How Strengthening Relationships with Boys Can Help Them Learn
Years ago, when Michael Reichert’s oldest son was born, he and his wife made a commitment to shield him from the “toxic pressures and cultural norms that we believed would try to steal our son’s humanity from him.”
But it turns out that parents can’t build a wall around their children, says Reichert, a clinical psychologist and author of "How to Raise a Boy: The Power of Connection to Build Good Men." What parents and teachers can do is strengthen boys’ resilience to be themselves.
Reichert is hopeful that a new space is opening up in how we think about boys and boyhood. For generations, he says, “we have rationalized a wide range of losses and casualties” by repeating intractable myths: “Oh, that’s just the nature of boys, or boys just don’t do as well in classrooms, or boys don’t do well with emotional intimacy.”
These persistent stereotypes have influenced how we interacted with boys from infancy, says Reichert, and infiltrated our classrooms and playing fields. For example, he points to a long-term study of boys between ages 4 and 6. Researchers found that boys dramatically changed how they related to others during these years as they “absorbed norms for how they were supposed to act as boys.” They traveled from “presence to pretense,” says Reichert—from being emotionally honest in relationships with peers to using posturing and bravado as they adhered to group norms about how boys “should” behave. In molding their behavior to this standard, “it cost them their authenticity, exuberance, and confidence.”
Boys Are Relational Learners
There are troubling statistics about boys in K-12 schools. They are more likely to drop out of school than their female peers, and according to data from the Department of Education, boys account for approximately 70% of all suspensions and expulsions, a rate that is disproportionately higher for boys of color.
To support boys in our classrooms, Reichert points to one robust, consistent finding from his 30 years of research: boys are relational learners. They learn best in the context of strong, supportive relationships.
In one study, Reichert and his team gathered data from 2,500 teachers and students in six different countries. He asked the boys and their teachers one simple question: “What’s worked?” For teachers, what has worked to help you reach boys? For boys, what have teachers done that has worked to support your learning and engagement? When the researchers coded the data, a couple of themes emerged.
First, effective teachers used strategies to capture boys’ attention and then carried that energy into the lesson. The strongest teachers entered into a relationship with the class, using feedback from students to refine the lesson until it worked.
But another dominant theme came from the boys themselves. “In the survey, we said, ‘Please don’t mention names or provide identifying information,' ” says Reichert, but the boys ignored those instructions and described teachers’ personalities in detail. They cared about the relationships they had with teachers.
“We, the adults who design the structures and pedagogy they experience —we were missing something. The boys, however, were very, very clear about it: They are relational learners. This is first base.”
Healing Relationship Breakdowns
If relationships are central to engaging boys in academics, then teachers need tools for healing inevitable “relational breakdowns.”
“Every teacher in every classroom has some students who they have a hard time working with,” says Reichert. And in any relationship, there is a natural cycle of connection, disconnection, and then reconnection. But this process does not always go smoothly. After teachers have tried multiple strategies for reaching a student, they can enter “defensive, self-protective mode,” says Reichert, thinking, “I’ve done everything I can, so the next step is his” or “That boy’s learning issues or behavior or family issues are just too much.”
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Reichert’s research found that, for boys, these relational breakdowns with teachers were highly consequential, causing them to construct self-concepts around failure and to turn off from certain subjects or school altogether.
“Here’s the rub,” says Reichert. “In our research, we have heard about every kind of problem, and we have also heard from boys who were being reached and transformed” despite those problems. “Every boy, theoretically, can be reached by a teacher or a coach,” he says, and adults need to hold out hope that “if they find the right relational approach, they will be able to reach the boy they are having a hard time with.”
Reichert contends that the job of being a relationship manager “follows the professional,” and that as professionals, teachers need to take the lead in “instigating repair for relationships that have been damaged.”
Why? In his research, he found that even high-achieving boys struggle with approaching teachers when a relationship has soured. “I put together a focus group of boys at one school– top students. When I asked, ‘Do you have breakdowns in relationships with teachers?’ they were immediately able to tell stories. What did you do to fix it? Nothing, they said.”
When he probed them to explain why, the boys described a power asymmetry with adults. They did not perceive that it was within their role to initiate restorative conversations.
Of course, this also speaks to the need to coach boys with concrete strategies they can use when they are in a conflict with a teacher, says Reichert, and parents can help with this. “We need parents to sign up to the idea that the relationship between the teacher and the student is primary. Our job is not to swoop in and solve the problem but to empower the boy to go back to the teacher and work it out.”
Creating a System of Support
If schools want to reach boys, strengthen their emotional resilience, and help them stay engaged in school, school leaders need to focus on “relational learning” from the top down. Take a look at mission statements, professional development, schedules, and class sizes. Do these basic structures support transformative relationships between teachers and students?
Teachers and coaches also benefit from peer networks that can help them “reset their own thinking about a relationship that has gone south.” Reichert suggests structuring small groups where teachers can safely present a case about a boy they have been struggling with -- describing what’s happening, what’s been done, and how they feel. “It breaks teachers’ hearts when they can’t make it work with a student,” says Reichert. These peer networks normalize the struggle and provide an opportunity to receive emotional support and practical, strategic feedback.
Parenting Emotionally Resilient Boys
The most basic way to support boys’ emotional and character development is also the simplest: listen to them. “Listening is the most important tool parents have for building boys’ resilience,” says Reichert. “I haven’t found a boy who doesn’t have a story he wants to tell. Boys are simply not getting the opportunity to be listened to deeply.”
Both boys and girls have rich emotional lives, but the expression of these feelings may differ because of cultural expectations. “We tell girls not to show anger, to be nice,” says Reichert. “And we tell boys not to show vulnerability or fear, to suck it up or man up.”
When parents open up space for boys to talk, they can nurture a healthier range of emotional expression. “Establish with your son that you are interested in him,” says Reichert. “Yesterday, for what duration did you listen to your son? Not correcting him, listening. Often we are simply not very good at it because no one listened to us much.”
Reichert advocates scheduling a block of time each week—even 30 minutes—where the only task is to “accompany your son on anything he wants to do with you.” That might be playing video games or listening to music. Consistency is the key, because “a boy can come to count on there being a space where he can have a parent's full attention.”
When boys are cut off from their ability to process intense emotions, they are going to act it out in some way—whether that’s teasing siblings or resisting homework. This is almost always a cry for an intervention, says Reichert. He recommends calmly employing the listen-limit-listen strategy. First, listen to your child’s complaints or frustrations—the emotions that are on the surface. Then, limit the harmful behavior (“I’m not going to let you treat your sister this way. I’m not going to let you lie to me about your homework. You are better than that.”). When parents set limits, “more emotions will flare into the open,” says Reichert, and right beneath the surface will be another layer—such as a teacher who is giving him a hard time or a peer conflict—that “you would never have found out if you didn’t give him space to peel back the layers and help him be himself.”
Ultimately, what boys really need to thrive is a strong connection to at least one stable, loving adult, says Reichert. “Here’s what we are trying to accomplish: every boy known and loved, every boy having the sense that someone has ‘got him’—that someone who knows who he his and what he’s facing and really cares.” They need a relational anchor, and parents, teachers and coaches can all be “that someone” in the life of a boy.