How parents can motivate boys to learn, from Andrew Fuller

After a disruptive few years, we need our boys to re-engage with their learning, writes clinical psychologist and family therapist Andrew Fuller.

Parenting sons is a mix of being an ace motivational coach with being an overly active events manager while remaining big-hearted and having the stern eye of a store detective. In short, not complicated at all!

The world of boys and young men is also filled with intricacies. Having a brother is like having a best friend who occasionally wants to kill you. For sons, having a best friend is a lot like having a brother. This means for most of the time, the social world of boys is fantastic but when things turn nasty they need parents to provide lots of support and care. When a trusted mate turns on them, they feel betrayed, hurt, and overwhelmed.

At a minimum, they need to feel attached to and supported by at least one person at home, one adult at school and one adult in an area of their interest or passion.

The Great Languishing

After a few disruptive years too many of our boys have flopped back into school, listless and half-motivated, slightly dishevelled, sullen and if pressed upon, cantankerous. It is easy to point the finger at the likely causal factors. What is more difficult is to devise a remedy. This paper invites you to contribute your thoughts on this.

Re-engaging these boys back into learning is critical for their futures. Parents play an essential role in creating this.

Boy Smarts for Parents

Boys are the masters of minimalism and the practitioners of ‘just–in-time’ management. Asked to do almost any task, their immediate response is ‘later’. If they are asked to write a 50-word essay, they will count the words and if they write 51 words some of them will think they have overdone it.

If you are a parent of boys there are several ways you can do to improve their attitude to learning. While there will be exceptions, these methods are likely to work with most boys.


Boys are constantly checking to see if you respect them. They respond well to parents who have expectations of them and respect them as capable of meeting those goals. If a boy senses that his parents respect him, he will walk over coals to impress them. If he thinks his parents disrespect him, he will shut down, dispute almost everything they say and dismiss anything they suggest.

The fine parenting art is to have your expectations set only slightly higher than their current level of performance. Set them too high and they will experience shame over failing and give up. Set them too low and they will dawdle and think you don’t believe they are capable.

Requesting to help with small tasks (setting the table, walking the dog, helping to cook) builds connection and loyalty. Even better, ask for his advice about an issue that concerns you. Be careful never to turn a request for help into a demand. If you make a request and he declines it, move on (but don’t give up requesting help from him in the future).


Learning Strengths Rule!

He is much smarter than he thinks. Ask him to complete (with you if you wish) an analysis of his learning strengths at

Use these results to plan a strategy for building upon his learning strengths over the next term.

Use this to acknowledge his smarts when you can. For example, ‘Alan I know you have learning strengths in spatial reasoning, what are your thoughts about..?

Help him to understand that different people have different learning strengths and therefore can make different contributions. This lessens the sense of a competitive hierarchy.

Ideally repeat the learning strength assessment every six months.

Have clear signals about who is in charge

Families work best as benevolent dictatorships. Boys need boundaries, structure, and clarity. They need to know who is in charge here. They respond to parents who are fair, funny and respect their points of view but are clear about their own expectations regarding behaviour and learning.


Tell boys what you want them to do

One of the common mistakes parents make with boys is saying, ‘stop that’ and expecting that they will know what else to do. Just saying ‘stop that’ rarely works because it assumes boys know what they should be doing. A lot of boys have no idea what they should be doing. Rather than saying, ‘stop being unfriendly’ say, ‘please go over and ask your friend if he’d like something to eat.’

The second common error is telling them what you don’t want them to do rather than telling them what you do want them to do.

Boys need more physical signals because they are less tuned into facial cues. Boys are more able to screen out white noise. (Parents providing pep talks = white noise).

Deliver some instructions in silence. Use visual cues, raising a hand or by moving to a particular part of the room. Never, ever yell they just yell back which is annoying or sulk, which is tiresome.

Fewer rules and fewer words are better

Have a couple (no more than three) clear principles that you apply fairly and consistently. Have a couple of core family values (e.g., kindness, generosity, treating others as you would like to be treated). Live by them and insist upon them. Base your parenting and management of behaviour on the idea of, ‘I won’t let this happen to you and I won’t let you do it to anyone else’.

Value them and they will be heroes

Boys are wonderful. Help boys to learn that they can be heroes and victorious but that winning doesn’t mean someone else has to lose.

Great men make other people bigger. Lesser men make other people feel small.

Use knowledge from computer games as an inspiration for learning

Boys’ attraction to competitive games will override almost any disadvantage or loss of motivation. They love competitive games especially when there is not an ultimate winner. This creates surges in their dopaminergic pathways.

Quick fire quizzes with several rounds are a successful way of engaging boys.

Computer game designers have cleverly used the principles of engagement to captivate boys:

  • Make success challenging but attainable by breaking it down into stages.
  • Make success more likely than failure. The most motivating games have players succeed about 80 per cent of the time initially before building up to 100 per cent before moving to the next level.
  • Give them the opportunity to try again.
  • Try to create a sense of moratorium where they can try to out new activities in a setting where there are no consequences.
  • Use lots of movement. Rhythmic movements increase dopamine.

Pay attention to less competitive, sensitive boys. Assisting them to attain personal bests can be useful.

Give boys more time to answer and to assemble the words and give them a chance to phone a friend (the friend cannot answer the question but can make helpful suggestions).


Move regularly

Boys see things best in motion. Use visuals and animations as often as you can. Boys love targeting. If you have ever watched boys place rubbish into bins you’ll notice that they don’t place it, they take a shot. For this reason, movement and aiming to achieve a set target are powerful strategies with boys.

Boys need quiet times

In order to reflect and re-energise, boys need quiet times to think, read and at times quietly chat with others. Arrange space so that there are quiet spots for thinking.

Know about anger

Anger and shame can stop boys learning and once boys are angry, it is harder for them to get over it. If they feel you are going to shame them in front of others they will fight you tooth and nail. Most boys will do silly, self-defeating things (including dumbing themselves down) rather than losing the respect of their peers. Social status is more important to them than success.

Take your sail out of their winds. Remain calm and be helpful. Reacting to his anger by becoming angry yourself toxifies the situation. When a boy is angry ask yourself, ‘What could he be grieving for? What might he need to feel

Teach boys how to have helpful conversations

While there are some incredibly articulate boys there are also those who think that shuffling their feet, avoiding eye contact, and mumbling monosyllables such as ‘what’ and ‘dunno’ is a sufficient level of social contribution.

A model for developing caring communication for boys I have developed in collaboration with schools is CARE –

Ask and access strengths

Boys are loyal and funny

Boys love the ‘inside word’, the cheat sheet and they love to score. Giving them hints suggestions and a way to succeed builds their loyalty to you. Boys buy popularity through achievement, jokes, and skills. Humour is an essential quality. Make it smart to be smart.


Boys generally learn through doing-thinking-talking

Boys like movement and activity. They are also concerned with performance. While some boys will be inherently interested in the material, almost all boys engage when there is a competitive spirit. The more that you mimic a game show format the more boys will be engaged.

Get the Neuromix right and they will learn

Many of the actions of students are not driven by conscious thought. While this is true for all students, it is especially true for those boys who are not naturally self-reflective.

Behind motivation, task orientation and engagement lie a mix of neurochemicals – dopamine, cortisol, adrenaline, and serotonin. When parents know how to raise and lower these, they are much more likely to engage boys in learning.

Tell your sons they are great (and they will be)

Boys can receive a lot of negative messages from their peers and also from some adults. Be the antidote.

Believe in him. Let him know that you think he is wonderful, smart, and capable (even at times when the evidence to back this up is not readily at hand) and he will live up to it.

Copyright Andrew Fuller

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More tips and resources from Andrew

More tips about how to maximise your success can be found at:

Andrew’s websites  (45,000 young people in the past year discovered their learning strengths and found how to increase success and motivation).

Books for parents

Tricky Behaviours
The A to Z of Feelings,
Unlocking Your Child’s Genius (Bad Apple Press)

Books for teachers

Guerilla Tactics for Teachers (from
Tricky Behaviours
Tricky Teens
Unlocking Your Child’s Genius (Bad Apple Press)
Neurodevelopmental Differentiation- Optimising Brain Systems to Maximise Learning (HawkerBrownlow)

About Andrew

Andrew is a clinical psychologist and family therapist, author and speaker, and a regular contributor to The Parents Website.

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