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Raising, educating and understanding boys

Children wearing rain boots splash and play in a mud puddle
Credit: iStock.com/RyanJLane

Speaker, author and academic Dr Michael Nagel looks at the growing struggle facing boys at school and in life in his book Educating and Raising Boys.

All too often parents and educators find themselves struggling with aspects of boys’ behaviour, but speaker, author and academic Dr Michael Nagel says we need to understand them to avoid frustration.

Dr Nagel says boys often find themselves in trouble or on the fringes of doing well because adults are frustrated over behaviour that is actually a combination of their developmental stage and gender-specific neurophysiology.

“If we are serious about educating and raising boys in a positive fashion, then it should be self-evident that we will need to understand their nature to work with them, instead of against them,” he says.

Neurological differences between boys and girls

Dr Nagel says discussion about the neurological differences between boys and girls has been hampered by scepticism and caution, fuelled by a history that suggested physical differences in brains meant diminished intellectual capability.

He says science however has shown there are differences across a number of regions, systems and structures in the brains of boys and girls. And that some female and male brains appear to bridge the gender divide, developing atypically across the spectrum of brain development.

“In real life terms this means that we may see some girls who act more like boys (tomboys) and some boys appear more verbal or display other traits more seen in girls.

“After all, hormones and the brain are human and we all share them but if we are biologically male, we tend to be more male in how we engage with the world, behave and learn.

“In the last few decades some of the scientific evidence acknowledging sex differences in relation to the brain has been quietly understated due to its potential social impact on fostering an equitable society where men and women are treated identically.

“Nonetheless it is one thing to treat an individual as an equal and another to try and deny differences in a whole range of aptitudes, skills, abilities and behaviours.

“In the context of educating and raising boys, neglecting these differences, or rendering the expression that ‘boys will be boys’ as some form of misguided folklore means that meeting any of the unique needs of boys due to their biological and neurological tendencies goes without attention and action.”

In the context of educating and raising boys, neglecting these differences, or rendering the expression that ‘boys will be boys’ as some form of misguided folklore means that meeting any of the unique needs of boys due to their biological and neurological tendencies goes without attention and action.
Dr Michael Nagel

Language development for boys

Dr Nagel says one of the first notable developmental differences is language development. Girls on average speak earlier and better than boys. The vast majority of children requiring remedial support for literacy problems are boys.

“Given the stigma often associated with being labelled as having a learning ‘problem’, developmental differences in language due to neurological maturation makes one question what processes are available to ensure that a boy with early literacy problems is supported in the classroom with developmentally appropriate material and not tagged as a student needing learning or remedial support.”

He says boys should explore literacy at a pace that suits their ability and that frustration and feelings of failure should be avoided at all costs.

“In the eyes of a boy, there is nothing more likely to shut down experiences in literacy than appearing inadequate in front of his peers.

“Learning for boys tends to be most productive when it allows for plenty of ‘doing’ and elements of competition rather than passively listening and observing.”

Boys and physical activity

Dr Nagel says boys also appear to have boundless sources of energy and while movement and physical activity are important for all children, it appears to be a biological imperative for boys.

“During all stages of life, it is important to recognise and accept the high activity and physical nature of boys and to provide them safe and developmentally appropriate opportunities to engage with the world in a physical manner,” Dr Nagel says.

“Young boys need to engage in rough and tumble play and, when doing so, not be labelled as violent and aggressive. There are ways to be aggressive that are playful and healthy components of development.”

Dr Nagel says the processing of emotions also varies between males and females making boys more vulnerable to emotional upheaval.

While the neuroendocrine response to stress is the same for boys and girls, Dr Nagel says the emotional response is different in boys.

Boys are more likely to adopt a fight-or-flight response while girls adopt a more protectionary response referred to as tend-and-befriend (Taylor et al., 2000).

“Things can escalate very quickly with boys when they are stressed and small disagreements can turn into major battles.”

Dr Nagel says while working to understand the boys around us we need to provide opportunities for boys to think and reflect on existential questions such as what their purpose might be and how they fit into the world around them.

“The last couple of decades have arguably been increasingly challenging for boys due to negative portrayals of maleness and masculinity.

“Helping boys to discover their spiritual self requires boys at all ages to reflect on what they think it means to be a boy or a man; the provision of male role models when they may be lacking; opportunities to experience rites of passage; and opportunities to focus on, and learn aspects of, positive masculinity.”

Educating and Raising Boys is published by Hawker Brownlow Education and can be ordered online.