors, preservice counselors, and community people offered multiple ideas and resources in working with the boys.

The group experience promoted bonding among the members, positive relationships with the adults involved with the group, and a growing knowledge of resources that the boys can use as they look to their futures. We believe that the group experience over the course of their eighth-grade year assisted in "helping students develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that will enable them to live productive and happy lives as citizens in a democratic society" (Galassi & Akos, 2007, p. 5). We have learned that strengths-building efforts need to be made on an ongoing basis to build and maintain the support systems that adolescent males need in their lives. Such efforts include collaborations among school counselors, administrators, teachers, parents, and community members as team players. Continuing to explore best practices to engage adolescent males to build on the strengths they bring to the classroom and community is essential to helping them develop into motivated, achieving young men who can and will recognize the importance of supporting one another, serving as role models for their school, and giving back to their community.


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Mary Ann Clark, Ph.D., is an associate professor with the Department of Counselor Education, University of Florida, Gainesville. E-mail:

Kelly Flower is a school counselor with the School Board of Alachua County, FL.

Jonathan Walton, M.Ed., Ed.S., is with Frederick County Public Schools, MD.

Erin Oakley is a doctoral student at the University of Florida, Gainesville.
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Author:Clark, Mary Ann; Flower, Kelly; Walton, Jonathan; Oakley, Erin
Publication:Professional School Counseling
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2008
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