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Psychologist: Boys Need Close Friendships

Live from the Celebration of Teaching and Learning Conference in New York

This morning, developmental psychologist Niobe Way answered questions about why boys are struggling in school. It's a topic I wrote about a few years ago, after Peg Tyre published The Trouble With Boys.

Way's take on the situation is that boys experience a "crisis of connection." Stereotypical notions of masculinity assume that boys aren't expressive and don't have—or perhaps even need—close friendships. But boys both need and want deep connections, said Way. And in her research, she's found that many boys have close friendships that are being discouraged by anxiety about being seen as gay or effeminate.

The weight of stereotypes about masculinity only worsens as boys come of age, according to Way, a professor of applied psychology at New York University. "We live in a culture where the essence of maturity is separation and independence," she said. For that reason, boys are "disconnecting with people right at the time they need to be connecting."

Having close friendships is linked to such things as better physical and mental health, lower rates of drug use and gang membership, and "higher levels of academic achievement and engagement." Way said teachers and schools should foster close friendships through peer counseling, advisory groups, and by rewarding daily acts of kindness. "We're born as empahic beings," she said. "We don't need to teach kindness, we need to foster it." Schools should devote time to developing boys' social and emotional health and encouraging boys to be expressive. One-on-one peer counseling is a good method for this, but it "can't be perceieved as something only troubled boys go to," she said. Ideally, all boys would participate.

She mentioned a Canadian program called Roots of Empathy (see our Teaching Now post on this a few months ago), in which babies are brought into classrooms to help increase students' empathy. The program has helped reduce absenteeism and bullying.

Way also described a study in which people stood at the bottom of a hill with a backpack on and were asked to estimate the hill's incline. People standing next to their best friend tended to offer the least steep estimation. That is, they perceived the hill as less difficult than those standing alone or next to an acquaintance.

So I asked: What's the practical implication of that study in the classroom? Should teachers have boys sit next to their best friends? (Most teachers purposefully prohibit this—and understandably so!) "Yes," said Way. "If they can sit together and behave themselves, that's great."

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