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Addressing the Boy Crisis in Schools

by Niobe Way - September 06, 2011

This is a commentary on what boys need in school. The focus is on their social and emotional needs and capacities.

As we all know by now, boys are more likely than girls to be struggling in school. They are more likely to be put into special education programs, have higher rates of behavior problems, and lower high school and college graduation rates than girls. They are nearly twice as likely to repeat a grade than girls are, while girls are twice as likely to be proficient in federal writing tests than boys (although boys still score higher, on average, than girls in math). The average high school grade point average for girls is 3.09, while for boys it is 2.86. Boys also report higher rates of bullying and being bullied, are twice as likely to get suspended as girls, and three times as likely to be expelled.1 2 3

But why do boys struggle? Scholars and practitioners typically argue that schools are not “boy-friendly” and have proposed solutions such as single sex schools, more male teachers, more recess time, and access to “boys’ books” that allow “boys to be boys.” The implicit assumption is that boys and girls have different needs, so schools must address these differences. Yet data from my research and a wide range of experts – from neuroscientists and developmental psychologists to primatologists and evolutionary anthropologists – indicates not only that this is a false assumption, but also that boys face a much deeper problem.

According to my research as well as the research across the sciences, the “boy crisis” is, in fact, a human crisis of connection in which we, as educators and parents, are not addressing boys’ most basic social and emotional needs and desires. This body of research, which David Brooks from the New York Times refers to as “the New Humanism,” concludes that caring about others, empathy, emotional sensitivity, cooperation, and the desire to be cared for are not only human capacities and needs, they are essential for our survival. Even Charles Darwin knew this.  In other words, what Americans have called “girly” or “gay” is, in fact, simply human and overwhelmingly important for girls and boys to thrive. Yet our stereotypes insist that boys are more competitive and activity oriented and less interested in cooperation and close relationships and less emotionally sensitive than girls. These stereotypes, furthermore, prevent boys from getting their social and emotional needs met in and out of school. And as a result, they struggle in school.4

The work of neuroscientists such as Lise Elliot or Antonio Damasio, as well as developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello and evolutionary anthropologist Sarah Hrdy suggests that our gender stereotypes have greatly exaggerated what minimal differences there may be in the social and emotional worlds of boys and girls. My studies of hundreds of White, Black, Latino, and Asian American middle and high school students over the past twenty years have also shown us that: 1) boys are as emotional, empathic, and relationship oriented as girls; and 2) boys have and/or want emotionally intimate friendships in which they share their “deep” secrets; 3) schools and parents do not typically support boys’ emotional and social needs especially as boys grow older; and 4) as boys become men at the ages of 16, 17, and 18, they begin to lose their close friendships and sound more gender stereotypic, emotionally stoic, and isolated, believing that these qualities make them more mature.

Boys’ reports of their male friendships, especially during early and middle adolescence, sound more like out of the plot of Love Story than the Lord of the Flies. The boys in my studies say things like, “sometimes you need to pour your heart out to your friends,” or “without friends to share your deep secrets, you would go wacko.” They also say things like, “my best friend and I love each other… that’s it… you have this thing that is deep, so deep, it’s within you, you can’t explain it. I guess in life, sometimes two people can really, really understand each other and really have a trust, respect and love for each other. It just happens. It’s human nature.” However, as boys reach manhood, they begin to lose their closest male friends and become less willing to be emotionally vulnerable because they associate these qualities with being female or gay. They also become more isolated and lonely and, according to national data, five times more likely to commit suicide than girls.

My studies, along with dozens of others, reveal that boys do not start out being less empathic and emotional than girls, they become this way as a result of growing up in a culture where sensitivity and even empathy are associated with being female and/or gay and thus devalued. The prevalence of bullying in our schools --- bullying that is often directed at boys who are labeled “gay” because of their sensitivity – speaks to the dire consequences of equating basic human capacities with and devaluing of sex and sexuality. Research has also indicated that boys who report high levels of adherence to stereotypic masculinity -- being emotionally stoic and physically tough -- are more likely to report depressive symptoms and do poorly in school than those who report low levels.5

The “boy crisis” is not the product of going to school with girls or not having male teachers, “boy books” in the classroom, or recess time at school; it is a reflection of a culture that equates the most basic of human qualities and needs with a particular sex and a sexuality. As sociologist Raewyn Connell has argued, it is the blunting of boys’ and men’s capacity for empathy, intimacy and emotional expression that denies boys and men the very relationships they need to thrive.6

So what should educators (and parents) do about it?  The first step is to recognize the social and emotional nature of all humans and not simply that of girls, women, and gay men and then foster this essential part of our nature. If educators fostered boys’ natural empathy and desire for intimacy with others -- both peers and adults -- boys would not disconnect from others and from themselves and wreak havoc on the world. The research has shown this to be the case for over three decades.7 Countries such as Canada and Norway, for example, have implemented nationwide programs to foster empathy and care among school children and have had remarkable results. A program called “The Roots of Empathy,” created by Mary Gordon in Canada in 1996, brings babies and parents into elementary school classrooms throughout the school year to help foster children’s natural empathic skills. This program has been found to dramatically decrease bullying and other problem behaviors and is currently being implemented in schools across Canada. Similarly Norway implemented a curriculum in the schools that included encouraging students to talk about friendships to foster children’s social and emotional skills. They found that this intervention diminished the rates of bullying and enhanced academic engagement over a multi-year period.8 These programs underscore the importance of creating programs in schools that foster social and emotional health. When schools focus exclusively on competition and assume that children’s social and emotional needs and skills, especially those of boys, are less important than their cognitive or academic ones, they fail to adequately serve their students. Our social and emotional capacities are not just girly and gay, they are fundamentally human and essential for us to succeed in all areas of life, including in school.


1. Tyre, Peg. The Trouble with Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School and What Parents and Educators Must Do. New York: Crown Publishing, 2008; See also Sax, Leonard. Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men. New York: Basic Books, 2007.

2. Whitmire, Richard Why Boys Fail: Saving our sons from an educational system that’s leaving them behind (New York: AMACOM, 2010).

3. Porshe, Michelle. & Snow, Catherine Adolescent Boys: Exploring Diverse Cultures of Boyhood. Ed. Niobe Way and Judy Y. Chu. New York: New York University Press, 2004: 59-77.

4. Way, N. Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).

5. Santos, Carlos. E. The missing story: Resistance to ideals of masculinity in the friendships of middle school boys. Unpublished doctoral dissertation: New York University, 2010.; See also Santos, Carlos, Niobe Way and Diane Hughes. “Linking Masculinity and Education among Middle School Students.” Paper presented at the Society of Research on Child Development, 2011.

6. Connell, Raewyn Masculinities (California: University of California Press, 2005), xiii.

7. Way, N. Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).

8. Olweus, D. Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1993. Print.; See also  Olweus, D. “The Olweus Bullying Prevention Programme: Design and implementation issues and a new national initiative in Norway.” Eds. P. K. Smith, D. Pepler, & K. Rigby. Bullying in schools: How successful can interventions be?  Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004: 13-36. Print.; See also Olweus, D, S.P. Limber and S. Mihalic. The Bullying Prevention Program: Blueprints for Violence Prevention, Vol. 10. Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence: Boulder, CO, 1999. Print.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 06, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16534, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 6:55:21 AM

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About the Author
  • Niobe Way
    New York University
    E-mail Author
    NIOBE WAY, author of Deep Secrets: Boys' Friendships and the Crisis of Connection (Harvard University Press, 2011), is a professor of Applied Psychology at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. She is also the director of the Ph.D. program in developmental psychology at NYU and the President of the Society for Research on Adolescence.
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