How positive relationships can make boys learn better

How positive relationships can make boys learn better

For parents of young boys, figuring out how to maximize their potential can feel like a crapshoot: are they visual learners, hands-on apprentices or someone who thrives on one-on-one attention? As it turns out, the underlying key to success is actually pretty simple. According to multiple studies, including extensive global research by bestselling authors and educational experts Michael Reichert and Richard Hawley, it all comes down to positive relationships—both with teachers and their peers. They discovered that for boys, “Relationships do not merely contribute to or enhance teaching and learning, but are the very medium through which successful teaching and learning occurs.”

It’s a finding that’s been backed up again and again. Another study by educational psychologists Bergin and Bergin found that secure teacher-student relationships predict greater knowledge, higher test scores and greater academic motivation (a.k.a. pretty much all any parent could ever want).

But how to actually guarantee strong teacher-student relationships in real life can be a bit trickier. At The Sterling Hall School, a leading private independent boys’ school in Toronto that focuses solely on the key developmental ages of kindergarten to grade eight, classes are purposely small, the student-teacher ratio is low and teachers know each and every student. Says principal Rick Parsons, “Boys experience a tremendous amount of growth from the ages of four to 14. They’re not only changing physically, but growing socially, emotionally and intellectually.” Come grade eight, students get to pick their own teacher mentor to provide one-to-one counselling throughout the year. The results of this type of mentorship are huge: nearly ninety percent of Sterling Hall students are accepted into their first choice of high schools.

These student-teacher bonds make a difference in boys’ lives long after they leave Sterling Hall—many students continue to be friends with their favourite teachers even after they’ve finished university. For instance, 23-year-old David Merrithew, who graduated in 2007, regularly gets together with his former teacher-mentor Andrew Allan for everything from making serious university decisions to casual catch-up sessions. Now, Merrithew comes back to the school to help coach rugby.

That said, the school’s intimate environment definitely doesn’t limit opportunities for trying new things. Each year, boys can participate in over 35 athletic teams and 50 clubs. This helps facilitate a concept called “growth mindset,” which was developed by Stanford psychology professor and author Carol Dweck. According to Parsons, “A growth mindset enables boys to take risks, try new things, accept failure and believe they can develop their own abilities through effort and perseverance.” It’s the kind of mentality that can be learned on the soccer field or in the swimming pool or jazz band, as well as in the classroom.

And it’s also developed far beyond the walls of the school. At the beginning of every school year at Sterling Hall, boys in grades three to eight get to go on an outdoor education trip, like a week-long canoe trip in Temagami, where they bond with classmates and teachers somewhere other than math class. “Together with their teachers, boys explore the world around them and test their limits,” says Parsons. For some students, these experiences unlock an inner passion: 2006 alumni Wilson Waterman ended up spending many summers as a guide in Temagami, and even returned to the school to co-lead an expedition with one of his former teachers.

All this is to say that by fostering the kind of strong, lasting relationships between students and their teachers and peers, the stereotype that boys can be resistant to schooling falls apart. As Reichert and Hawley concluded in their study, “Positive relationships are transformative.”