The saying, “Boys will be boys” historically came with a wink at young male hijinks, such as roughhousing or horseplay. In the context of education, sometimes the saying carried negative connotations for blithely forgiving those mild misbehaviors.
However, viewed more positively, “Boys will be boys” can express appreciation for their unique energy and the way it propels their growth, learning and contribution to our culture. Through that lens, it is important that there are places where boys can be boys.
“What we like to say here at Saint Thomas Academy is that we give them the grace to be boys,” said Francie Reding, Associate Director of Admissions at the all-boys, Catholic, military, college preparatory school. “That seems to really connect with a lot of parents. Being a boy isn’t perceived negatively here. It’s celebrated, and we understand that they learn differently.”
Capitalizing on Chemistry
In educational psychology, the differences in the way boys and girls learn starts with physiology. “Chemically, their brains are wired differently,” Reding said, “so we reach boys in a different way than you would in a traditional co-ed setting. They have certain levels of energy, and we harness that in a positive direction.”
Boys have twice the level of dopamine compared with girls, Reding said. “That’s the risk and reward hormone. That’s why they’re typically more willing, for example, to attempt daring activities. Or why they might drive faster.
“They’re looking for a reward. One way to meet their need for risk and reward is to create an environment where they can compete with and be challenged by their peers, so that’s where they take risks instead of engaging in risky behavior. With other male peers, they push each other to be their very best, competing athletically, in the classroom, and in other co-curricular activities.”
Saint Thomas Academy faculty intentionally capitalizes on that tendency. For example, they have the students do a lot of group learning and projects. “Our boys hold each other accountable,” Reding said. “If somebody isn’t following through on a project, they’re learning to say something…not sit back and be quiet.
Other chemical differences between boys and girls, according to Reding, include boys having less serotonin, but more testosterone and cortisol. “In boys, the testosterone is highly elevated and released between the ages of 14 and 19. That’s the aggression hormone, and we channel it by putting the boys in settings where they can be leaders and assert themselves.
“Another hormone that’s elevated for boys in this age group is cortisol, the stress hormone. We make sure that goes in a positive direction, often by creating movement in a classroom. We have a science teacher that recognizes her middle schoolers get a little antsy in their seats around minute 14 of the class period, so she might have them push their desks together to work in pairs or choose that as the time to get up and work on an experiment in another part of the room. Boys need that movement to connect to language. Most boys can only process 8,000 words a day, and for girls, that’s about 20,000. The movement helps their brains store information.”
Hard Facts and Soft Skills
In addition to the hard physiological facts that constitute the unique learning needs of boys, Saint Thomas Academy’s faculty composition – about 75 percent male – and emphasis on a culture of brotherhood helps provide students with “soft skills.” Those include communication, trust, and, counter to traditional views on masculine leadership, the vulnerability required to become a leader.
“They’re allowed to be vulnerable,” Reding said. “They’re allowed to make mistakes and then correct their behavior. They’re in a classroom where they’re encouraged to be themselves. A boy can really speak his mind and say what’s important to him and not worry about impressing a girl in the classroom. And that’s where the vulnerability comes in, because you’re breaking down walls that keep you from communicating your true feelings.”
Whether in the classroom or through outside resources such as special speakers, Reding said, “One thing the Academy does really well is using a relational teaching method. Teachers encourage our boys to have develop strong male friendships. The students view their teachers and coaches as positive male role models that believe in them, know their strengths and weaknesses, and push them to be their authentic selves.
How the Inputs Inform the Outcomes
Cultivating such a caring environment generates a true sense of brotherhood that often translates into lifelong friendships. Reding experiences it firsthand: her husband graduated from Saint Thomas Academy, as have two of their sons, with the third set to graduate in 2021.
“When I hear one of my sons answer the phone and say, ‘My brother,’ I know he’s talking to one of about 30 guys he became really close to in his class. The brotherhood is not secret fraternity. It is a kinship of young men that support and rely on each other. Often our students are at school for 10 to 12 hours a day because of school and after-school activities. It’s during those hours that they learn to share emotions, fears and triumphs.”
Even with the emphasis on brotherhood, Cadets learn immense respect for women, Reding said. “Having both male and female leaders and teachers, they learn to respect all those in a position of power and authority. Boys here hold doors open. They look you in the eye. They say hello. They respond when you say hello.
“Some of this goes back to one of our pillars, Military Leadership. Each Upper School student is in a company led by upper-classmen, and everyone has a rank with distinctive roles and responsibilities. Our student leaders set positive behavioral examples. It’s not a boot camp atmosphere. Instead, it’s a place where boys to learn how to lead in a each-one-teach-one setting.”
Adult military leadership headed by the commandant of cadets reinforces those lessons. For example, Reding said, around the Military Ball each May, “there is an email from the colonel that says, ‘Gentlemen, remember to hold open the door for your date, shake her father’s hand, look him in the eye.’ Because the Academy reinforces those social cues and behaviors that will carry them into the future, at college and beyond. It may sound old-school, but it is about respect, which is a bedrock for any relationship or well-functioning society”
Beyond cultivating brotherhood and social graces, the Academy’s all-male student body impacts academic achievement. “There’s less drama here. They come in, put their heads down, and get to work. They’re not dumbing themselves down to impress a girl,” Reding said.
Many factors contribute to such attitudes, including the longevity and commitment among Saint Thomas Academy faculty, Reding said. “We have a lot of people who have been here for multiple years, because they really believe in our mission building boys into men of character.”
In a time when men of character are needed more than ever, boys should be boys.