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The Punishment Rarely Fits the Crime for Misbehaving Boys in School

Three members of the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Boys in School explain why boys are punished more often than girls — and what their predominantly white, female teachers have to do with it

Boys misbehaving in school is one of our oldest cultural tropes — one that’s woven into the philosophy of “boys will be boys,” and allows for young men to push and prod at the boundaries of acceptable expression within the confines of our public school system. 

Looking at the headlines from recent years, it seems like boys aren’t getting any better. Brutal fistfights continue to occur, along with boys threatening to shoot up schools, bringing firearms to class, assaulting teachers and committing acts of sexual violence. It’s more than a swelling of problems with the mentality that “boys will be boys” — it’s a legitimate crisis of masculinity for many young men at a critical juncture of their maturation. 

The problem is, the old ways of controlling and punishing this behavior just seems to be making things worse. To that end, research suggests that tools like detention, suspension and corporal punishment, which is still legal in 19 U.S. states, often don’t help troubled boys reform and find stability. But instead of pursuing a new course of action, the last decade of American schooling has seen leaders commit to suppressing “misbehavior” through increased police presence, private security and “zero-tolerance” policies. 

The approach is hurting boys, and leaving especially deep scars on children from communities of color, who have historically taken the brunt of classroom punishment. “We want to be the biggest, baddest country out there, but we’re not investing in the youth that are going to enable us to be that, if that’s what this country cares about so much,” says Christopher Reigeluth, an assistant professor at Pacific University Oregon who is an expert on how boys socialize and develop.

I recently spoke with Reigeluth, Benterah C. Morton from the University of South Alabama and Ioakim Boutakidis from California State University Fullerton, who are all part of a task force on boys in school for the American Psychological Association, with the aim of developing and encouraging interventions that support young men. The trio debated why boys get into trouble, the racial inequalities at play and why it might take a protagonist’s mindset to change the system. 

Is there something innate about boys that makes them “misbehave” more than girls, or at least get caught for such behavior in schools? 

Reigeluth: I think what doesn’t get sufficiently acknowledged with regard to this question of innateness is how we socialize boys as a society. When we look at the “guy code” and masculine gender socialization, and dominant messages that boys get about what it means to be a man, the messages that they’re getting are: be aggressive, be powerful, have higher status than women and other marginalized groups, etc. And so a lot of the socialization pressures are encouraging boys to misbehave and to act out, and to be aggressive. That part of things doesn’t get acknowledged when anyone mentions “boys will be boys.” 

Boutakidis: It’s important to look at the way schools discipline as a general proposition, and how that interfaces with boys’ behavior. Many people aren’t aware that there are still 19 states that allow corporal punishment in schools, and it’s mostly boys that are corporally punished.

In terms of the behavior itself, and this issue of whether it’s innate… I think yes, there are biological differences between boys and girls, and there’s even some evidence that boys have a more difficult time self-regulating at the same stages of development. But really, those differences don’t account for the reaction of people to boys in school settings. There is clearly an overreaction to boys’ misbehavior.

So then the question is why? And I think the answer is largely because of expectation effects — the lens through which teachers and administrators look at boy behavior. They’re being primed to address misbehavior that’s bound to arise, and when you’re primed like that, you often get systemic overreactions in discipline. I think this is about not just the behavior, but the reaction to that behavior and the socio-cultural impacts of that. Across the board, boys bear the brunt of school discipline, and African-American boys even more so. 

Morton: I will tag on to the end of that idea — who is getting the most discipline? And who’s causing the discipline? Who identifies those behaviors as inappropriate?

Most often, that’s the teacher who does that. And if you look at the population of teachers, census data shows that over 80 percent of the teachers in public schools are white middle-class women. And then you look at the number of boys that are in schools, and look at the number of African-American kids, or students that are from historically underrepresented populations. Who’s the one who’s identifying behaviors as misbehavior?

It sounds like there is a disproportionate impact on children and families of color, and things continue to get worse. Why is the disparity hard to tackle, and what does it say about the broader issues with how we discipline boys? 

Morton: So let’s talk about the elephant in the room: School wasn’t designed for everybody. And with the public system that we have now, there are so many people who were excluded from the opportunity to even begin to engage. If you look at the students who are being penalized now, many of them are descendents of formerly enslaved peoples, who were forced not to be able to read or engage, and required to do things that were contrary to the expectations of schools today. Those beliefs have been a part of how we designed our schools, and they’re still prevalent now. 

Boutakidis: You mentioned police officers on campus and, in general, I think it’s a bad idea. I don’t understand what they’re doing there. But they’re usually not called to an incident unless a teacher reaches out and asks for them. 

How they then react to an incident is oftentimes hugely problematic because, frankly, they don’t have the training to deal with child populations, let alone children who have legitimate behavioral difficulties. But the precipitating factor is very often the teacher in the classroom and what they deem as threatening behavior. We know that these teachers, much like police in the street, often exaggerate the threat posed by Black students. They’re often identified as older than they are and larger than they are. It’s part of a historical legacy. 

Reigeluth: From the time any kid enters preschool, you’re thinking of how to make them feel welcome, right? But because of how schools are set up and how teachers are trained, and the fact that there’s insufficient representation of male instructors of all different backgrounds, a lot of boys don’t feel like school is a place for them. And yet, they still have to go there, every day, feeling unappreciated. Feeling like they’re not valued. 

Why haven’t these things gotten addressed sooner? 

Reigeluth: I mean, to oversimplify it: There’s still massive oppression. Some schools have made changes. And schools with more resources can do more to train teachers in relationship-based approaches for working with kids: Asking questions, taking interest, trying to understand what’s going on at home and at school, rather than using discipline first. But most schools don’t have those resources. The fabric of how the school operates has been discipline for so long that it’s hard to shake the implicit bias. And that mentality is still leading the charge, whether it’s with regard to boys of color or boys in general. 

Morton: The cultural connections to these ideas around boys’ behavior also has an impact. Society still wants our boys to have locker-room talk. We want our boys to conquer, and specifically conquer women. But then we also want them to behave in school and sit quietly in a chair. There’s a disconnect there. 

As for the historical piece of whether things are getting better or worse, I think we’re able to see a lot more and make more connections into what’s going on in school. I think we’re able to see that things are bad, and that we’re missing key pieces in the approach. 

Boutakidis: There’s also a structural issue that’s almost unique to the U.S., which is this worship of local control when it comes to schools. I mean, the Supreme Court case that essentially allowed for the continued use of corporal punishment in schools was really about a state’s purview to make that call. 

There’s nothing stopping a particular school district from stopping corporal punishment. I don’t want to overstate the numbers here — it’s not a huge number of kids who actually experience physical punishment. But let’s be really clear again: Public schools in a lot of these states are incredibly racially segregated, so the kids being punished this way are largely African-American and Latino. 

It speaks to the culture of a place. That teachers are willing to do this, that some parents seem okay with it and that others don’t even know it happens. And corporal punishment is used to discipline kids over things like falling asleep in class. Or not doing your homework. All this, despite every study on the planet from the past three decades showing that physical punishment is not an effective control strategy, and that’s not even including all the harm it can do. 

So what are the “best practices,” for how educators should be tackling this issue? What have we learned thus far? 

Morton: We’re supposed to be building relationships. As a classroom teacher, as a campus leader and now as a teacher of campus leaders, it’s clear that building relationships makes such a difference. It doesn’t just change the student, or the boy in this context, but it also impacts the home, because when you’re making a relationship with the student, you have the opportunity to make a relationship with their parents. I can think of several times I’ve instigated with a student, built a relationship with the student, ended up meeting with the dad and they’re now reaching out 20 years later, saying thank you for working with him. 

It’s those kinds of relationships, and being very intentional about how we define punishment versus discipline. Discipline [should be] the idea of, “Let’s learn, let’s have context, let’s actually build on that relationship to communicate what works from this.” Not “is it good or bad,” but rather: “Is it best for us to engage in this type of behavior at this moment in time?”

Ultimately, you have to be a protagonist for your students — and be willing to put yourself on the line for them. 

Can those things really happen in the status quo that exists with how schools are run, or do we just need individual teachers to step up? 

Boutakidis: Look, at some point the problem will become so big that we’ll have to put the resources necessary behind it. At this point, it’s clear generational underperformance of boys in academic settings is going to have continually bigger cultural impacts. It’s going to affect all of us, right? All of us that work on this task force, we’ve all had the same conversation, which is to say that a great recipe for disaster is to have just an increasing number of undereducated, underemployed males running around.

But there are structural things we do. Benterah mentioned this earlier, but the fact is that we’re certainly having these conversations more, and that’s step one. I still get shocked looks at public settings when I speak to parents or at schools when I mention the struggles boys are having in school. And to focus on boys is to not try and take any of the spotlight away from other equity issues we’re confronting. 

Reigeluth: Yes, not enough people get that boys are struggling — as a group, and then boys of color, even more so. We need change now. Teachers need better training in understanding their implicit biases, in understanding constructive interventions in the classroom. That funding and that investment needs to be made. It’s unbelievable that for a country as wealthy as ours, that education for all kids isn’t prioritized and isn’t sufficiently funded. But it’s all part of a history that still colors the present.