Monday, May 24, 2010

How to Create a Boy-Friendly School

The subject of how boys are struggling in school and in life seems to come up regularly in the media. Several years ago, PBS ran a powerful documentary, Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Lives of Boys, which “explores the emotional development of boys in America today.” It describes American boys as “the most violent in the industrialized world,” and clearly shows that many boys are struggling in school, and unable to express their emotions.

A while ago, Newsweek published, Struggling School Aged Boys. Though the medium is different, the message is the same. Many boys, (according to the research) an extraordinary percentage of them, are having emotional or behavioral problems that are affecting their lives, and their ability and willingness to stay in school. Many of the problems are severe enough to cause parents to consult a doctor or health care professional.

As an educator, parent, and citizen of the nation that leads the world in fatherless families, violence and failing boys, I can’t stop thinking about the faces, and the voices of the boys in the film, and the issues and problems of the boys I see and hear about every day. So, the questions keep playing in my head … How can we do a better job of raising our boys? And, what can Oregon educators do to create a boy friendly school - a place where boys feel safe, welcome and able to learn and be themselves.
To clarify my thoughts, I contacted Marilyn Brown-Dikeos, whose program Empowered Learning includes strategies that teachers, mentors and parents can use to help boys feel safe and respected in the classroom. She offers the following insights and strategies.

1. Honor the risk of learning. Trying to learn something new can be risky for a boy who is afraid to fail. Help your student’s understand that learning is a process that includes trying, doing, and making mistakes. It is not about achieving perfection. Value a student’s attempts to master a new subject or skill. Celebrate effort and recognize even small accomplishments along the way.

2. Provide safe entry points to learning. Group learning and project based activities offer multiple entry points for students. The ability to choose a role or task which will allow him to work from his strength may help a boy feel confident enough to enter into an activity.

3. Allow students to self-evaluate. Many boys struggle in school because success and failure are tied up with their sense of themselves. A boy who gets a bad grade or fails a test is likely to feel stupid and embarrassed in front of his classmates. Rather than risk failing again, some boys simply stop trying. One way to work around this is to allow students to grade themselves according to the criteria you set. When they turn in a paper ask, “What grade do you think you earned?” Allow them to tell you how they might have done better. Remind a boy that understanding how to do better next time shows that he is learning.

4. Treat them with respect and kindness. Just because boys don’t show their emotions, we tend to treat them as if they aren’t there. In fact, research shows that boys are even more sensitive and more eager to please than girls. Treat them as if they are fragile. They are.

5. Provide opportunities for boys to talk about their feelings – through sports or chess or other games. Boys need to be reassured that their inner lives are NOT shameful, that play violence is not violence. Use their violent games and fantasies as a starting point for conversation or story writing.

6. Boys need to move around. Recess time is being eliminated as school days are shortened. Try to find ways to build action and motion into your activities and schedule.

7. Boys need to feel safe. They need an adult to talk to about bullies, fear, humiliation and their need to be protected. They also need an adult to show them that men are caring, compassionate and kind.
8. Offer opportunities for boys to resolve their own conflicts. Conflict resolution takes communication skills, the ability to listen, willingness to compromise, and often, creativity. It can help boys reflect on their actions, and see them from someone else’s point of view. Best of all, the ability to resolve a conflict without rage and aggression can result in friendship, something that no boy can succeed without.

Related Resources: For more information about this subject, help for parents, and classroom ideas, visit the following websites:
Raising Cain: Boys in Focus

The PBS Parents Guide to Understanding and Raising Boys

Boys in School
How to help boys adjust to school and schools adjust to boys.

Buy the Program
Raising Cain (DVD)