April 1, 2015

Can We Reduce School Shootings by Better Understanding Boys’ Brains?

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Gregory L. Jantz, PhD

The Center A Place of HOPE, Edmonds, Washington


As mental health professionals, we need to be acutely aware of a troubling phenomenon: the disenfranchisement of young boys in our homes and schools. This phenomenon has been occurring over the past several decades, often producing confused and violent boys and young men. At their earliest, formative ages, young boys’ behavior is being condemned by society. Some boys are reaching their teenage and young adult years confused about their identity and appropriate social norms.

The result? A steady spate of young males committing gun violence at Marysville Pilchuck High School‬ in Washington, UC Santa Barbara, Seattle Pacific University, Reynolds High School in Oregon, Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, and elsewhere.

How did we get here?

In my recent book Raising Boys by Design, co-authored with brain science expert Michael Gurian, we noted a cultural trend to label boys as morally defective, hyper, undisciplined, or ‘problem children’ when frequently the problem is not the boys but the family, schools, and institutions that do not understand their brain chemistry and specific needs. Condemning their actions during early developmental years sends boys the message that their identity is something to be ashamed of. The resulting behavior can be shocking. Note these worrisome statistics:

  • Boys are diagnosed with learning disabilities at almost triple the rate of girls
  • Boys are almost twice as likely to repeat kindergarten as girls and more than twice as likely to be suspended
  • Boys receive 67% of the D’s and F’s given in school
  • Three times as many boys are considered mentally disabled compared to girls
  • 67% of all children held back in class are boys
  • 73% of children diagnosed with learning disabilities are boys
  • 81% of suicides among those aged 10–19 years are males
  • 80% of diagnosed behavioral disorders are in boys
  • 80% of children taking Ritalin are boys
  • 89% of incarcerated youths aged 15–17 years are boys

With more testosterone and less emotive brains than girls, boys express themselves much more physically than girls, especially at younger ages. It is absolutely natural, healthy, and necessary for young boys to expend their energy and emotions through physical activity.

Yet today, we have created a culture where normal behavior by boys is often instantly labeled as unruly and unacceptable. Throw in social media, technology addictions, and continued shortages of male mentors for young boys, and more problems arise.

So, what can we do?

We need to get brain research material to, and engage in conversations with, all adults who raise, teach, and care for young boys. Understanding the physiology of a boy’s brain and what stimulates it and allows it to be engaged and focused is essential.

Simple changes in environment to allow boys the physical outlet they need to focus can make a huge difference. For teachers, punishing a young boy by removing recess can be counterproductive, as physical activity is a key component in his brain development. Allowing a boy to sit on a large ball in the classroom, subtly bouncing, instead of on a chair, provides stimulation to engage his brain and help him better focus on the teacher. For parents, talking to your son while playing catch or taking a walk will enable him to focus much better than having him sit still at a table for a 15–minute discussion.

It is not easy to teach and raise young boys. I know, as I have 2 young boys myself. It can be difficult to know what is healthy, normal behavior and what crosses the line into aggression or even violence. But we need to figure it out and recognize that what we are doing today is not working. For the future of our young boys and all of us, we need to make understanding boys a priority.

Financial disclosure:Drs Jantz is co-author of the book Raising Boys by Design.

Category: ADHD , Autism , Mental Illness
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3 thoughts on “Can We Reduce School Shootings by Better Understanding Boys’ Brains?

  1. Excellent points. My son just turned 13, but children today mature so much earlier. He’s not much into the news, but when something occurs that can be relevant to his development, I’ll have him watch it. This can involve driving recklessly, inappropriate sexual behavior, and many other subjects.

    For example, recently one young man shot another by accident in Bellingham, not realizing it was loaded. I used it to explain that you NEVER point a gun at someone and pull the trigger, even if thought to be unloaded.

    Just today I read about a 15 year-old girl who was sexually assaulted when passed out, and then found photos of herself being sent to her peers. Audrie Pott later committed suicide (her parents want her name released).

    This will serve to discuss that if such behavior is ever seen, about how to object to it.

  2. Fantastic. It remined me that in Thailand, although aggression is not well accepted socially, ALL boys have to do 2 years of thai boxing. It may contribute to this people being so peaceful and friendly.


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