By Simon Butler, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

Photograph: Alamy (2019)

Were you to ask student and newly qualified teachers training in secondary education the challenge they dreaded the most, many would cite the prospect of managing severe misbehaviour (challenging behaviour) of pupils as a particular concern. Having been a senior teacher in a large comprehensive school, some junior members of the professional confided in me that they actually felt intimidated by some pupils, particularly older boys in lower ability groups and some even left the profession as a consequence.

When I became Head of Year for the Class of 2013, a position I held throughout their five years at secondary school, I felt a good first step would be to visit them in their primary schools and speak with their teachers. I cannot say I was very reassured by their comments, which included the following:

You couldn’t pay me enough to be their Head of Year.

Oh Simon, what have you done? The boys in this year group are vile.

The girls are lovely but the boys are an absolute nightmare.

If I were you, I’d lock yourself in your office with a bottle of gin and come out in five years time!

It became obvious that the usual barrage of punishments commonly administered in schools such as detentions, report cards and internal exclusion (being placed in isolation) were not making even a fraction of a difference. When three of the boys sobbed with frustration at being internally excluded yet again, I began to question the “one size fits all” methods of dealing with challenging behaviour in schools. I worried about their futures as statistics show that boys who are excluded from school are at much greater risk of offending, many ending up in prison; their life chances becoming dire. Apart from the anxiety and unhappiness of these students, what of the stress their teachers and peers experience because of their behaviour? What about the effect on the education of other pupils as well as their own? It is still widely reported in educational journals and in Ofsted reports that at least an hour a day of teaching and learning is lost to disruptive classroom behaviour. I decided to take action and because I lacked the expertise, enrolled on the Open University M.Ed Module, “Managing Behaviour in Schools.” This inspired me to establish what became known as “The Boys Academy” with invitations extended to boys in my year group with challenging behaviour that was resistant to change. They and their parents willingly became my research participants.   

The Boys’ Academy

The aim of this group was to positively support behaviour improvement through a number of interventions. I was helped by a very experienced Special Educational Needs Coordinator and Teaching Assistant. Mid-way through Year 7 (the first year of secondary education) at its inception, thirty boys were on the programme. Later in the year, nineteen were discharged from the scheme as they responded well to the interventions with a significant improvement in behaviour. By the beginning of Year 8, only eleven boys remained, whose challenging behaviour was resistant to improvement despite our best efforts. My then supervisor, Dr Bob Sproson, wrote of a “metaphorical suitcase” in which, as an experienced adult, he has a variety of items that help him cope with the adversities of life and negotiate positive outcomes. A student with challenging behaviour “may only have a smelly sock and dirty underwear in theirs with no choice but to use them.” This statement inspired me having seen interactions between the students, their teachers, senior school staff and other adults. We introduced solution-focussed interventions, personalised support and strategies for behaviour self-management to help the boys “add useful items to their suitcases.” The project was, in the main, successful with only three of the eleven who were at serious risk of exclusion being excluded before their official school leaving date.  

Year 8 members of the boys’ academy engaged in a team-building activity. Permissions obtained.

A deeper understanding

Although it was arduous working with the boys who remained in the “academy” it was also very rewarding and interesting. Having observed them and interviewed both them and their parents, I became fascinated in finding out what made “them tick.” Fortunately, I came from a medical science background, which included an element of biological psychology. This enabled me to form hypotheses around endocrinology (their hormones); anthropometric variances (their body proportions and factors such as body mass index); their physical growth and development including brain structure and function; and psychosocial factors such as social cognitive function and behaviour. It was obvious that, in order to satisfy this desire for knowledge and in an attempt to find answers that would help children in the future, the best course of action would be to launch on a voyage of discovery in the form of part-time doctoral research.

New discoveries

I was relieved to find out that the data I needed to examine my ideas already existed in the form of a large secondary dataset, the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC). I was lucky enough to acquire funding to purchase 130 variables for the ~15,000 participants represented in the study. Five years later, I am nearing the end of my data analysis and have made several interesting discoveries, some of which I have identified as common misconceptions:

  1. Although there is a strong linear relationship between testosterone levels, physical development and age, no significant associations are evident between these factors and psychosocial and behavioural elements in the general adolescent population using common measures such as the Social & Communication Disorders Checklist (SCDC), the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ), and parent and teacher reports of behaviour in and out of school.
  2. Boys who physically mature early at ages 9 and 11, linked to unusually high blood testosterone levels, exhibit more conduct problems and hyperactivity, poorer social cognitive function and a higher level of general difficulties according to their SDQ scores than their normally developed peers.
  3. The same is true for boys who are late maturers. Those who are physically underdeveloped at ages 15 to 16 exhibit similar psychosocial and behavioural challenges as early maturers.
  4. A large proportion of boys who mature early score high on the SCDC, a diagnostic indicator for autistic spectrum disorder.
  5. In terms of fixed-term exclusion and multiple detentions, boys with markers for ADHD and autism are significantly overrepresented.  

If my findings are correct in that boys with physical development differences and those with different educational needs are being punished, surely the moral imperative is to understand their difficulties and offer humane, individualised support. Future directions could include the evaluation of such “tailored” interventions and the sorts of help that would be useful to these children. I hope that my findings will influence policy in schools and teaching practices to facilitate inclusion and improve the life chances of these youngsters.

Simon Butler is a final year part-time Ed.D candidate at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. Formerly a secondary science teacher and head of year, he is now a senior lecturer in clinical sciences at Anglia Ruskin University. 

Posted by:fersacambridge

One thought on “The Trouble with Boys

  1. Very interesting well done, one style of approaching and addressing behaviour/learning is not appropriate as we probably all know but great that you’ve been able to evidence in such a way x


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