Boys struggling in school, in the Western world, from transition to high school, is not new. Indeed, the OECD declared a ‘crisis in boys’ in the education system many years ago and things appear to be worsening.
In Australia, an increasing number of 4-6-year-old boys are being suspended or expelled for inappropriate behaviour. Boys are three times more likely to struggle with their learning and in New South Wales, boys make up 97% of the students at schools catering for children whose behaviour is untenable in a mainstream school setting. Many primary teachers have also reported that boys who have transitioned well into primary school, are disengaging much more rapidly from Years 3 to 5.
My main focus in this blog will be boys in early years and primary school. I have written a bestselling book, From Boys to Men, that explores what is really happening for our tween and teen boys that compromises their growth, maturation and education on the bridge to manhood.
Recently I recorded a video message for parents whose little boys were getting in trouble at school. It went crazy! I probably could write a whole book about boys and school. I also probably could have written two blogs here, one for parents and one for teachers. BUT I feel that parents and teachers really need to be able to understand each other if we are to see any change. So I encourage you please to pour yourself a cuppa and take the time to read on…
The reasons why boys are struggling more
1. The changes in schooling, particularly around curriculum expectations, are a major contributing factor to why boys struggle so much in the mainstream school environment.
One of the saddest things is that boys in schools are so often seen through a deficit lens. They are seen as problems that need to be fixed instead of seeing them as being little humans whose core needs are not being met.
Biologically most learn best by moving, doing and learning by modelling in real time from safe big people. As a former high school teacher, counsellor and mother of four sons, I have invested a lot of time and energy exploring boys and schooling. I’ve been particularly concerned about the push down of formalised learning and this is something I have explored in great detail in my 2013 submission to the Federal Government and my video Stop Stealing Childhood in the Name of Education and my blog Why are we still Stealing Childhood?.
The current test driven, ‘too much too soon’ push for formalised learning has been a big part of the increases in poor behaviour, lower educational outcomes, and more stress for both students and teachers and all that was before a global pandemic. It has impacted boys deeply.
The Australian education system presents the same concerns of other Western countries – our children are leaving school with lower literacy and numeracy capacity, and definitely less prepared for life outside of school.
My oldest three sons experienced four half days at kindy as five-year-olds which were spent mostly playing outside in the sandpit or the old wooden boat that was in the playground.
The kindergarten teacher reassured me at the time that most boys weren’t ready for long periods of time sitting on a mat or being given very specific instructions on what they needed to do. She also reassured me that they had a stronger need for movement and a hunger for autonomy. The first year of school was the year they turned six, not the year they turned 4 ½-5 as is the case for many little boys now.
Having expectations that are developmentally inappropriate is the first reason that causes our boys enormous stress and that will often manifest in behaviour. My sons, who were allowed to experience a developmentally appropriate transition to big school and play-focused freedoms within safe neighbourhoods now have professional careers in law, finance and medicine. Also, there is no research that supports starting formalised learning earlier as being a good thing; however, there is plenty that shows how it can create detrimental effects.
Dr David Whitebread writes:
“Neuroscientific studies have shown that playful activity leads to sign up to growth, particularly in the frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for the uniquely human higher mental functions. In my research in the area of experimental and developmental psychology, studies consistently demonstrated the superior learning and motivation arising from playful, as opposed to instructional, approaches to learning in children. Perhaps most worrying, a number of studies have documented the loss of play opportunities to children over the second half of the 20th century and demonstrated a clear link with increased indicators of stress and mental health problems.”
Dr David Whitebread, School Starting Age: The Evidence. University of Cambridge. 2013.
2. Our children are turning up to school as 5-year-olds, less capable and less resilient than previous generations.
According to the Australian Early Development Census the national average of children with developmental vulnerabilities is 21.7%, (2018) however it is much higher in communities of lower socio-economic status and much lower in wealthier communities. Boys and indigenous students are statistically more prone to developmental challenges.
Long-term early childhood educators have been telling me for a while that today’s 5-year-olds are noticeably arriving in our school systems with these four challenges:
- less oral vocabulary
- poorer fine and gross motor skills
- poorer self-regulation
- an inability to initiate and sustain play with other children.
It seems these challenges are appearing across the board, not just in our more vulnerable children. If our children are arriving at big school less capable and less mature than previous generations, how can they possibly cope with the curriculum that has been pushed down? Seriously, a push-up of the curriculum would be a much wiser decision and can work well, as is shown in Finland.
During the 2021 COVID lockdown I helped my 5-year-old granddaughter with her remote learning and was flabbergasted when she was required to write a story with a beginning, middle and end, using adjectives! I am a former high school English teacher so I am extremely aware of the intricacies and complexities of being able to write effectively. My granddaughter is a bright, curious child who has been read to from birth and she found this task challenging.
The research is quite strong that a statistically significant number of little boys are later in developing their language skills, their fine motor skills, their ability to integrate left and right brain processing and they can seriously struggle with remembering things they don’t deem important. If you have had a boy interested in dinosaurs, you will know how good their memory can be! Not only that, but in environments where they do not feel valued or safe, they can struggle following directions and maintaining focus.
3. Technology is definitely impacting the healthy growth and development of our little ones, especially our boys.
You may have heard of the ‘displacement effect’? Well it means that by using screens our children are not doing the things that previous generations have done which support their healthy childhood development – things that really matter. Passivity is contributing to many delays in child development and allied health professionals are reporting that to me frequently. The ability to sit in a chair without falling out for a considerable period of time, is shaped by hours of autonomous, highly active play outside in the real world. There has been a significant increase in myopia, because children’s eyes need to be exposed to the outdoors, so that they can strengthen the capacity to focus on things at different distances.
The digital world – which our boys access, often frequently and for long periods of time, especially on handheld screens – has displaced the value of children playing with other children. One of the ways that children learn how to navigate their emotional and social worlds is through play. Better still, frequent play with multi-aged children, with freedom and autonomy. This is the way mother nature intended our children to learn how to be human. Screens cannot teach these things. Many of our children, especially boys, are struggling with self-regulation when they feel frightened, sad, incapable and misunderstood in our schools. There has been an epidemic in children’s anxiety over the past 10 years and some of the symptoms that can be misdiagnosed are restlessness, fidgeting, angry outbursts, oppositional and refusal behaviours, temper tantrums, aggression, attention-seeking behaviours, hyperactivity, silliness and difficulty sitting still.
Given that boys often use their physicality to express their emotions, rather than words and often in the heat of the moment, this behaviour is highly impulsive and has no intention to hurt, yet they are punished. Neuroscience is starting to show that screen use is contributing to a higher need for instant dopamine arousal, an inability to focus deeply, delayed growth of the executive functioning brain and a hunger to be entertained as much as possible and instantly.
Finally, allowing our boys freedom to roam the highways of the digital world can expose them to the dangers of viewing extreme violence, pornography, copycat behaviour (especially in a risky context), grooming and online abuse. All of these are extremely damaging on the immature and fragile developing brain of all children. Please limit the use of screens in your homes and monitor their activity so they are not abused or harmed.
4. Parenting has changed and it needed to. Being an effective parent can be tricky in a world full of too much parenting information.
When children come from a home where the parenting style is authoritarian and children are controlled through fear, they often bring that harsh, bullying behaviour to school with them. When children come from a home with a parenting style that is submissive, and they have not had any boundaries or been taught to be accountable for their actions, they tend to bring those disrespectful attitudes to school. Children need to be parented with a combination of firmness, and unconditional love. Dr Ross Greene, who is a leading expert in understanding what drives difficult behaviour in children argues strongly,
“Children will behave well, if they can.”
The same goes for our boys.
Boys need discipline rather than punishment because discipline is about holding boundaries and teaching and guiding with a warm heart not just punishing the behaviour you do not want. Indeed, punishment only has a temporary benefit in terms of behaviour, however, it damages the relationship that underpins everything. Children are much more motivated to follow the directions of their key caregivers if they are strongly bonded to them.
So the following suggestions are aimed for parents and teachers of boys who struggle in the school environment.
It acknowledges that the safety of students and staff always takes priority and needs action according to school protocols. Rules and guidelines are important, however they need to go both ways. Relational aggression needs to have no place in discipline strategies and procedures within schools and using shame needs to stop.
Tips for parents
Many of the unhelpful social norms around boys are unhelpful at raising boys who can manage in structured environments outside of their homes. The biggest social norm that we must destroy is that boys are tough. This is one of the reasons that little boys are spoken to more harshly, punished more harshly, shamed more often, especially in our classrooms and often made fun of or ignored. In my bestselling book Mothering our Boys and in my chats with Sarah Konowski and Richard Fidler on the ABC podcast Conversations I explore how fragile boys can, be especially emotionally, and how this impacts their social development.
If you can possibly give your son more time to shine, to mature and to develop his emotional and social world before starting school, please do it. Full-time schooling can be too much for many little boys, and yet there is nothing wrong with them. It is the system that is wrong.
One teacher wrote on my Facebook page: “Not every 5-year-old is developmentally ready for literacy. Forcing academic learning on a child who is fundamentally not ready fosters feelings of shame and alienates them from learning when the time is right.”
Our little boys are still being hit, hurt, shamed and made to feel bad, stupid or naughty, partly because of old social norms. When this happens often, they create a mindset that will influence their expectations around their behaviour and will quite frankly crush their little spirits and damage their hearts. So even if something happens accidentally and spontaneously, they will see that they have behaved badly. This message happens in homes and schools.
What happens when someone has spoken harshly or unkindly to you? How does that make you feel? Well, for a little boy who has a very immature prefrontal cortex who is shouted at, teased, made fun of or put on the naughty step or in the naughty corner or maybe has his name written in red on the board – the emotional pain can be intense, and that pain creates distress that will need to be expressed in some way. This will trigger the fight-flight response because he is in a battle for survival and there is nowhere safe for him. Acting out behaviour is quite easy to identify as there will be a verbal or physical response, or a meltdown. According to Polyvagal theory, this is known as the ‘red pathway’ and it is one that most of us are familiar with around children’s behaviour.
Another way of coping is the ‘blue pathway’, where with no conscious intention, children shut down. When boys shut down, in response to heightened stress, they can appear drowsy or tired, their body may look slumped and slouching and they can struggle to hear or concentrate, and will look like they are deliberately daydreaming and choosing not to do their work.
Many of our neurodivergent children struggle the same way that many of our boys do. Indeed, one of the reasons why girls are not diagnosed as easily as boys, is that they tend to shut down rather than act out when they are distressed. It is still a stress response to an unsafe environment and they need help, not punishment.
This was the subject of the video that I mentioned earlier after hearing from a number of mums of little boys, who were being punished for not listening in five-year-old classrooms. This is a sign of heightened distress.
Rather than adding to their distress by putting them on a behaviour chart, or by writing their name in red on the board, or by keeping them in at recess time, boys actually need help to calm down and to feel safe. Helping a boy return to the ‘green pathway’ of social engagement and emotional safety, is the way to change the struggles that he has in either the red or the blue pathway. This applies to boys’ behaviour in our homes and our classrooms.
Girls tend to process verbal communication more efficiently than boys and often boys learn to just ‘glaze over’ or zone out. They also tend to be more single focused and when they are absorbed in doing something, whether that be building something with Lego, digging a tunnel in the mud, or jumping vigorously on your couch, they can genuinely not hear, especially if you are calling from a distance, like across the room or from another room.
So many boys endlessly hear the word ‘don’t’ and they tend to learn to zone that out too. What happens when I say “don’t think of the blue elephant?” My top tips on getting your boys to hear and really listen, is to connect with them before you direct them. Come close to them, ruffle their hair, give them a high five, rub them on the back and then make your request not give a command! No one likes being told what to do. If you can, use as many non-verbal cues as possible. For example, if you want your son to put his hat on call him an endearing name,’ ‘hey bud,’ point to his hat and then point your head as though you’re putting a hat on. Seriously, having these visual cues and reminders is incredibly important. Creating a visual reminder chart with your son, especially for getting ready in the morning before school, can really help!
Micro-connections and gentle coaching
One of our boys’ biggest fears is that their safest people, usually their parents, will reject them and stop loving them, especially if they struggle with their behaviour. Not all boys respond to the same messages of love and affection as others. Working out the micro-connections that help your son feel loved is incredibly important. Please use names of endearment more often, even when he is a grumpy teen. If you’ve not used my bedtime ritual, it has been incredibly successful for so many little boys around the world who now feel more secure in their parents’ love. Having a secure attachment or strong bond from at least one safe grown-up is the key to improving our boys’ behaviour both inside and outside the home. Boys who have unloving home environments, who experience family violence or trauma of any kind, will struggle much more in school environments as well.
We must accept that the high degree of physical impulsivity, a tendency to be forgetful and more disorganised than little girls, is not a sign they are doing this deliberately. Every human hates to fail and for our little boys, they can struggle deeply when they upset their parents by making poor choices. Please help them when they muck up, to gradually learn that making better choices is possible. That they are not bad, or naughty or stupid.
If you are able to use this process over and over again, your son will gradually learn that he needs to be accountable for his choices, even if they are impulsive.
Instead of shouting at your son when he does something wrong, or punishing him, which is exactly what would have happened for little boys who are now fathers, keep in mind that you, the parent, are the most important teacher in your son’s life. You must teach him about the concept of the line in the sand even though he will struggle to fully understand it until he is much older. He needs lots of gentle coaching rather than punishment to be able to make better choices consciously as he grows older.
One of the most stressful things that can happen in the morning, is the endless nagging to get your son ready. Right from when they transition to big school and into middle school, work with your son to have as much done as possible the night before. Some parents have found having a basket or box, where things get put the afternoon before can be really helpful. Yes, you will need to remind him to put his uniform, shoes, socks, library bag, any finished homework into that basket before going to bed.
Please don’t do it for him all the time, do it with him so he learns how to get organised.
A simple to-do list on the side of the fridge or bathroom mirror, can really help as well! When he asks where something is, you remind him, it is already in your basket. He may have forgotten he did it the night before! The less stress that our boy’s experience in getting ready for school, the better they will transition to school. Given that they do tend to be more forgetful and less organised than girls, is just a sign that it’s an area we need to work with them to improve, rather than get frustrated and punish them for not mastering!
Friendships and Positive Teacher Relationships
One thing that can really help little boys even if they are struggling academically, is having friends. Making friends is not easy on boys, and prioritising ways and means of doing that outside of school can make a world of difference. Indeed, for many boys, friendships can be quite fragile.
As your son transitions to big school, or anywhere in primary school, do everything you can to facilitate a positive relationship with their teacher. Remember, just the same as in every profession in the world, there are exceptional teachers, good enough teachers and yes, there are a few lemons. Your son will hear how you speak about his teacher and he can be influenced by these words. Speak positively about education and learning, and reassure him that while it might be difficult at times, it is really worthwhile. Around eight years of age, most girls and boys will have the same level of maturity and ability to do well at school. However, if they have developed a negative mindset to school and learning, this will hold them back.
Your teacher is doing the best they can, under an overloaded and often developmentally inappropriate curriculum, with an excessive amount of pressure around testing and accountability. These things are mandated for your teacher, which means they have to do things that they may not professionally agree with.
Be mindful of respecting the boundaries of their lives. As many of them are parents too. Please inform your teachers of major changes in your home environment that could cause some fragility or extra stress in your boys’ emotional world.
However, try not to email them at night time expecting them to respond. If you are able to see that you and your teacher are on the same side of the fence working for what’s best for your son, it will make everything better for you all. Be respectful in the school car park and especially on social media and model the behaviour you hope your son or daughter may one day adopt.
If you have serious concerns about how your son is going, please make an appointment to see the teacher at a time that works for them.
We must recognise that with a class of up to 30 students, it can be difficult to meet the unique needs of every student, every moment of the day. However, communicating concerns and listening respectfully, is the best way forward.
If you are still unhappy make an appointment with the principal. If you are still really concerned because your son is still feeling unsafe in the school environment and the culture, please consider an alternative. Firstly, check to see if there is a nature-based school nearby that prioritises time in nature as part of the curriculum. Check out my website as I have lists for schools in Australia. Secondly, there are alternative schools such as Steiner and Montessori schools and others who have a democratic, more flexible approach to learning and I have seen many struggling boys thrive in those environments. There are some government primary schools that have embraced the need for more movement for their students and they have scooters, skateboards, bike riding, nature playgrounds and trampolines. Honeywood Primary School in Perth, Western Australia, has such an environment, and so that students are getting the physical activity that their bodies need while also creating massive levels of dopamine that improve engagement.
The BIG THREE: Healthy Food, Screens and Sleep
The last three things that you can do as a parent that can help your son in the classroom may seem unimportant, however, they are huge. The human brain needs good quality food to be able to function well. If you fill the lunchbox with too much processed food, and too much added sugars, the brain will struggle to focus in the classroom and it does impact mood and behaviour in a negative way. Needless to say, a healthy breakfast is a fabulous way to start any day.
The second thing is that using screens before school can have a detrimental effect on learning. If you want to have the brain in the best state for learning, work out some way that your son can have 20 minutes of heightened heart rate activity or exercise before he steps into the classroom. This gives the brain a healthy dose of dopamine that can sustain his concentration and ability to maintain engagement. Walking to school, riding to school or spending 20 minutes running around a park, will set your son up for a good morning of learning.
The third most important thing is that good sleep really matters. It influences everything from the processing of new learning, to the preparation of new learning spaces for the next day, mood, energy levels and the healthy rejuvenation of cells in every part of the body. Please prioritise a good night’s sleep for all children and have good boundaries around the sleep routine in your home
Firstly, I want to acknowledge that you are working in an overloaded curriculum, with an untenable pressure of accountability, endless testing and crippling workload. Also you’re teaching digital natives who are often less ready, with poorer self-regulation and with less real support to meet the needs of every child in your class. Many children who come into your classrooms have had ineffective parenting and can struggle with normal classroom boundaries. Your task is not easy!
You are also required to follow mandated department regulations and also the direction of your leadership team, especially your principal. When the video about boys not listening was shared, there were several teachers who commented that they would prefer not to use behaviour charts and the punishment process for boys who are struggling with behaviour, but they have no choice within their school.
‘Skinnerism’ has been shown to be ineffective in so many ways. The over- rewarding everywhere, where children get prizes for coming last, endless stickers, trophies each week at soccer has sadly diminished the growth and development of the inner locus of control.
This locus is about children learning to do things because it makes them feel good, not because they get a prize. The need to punish for inappropriate behaviour is also flawed because it does not teach children how to make better choices. It just punishes them for being children who have not been taught or guided into how to make better choices. There is now significant research that shows that rewarding children actually demotivates them rather than motivates them.
You are teaching digital children whose brains have been wired differently through the use of screens to be hungry for instant entertainment and rapid dopamine squirts.
They will have less ability to maintain focus and get bored quicker and more easily! Most have been read to less than previous generations and many have experienced forms of digital abandonment, even from very loving parents. This means that they are turning up to your classroom very different to what you might expect based on how you have been trained to teach.However the curriculum and classroom management strategies have not changed!
Somewhere in your teaching degree, you would have come across Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – from the bottom of the hierarchy upwards, the needs are: physiological (food and clothing), safety (job security), love and belonging needs (friendship), esteem, and self-actualisation.
These are a good reminder of the core triggers for stress in children, that until they feel safe, their ability to learn in class will be diminished in some way. From my research I have found boys’ self-worth is linked strongly to their sense of competence or achievement – or ‘did I do good?’ If they repeatedly fail to sit still, struggle to colour within the lines, forget their phonemes and graphemes, it really erodes their sense of worth. Soon they simply stop trying as they feel the task is too hard and there is something wrong with them. The perception of constant failure triggers stress and anxiety.
Expectations really matter and if schools and staff have an underlying deficit lens for boys, then their expectations will also be lower. Schools definitely suit most girls more than boys, however, if we consciously lift our expectations for our boys, even those who struggle, it will make a huge difference.
The perception that children intentionally choose to misbehave is the first thing that needs to be questioned and challenged.
Often, when an environment is perceived to be unsafe or there is the absence of a safe grown-up, children are constantly living in a state of stress. The children in your classrooms are now turning up with heightened levels of anxiety. This means they have a very short fuse before it is activated into the flight-fight response. When a boy has been found to be moving around the classroom, instead of sitting down, being unable to sit on the mat, for being silly or for spreading his body all over the desk, he is often reprimanded in some way because the assumption is he is doing it deliberately.
If we change the deficit lens with which we view these behaviours and recognise that they are coming from the red or blue zones of dys-regulation I mentioned earlier, then rather than reprimand or punish, we may need to help the boy by understanding his unmet need.
The most significant unmet need for many of our boys is relational safety. Do they feel safe with you as the big safe grown-up? Boys are particularly sensitive to their connection to their teacher. When a boy decides he likes a teacher, his behaviour is automatically better and his academic efforts also noticeably stronger.
I noticed this with my own boys that when they liked the teacher, they liked the whole school experience better. They tended to do their homework without complaint and there was no school refusal. Sadly, they had two male teachers who were particularly toxic and used shaming as a strategy almost daily, and one of my sons I believe still struggles with the scars.
What are your welcoming strategies for your students as they come into class? Do you have some calming music playing? Awesome upbeat music that you know they enjoy? Do you allow a little time of chatter and noise as they settle into their chairs or do you demand silence as soon as possible? For the boys who struggle, prioritise a welcoming connection with them that can be verbal or non-verbal! Seriously, a smile, a wink, a funny face, thumbs up as they walk in the room, can trigger a small dose of positive neurochemicals because being seen, and being acknowledged is a fundamental need of every child. Often the most difficult students are either ignored or looked at through eyes that are not soft.
The first way to improve relational safety in the classroom is to choose to treat every student as you would like a teacher to treat your child. If you are not a parent, I am sure you can imagine how important this is.
There is no place for relational aggression in the classroom and that includes putdowns , sarcasm , shouting , name-calling and exclusions.
If you have boys who are difficult in your classroom, building a safer bridge with them can be easier than you can imagine. It starts with building trust. When students get to know the teachers as caring humans by sharing some of their personal interests or by being a little vulnerable when they make mistakes, or by recognising, accepting and celebrating diversity, or by showing authentic valuing of everyone’s ideas and thoughts or by practising genuine inclusivity – students feel they can trust their teacher.
There are other ways of building that relational safety. One simple way is remembering students’ birthdays and acknowledging them in some way. Sometimes having a quiet conversation with a boy who is struggling about how you would really like to help him do better in your classroom with a warm voice and soft eyes can make a world of difference. The key is to ask them how you could help them do better, rather than telling them what they need to do. This is a sign of respect and also acknowledges the need for autonomy. Rather than doing to them, do with them. Agree to a couple of strategies, and then with a big smile, agree to a check-in at the end of the week. The next day make sure you have a non-verbal connection with him – a smile, a wink, a thumbs up and try to do a few micro-connections throughout the day. Maybe accidentally softly brush his shoulder as you walk past his desk, kneel beside him and whisper ‘how are you doing?’ Or ‘can I help?’ Or maybe just sit on his desk during a quiet time in the class. If you can find your students’ special interest or passions in life – that can be a game changer too. Connection is the key to changing poor behaviour which is driven by feeling unsafe.
Moving the neurochemicals around
Given that much poor behaviour is coming from stress, choosing to be conductor of the orchestra of neurochemicals, can be a fabulous way to ensure everyone feels calmer. Daniel Goleman has argued for years that ‘happy calm children learn best’. The research is quite clear that stress brains don’t learn well because the amygdala has hijacked the prefrontal cortex.
Boys tend to run out of dopamine, the engagement neurochemical, faster than girls. This is why they have a stronger need for movement or other forms of dopamine creation. Simple 30-second brain breaks can reset a brain that is low in dopamine. Whether it is vigorous clapping for 30 seconds for someone’s birthday, or stamping their feet for 30 seconds, or squatting until their thighs hurt, or playing a clapping game –30 seconds can make a world of difference, especially for a boy who is struggling with concentration. I am a huge supporter of outdoor classrooms because they have been shown to significantly improve the engagement and concentration of students who struggle within four walls.
Novelty is another fabulous way of creating dopamine. You may unexpectedly put a tiara on, or a witches’ hat and not comment on it. Continue to teach and you will have the concentration of every boy in the room, because he is waiting for you to tell them why you are wearing that stupid thing! To all the male teachers who wear crazy socks or shirts, or the women who wear fascinating necklaces, every day you are engaging and creating dopamine in their little brains!
Laughter and lightness do make a difference in our classrooms because they help to create a safer classroom culture. Tongue twisters, puns and riddles are not only great ways to lift the neurochemicals in their brains, laughing is a great way to release stress and cortisol. It’s not only good for students, it’s really good for teachers too.
When I wrote my first book in 2003, it was because I was concerned about the stress in my classrooms and in my counselling room. Heck, that was before the digital world arrived! Turns out Saving Our Children from Our Chaotic World: Teaching children the magic of silence and stillness was way ahead of its time. Thankfully, having regular moments of relaxation and mindfulness is now extremely common in our classrooms. Starting the day with a short relaxation can really help all students but especially our boys. Serotonin is the calming neurochemical and teaching simple strategies to students can help them lower their stress levels, which means they are less likely to end up in the red or blue zones of dysregulation.
I am a proud ambassador for Smiling Mind. Research in schools using Smiling Mind has found the schools experienced: improved concentration, less bullying, better behaviour in the classroom, and both teachers and students found they were sleeping better and had a greater ability to manage their emotions.
It might seem counterintuitive, with an overcrowded curriculum to factor in some relaxation and mindfulness. However, it can help our students, especially our boys, stay in the green zone of social engagement or as Dr Stuart Shanker says – the calm, focused and alert stage of self-regulation.
Visualisation is a tool that can make an enormous difference to the mindsets of students who struggle. I once worked with a group of Year 9 boys in a remedial English class who hated school. I created a visualisation called My Best Report Ever that we did once a week because not one of these boys had ever taken home a report card that they were proud of. So if you can’t imagine it, your mindset will make sure that you never receive one. In just four weeks these boys started handing work into other classes and at the end of the term, they took home their best reports ever.
Calming the Angry Ant is a visualisation that I recommend for students, particularly boys aged 5 to 10. This teaches a very simple way of releasing the red zone, which mostly for them feels like anger. I Am a Good Friend is a visualisation that can help boys to understand some of the social cues around friendship. Beach Bliss is another visualisation I created for classrooms, to help build the neural pathways for calmness, especially for children who had very little in their lives. This was the one that most boys loved the most.
Other than the brain breaks that are often short, please consider how else you can include more movement in your classroom for the boys, who need it. If you are reading on the mat, you will know which of the boys will start squirming so allow them to sit towards the back of the group so that there squirming won’t interrupt others. Please understand that squirming isn’t disrespectful to you or deliberately happening for attention. Indeed, often boys who are squirming are trying to regulate themselves so that they can continue to pay attention to you! We need to let them work out ways that they can include movement that is not distracting and disruptive for other students. I taught some of my high school boys to jiggle their legs under the table, or to quietly walk to the back of the room and do a few squats. Once I had included more brain breaks, to create more dopamine, they needed to do this much less. No girl went backwards academically with an increase in movement to help the boys concentrate more.
Boys who are often highly tactile, or kinaesthetic, suffer most as teaching methods generally use auditory and visual channels of communication.
When boys need to do a task that involves some concentration, allowing them some autonomy around where they do the task can also be helpful. Because of the need to move, sitting at a desk means they have more chance of disrupting another student. If they are able to lie on the floor, or sit on the floor to complete their task or use a standing desk, that will be helpful for them and other students. There has been a significant shift in classroom environments over the last decade that can enable more flexibility for learners.
Boys can drown when big people use too many words. Giving too many directions with too much information can simply overwhelm many boys. Having dot points on the whiteboard following an explanation or a request can really help boys complete tasks better.
One of the things that also helps boys keep interested and engaged in the school environment is what happens at playtime and lunchtime.
I have already mentioned the school that has embraced the need for engaging physical activity, the students and I cannot stress the importance of the need for boys to have fun during their breaks. Not only do they create dopamine, they release cortisol, the stress hormone.
Is there a space for them to kick soccer balls on an oval without interrupting other students who want to be out on the oval? Is there an area where they can build cubbies and bases that can continue over many weeks? Do you have high climbing frames that help them feel brave and fearless?
When we meet the biological needs of our boys in terms of their physicality, we not only have happier boys, we have more engaged learners in our classrooms.
Lastly, we need to recognise that understanding the unique needs of boys is important in creating an environment in which they can thrive. Next, discipline is what our boys need, not punishment. Discipline builds accountability and teaches the why and how around making better choices. We can’t continue to punish poor behaviour, without investing time and energy into guiding and teaching our boys, to make better decisions. We need to do better in some of our schools and we need to learn from those who are doing well. For an excellent way to explore the benefits of positive education I recommend the Institute of Positive Education based at Geelong Gramma School.
Educational reform is needed in Australia. Educational outcomes have been dropping despite the increase in testing and the push down of formalised learning. Struggling students are not getting the help they need, especially early, especially our boys.
Teachers have messaged me about their concerns. They worry about the lack of support for students who struggle as they come into school both primary and secondary. Other teachers have reached out and suggested that we need to be able to access allied health professionals in the school setting and to make that completely free.
Wouldn’t it be brilliant to be able to refer a child struggling with their speech, or sensory processing or otherwise to have someone who visits the school promptly to address the vulnerabilities and work with the family and school to support that child.
Students who have experienced trauma and our neurodivergent children are often the ones who will struggle most with behaviour. Punishing them, especially with suspensions and expulsion, is simply adding to their distress. These options need to be reserved for those students who create a significant threat to the safety of students and staff, not those who repeatedly walk around classrooms, talk too much and daydream too much! In schools with significant learning challenges, having an OT and speech pathologist on site would be even better.
We must stop the notion that one size fits all in education. Communities and schools differ in many ways and recognising this in meeting the unique needs of the students in our schools is where reform needs to start.
Surely the smartest people who make decisions about education in Australia, can see that whatever we’ve been doing for the last 10 years is not working and we need to start seeing things differently. We must seek alternative ways of ensuring we can have more boys thriving in our schools, more students graduating Year 12, higher levels of literacy and numeracy, and happier and healthier students and staff.
Dr Glenn C. Savage, Associate Professor of the School of Social Sciences at the University of Western Australia wrote an enlightening article for The Conversation earlier this year and I felt finally there was hope for reform that will really make a difference. His article was entitled – Want to improve our education system? Stop seeking advice from far-off gurus and encourage expertise in schools.
Passionate, committed teachers have always had the potential to change lives for the better but they cannot do that on their own.
It requires the whole school community to stand up and say: ‘No More’. If parents can stand beside teachers and school staff and work together to say no more – there will be change. No more punishment, no more shaming, no more putdowns and no more seeing boys through a negative deficit lens. The changing paradigms from the Skinnerism philosophy of rewards and punishments, is happening slowly.
If you want to know more about these changes, please explore Dr Mona Delahooke’s book Beyond Behaviours: Using brain science and compassion to understand and solve children’s behavioural challenges. Her new book for parents is called Brain-Body Parenting: How to Stop Managing Behaviour and Start Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids. If you are interested in other ways of building safe cohesive classrooms that are inclusive, you might check out my Dare to be Exceptional book, or for high school my e-book The Lighthouse Model.
Every child yearns to be seen, heard, understood and valued. Even if you just take one small idea from this very long blog, all my effort will be worth it. The more connected and safer our boys feel, the better they are able to cope and behave and indeed thrive in their environment, even in schools. Remember, they are not the problem, it is the system that is the problem.