How Strengthening Relationships with Boys Can Help Them Learn | MindShift

To support boys in our classrooms, Reichert points to one robust, consistent finding from his 30 years of research: boys are relational learners. They learn best in the context of strong, supportive relationships. 

In one study, Reichert and his team gathered data from 2,500 teachers and students in six different countries.  He asked the boys and their teachers one simple question: “What’s worked?” For teachers, what has worked to help you reach boys? For boys, what have teachers done that has worked to support your learning and engagement? When the researchers coded the data, a couple of themes emerged. 

First, effective teachers used strategies to capture boys’ attention and then carried that energy into the lesson. The strongest teachers entered into a relationship with the class, using feedback from students to refine the lesson until it worked.

But another dominant theme came from the boys themselves. “In the survey, we said, ‘Please don’t mention names or provide identifying information,’ ” says Reichert, but the boys ignored those instructions and described teachers’ personalities in detail. They cared about the relationships they had with teachers. 

“We, the adults who design the structures and pedagogy they experience we were missing something. The boys, however, were very, very clear about it: They are relational learners. This is first base.” 

Healing Relationship Breakdowns

If relationships are central to engaging boys in academics, then teachers need tools for healing inevitable “relational breakdowns.” 

“Every teacher in every classroom has some students who they have a hard time working with,” says Reichert. And in any relationship, there is a natural cycle of connection, disconnection, and then reconnection.  But this process does not always go smoothly. After teachers have tried multiple strategies for reaching a student, they can enter “defensive, self-protective mode,” says Reichert, thinking, “I’ve done everything I can, so the next step is his” or “That boy’s learning issues or behavior or family issues are just too much.”  

Reichert’s research found that, for boys, these relational breakdowns with teachers were highly consequential, causing them to construct self-concepts around failure and to turn off from certain subjects or school altogether.

“Here’s the rub,” says Reichert.  “In our research, we have heard about every kind of problem, and we have also heard from boys who were being reached and transformed” despite those problems. “Every boy, theoretically, can be reached by a teacher or a coach,” he says, and adults need to hold out hope that “if they find the right relational approach, they will be able to reach the boy they are having a hard time with.” 

Reichert contends that the job of being a relationship manager “follows the professional,” and that as professionals, teachers need to take the lead in “instigating repair for relationships that have been damaged.”

Why? In his research, he found that even high-achieving boys struggle with approaching teachers when a relationship has soured. “I put together a focus group of boys at one school– top students. When I asked, ‘Do you have breakdowns in relationships with teachers?’ they were immediately able to tell stories.  What did you do to fix it? Nothing, they said.”

When he probed them to explain why, the boys described a power asymmetry with adults. They did not perceive that it was within their role to initiate restorative conversations. 

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