Helping boys overcome defeat (and avoiding worse problems)

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When unhappy boys are in the headlines, it’s never good news. A tragic string of mass-shootings by young males over the past 20 years indicates not only a need to reduce bullying, but also a need for boys to have the emotional strength to cope with challenges.

A related, and far more widespread problem, is school dropout. Eighty percent of dropouts are boys. Failure in school leads to poverty and crime, and Michigan’s prison population and spending have increased about ten-fold since 1971.

Professor Derrick Fries

Rejection and failure confront everyone, but not everyone overcomes them in the same way. Some boys and young men need a strong base of ego-building experiences to keep from lashing out when feeling downtrodden, said Derrick Fries, professor of special education at Eastern Michigan University, and author of Educating At-Risk and Special Education Boys: A Great American K-12 Tragedy. Fries gave a talk entitled “Boys: Understanding Stupid” at a Michigan Council of Exceptional Children conference in March 2018.

His talk was subtitled “Understanding Stupid” because most boys have an innate drive to compete and prove physical prowess, and when combined with delayed executive decision skills, this manifests itself in a litany of unwise ways. We’ve seen it – males clamping animals to their nipples; attempting dangerous stunts; throwing objects at cars and other people…the list goes on and on. Fries caught a high school driver getting ready to go with his buddy on the roof of his car, wearing skis and practicing a ski tuck. One of the author’s male friends recalled a high school game where the object was to sneak up and knock out another player; they played for years until a boy’s doctor said he in danger of losing his eyesight. Girls do not do these things.

Sometimes there are tragic consequences, such as when an 18-year-old boy from Georgia drowned while horsing around with his friends, who tied him to a shopping cart and pushed him into a lake. A 19-year-old male caused a multi-car accident after fainting from holding his breath while driving through a tunnel in Portland, Oregon.

As stupid as this all is, stunts like this serve a purpose in the male psyche – facing risk, showing mastery, and building confidence. In the same vein, sports is an important ego-builder for males, as is manual labor and working with one’s hands to build and repair things. Mastering anything that involves motor movement is helpful to boys’ self-esteem.

Unfortunately, the classroom environment of sitting still and listening is not something that boys generally excel at. And actions which boys take to build themselves up – throwing things, running, jumping, taking risks — often get them in trouble.

Today’s society is not helping out. Despite parental recent calls for more recess, and research which shows the benefits of recess, it is still cut back in many schools. Video games and screen time keep children on the couch and physically inactive. Parents who tell their children to play outside might have Child Protective Services called on them. Organized sports is helpful, but not every team member always gets to play and sports isn’t for everyone.

Helping boys deal with damaged and bruised egos is a life-and-death issue. Fries studied all the mass shooters since Sandy Hook. They all believed that nobody liked them, and in addition, none of them had participated in sports. Lacking a venue to feel powerful, they took an extreme way to assert themselves. School dropouts take an opposite tack and simply disengage.

So how to handle this crisis? Fries recommended several courses of action for schools, including:

  • Increase the number of male K-5 teachers. Boys need teachers who understand them and who will be role models.
  • Increase recess and sports in elementary school. Playing outside helps children expend energy and provides an emotional uplift, especially for boys. Lack of movement impairs educational performance of boys.
  • Have gender training for teachers and administrators. Boys are different from girls, and we need to know how to deal with it.
  • Provide conflict resolution training. Learning how to resolve differences in a peaceful way is a crucial life skill.

Fries had ideas for special education teachers as well:

  • Integrate kinesthetics into the curriculum and reduce auditory teaching time. Boys have a hard time sitting still and listening.
  • Avoid pod seating in elementary school. Boys are naturally territorial and having to share space can cause needless distraction.
  • Get to know each student and gain their trust. Each student is unique, and knowing them is the first step to finding what will help them.
  • Find the unique ego niche for each student. Fries told the story of a boy who always came to school greasy. He was a poor student but kept inviting Fries to his house. Fries eventually went and discovered that the boy was adept at small engine repair. The student eventually graduated with a 1.2 grade average, opened a repair shop, and became a millionaire.
  • Create an IEP with boy needs in mind. Another student kept getting yelled at by the bus driver for misbehavior. One day he threw a ball from the back of the bus which bounced off the rear view mirror and hit the bus driver in the face, breaking her nose. He certainly had a great arm though! His teachers arranged work study for him at a construction company and he is now a foreman.
  • Praise often and understand that instructional issues are less important than ego management for boys. Once you master the latter, the former will come much easier.

For more information, feel free to contact Professor Fries at dfries@emich.edu. Also look for his new book, BOYS: Understanding Stupid, which is coming out in August 2018.

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