6 Ways Educators Can Bolster Boys’ Social Skills

Ioakim Boutakidis, professor of child and adolescent studies at California State University, Fullerton, notes that the self-regulatory components of the brain aren’t integrated as quickly in boys as in girls, and “boys that have a harder time picking up on social cues are often the most aggressive because they misinterpret accidental gestures as malicious intent.” 

“Scripts are created,” Boutakidis said, and students pick up on teachers’ attitudes toward students, too. To help repair a struggling student’s reputation, try to set them up for success and praise them publicly.

2. Distinguish between “funny, mean and in-between” comments

Boys are more likely to make a comment like, “‘You’re such an idiot; I can’t believe I hang out with you’ – said while smiling and patting them on the back,” said Mitch Prinstein, chief science officer for the American Psychological Association. “It’s a way to express vulnerability but also be dominant.” 

“Joking can be misinterpreted and lead to fights,” added Christopher Pepper, a teacher who coordinates boys’ groups in San Francisco Public Schools. He encourages boys to “lean into sincerity rather than hide behind ‘can’t you take a joke?’” 

Ryan Wexelblatt, the director of ADHD Dude, which offers in-person social skills programs for boys in Tucson, Arizona, teaches boys that there are some things you shouldn’t joke about, such as physical appearance and race.

When I teach health and wellness in schools, I have students act out comments like “Oh, you got a haircut” or “We already have enough players on our team,” then determine whether it’s “nice, mean or in-between.” They quickly realize that the same comment can be perceived as mean or inoffensive depending on someone’s word choice, tone and past interactions with you.

3. Provide structured social opportunities 

“Adults have to take responsibility for creating structured engagement with young folks,” said Daryl Howard, director of the Building Our Network of Diversity (BOND) Project and chair of the Maryland department of education’s Advisory Council on Achieving Academic Equity and Excellence for Black Boys.

When Howard facilitates BOND boys groups, he starts each session with a community circle “so no one can sit by themselves or play on devices.” The boys introduce themselves and share a personal update, with the goal of helping them find connection points so they can interact more comfortably on their own, he explained.

At Sterling Hall, a boys school in Toronto, Ontario, students can join a group tailored to their needs or sign up to eat lunch with a “mystery teacher,” said Catriona Gallienne, the school’s director of student success. All students start the day with a 30-minute period designated for social-emotional learning, such as an assembly, health class or community circles.

During circle time, boys might talk about a challenge at home or express frustration over how teams are picked at recess, said Rick Parsons, principal of Sterling Hall. “Inevitably, someone will validate their experience or share, ‘This is what happened to me.’”  

The circles normalize boys’ experiences and combat harmful stereotypes about needing to “go it alone,” said Andrew Reiner, author of Better Boys, Better Men: The New Masculinity That Creates Greater Courage and Emotional Resiliency. “They see that they not only have permission to open up, but it’s going to be met with support.”

4. Help boys socialize informally

Boys who feel awkward might opt out of recess, lunch and other unstructured social time. To ease their discomfort, schools can add Spikeball games or extra balls to outdoor areas, designate a board game table in the cafeteria, or hold chess club meetings during lunch.

“I tell elementary schools, ‘have a Lego cart outside,’ but some teenagers like that too,” said Katie Hurley, a child and adolescent psychotherapist and The Jed Foundation’s senior clinical adviser for external affairs.

View spaces with an eye to optimizing interaction. For instance, Hurley visited a school where students gather on couches in the hallway.

5. Recognize that some boys need more help

Some students may need more help understanding the unwritten rules of socializing, including boys with ADHD. “Some kids with an inattentive profile are what I call the stick collectors,” Wexelblatt said. “They get caught up in their own world and walk around the perimeter collecting sticks.”

Boys with an impulsive profile can be more emotionally reactive, he said. “They might think they’re being bullied, but other kids find them controlling or just don’t want to do what they’re doing.”

Praise boys for being flexible or showing interest in peers’ ideas. Diaz prompts students to ponder questions such as, “How close do you stand to someone? How do you ask a question? What’s okay to ask?” 

6. Make caring for others a shared responsibility

At Sterling Hall, Parsons said, educators have a saying: “Big boys look out for themselves; bigger boys look out for others.” To that end, older students mentor younger students, and eighth-grade boys partner with younger students to paint a buddy bench on the playground. If a student has no one to play with, they sit on the buddy bench.

“Every boy is responsible for making sure no one is sitting on the buddy bench,” Parsons explained, adding that no one sits there for more than 60 seconds. As he noted, “boys want to be leaders, to be good, to look out for others and to get affirmation for that. Belonging is everything.” 

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