Effective Pastoral Care for Boys: An act of hospitality

Early on in my school counselling career, before I appreciated just what a commitment it can be for a boy to ask for help, a young man popped his head around my office door, ‘Sir, can I chat to you about something’. Halfway through an e-mail that seemed very important at the time, I glanced up. ‘Can you give me a few minutes’, I replied, ‘I am just in the middle of something’. Swept away in the tide of busyness that can accompany education, it was a few days before I realised that he hadn’t come back. And I hadn’t taken time to register and remember who he was.

This is Part 2 of a series on effective pastoral care for boys. Read Part 1, ‘Why won’t boys ask for help’, here.

Jumping hurdles

When it comes to their emotional lives it can take a while for boys to realise there is something wrong, longer to identify what it is, and an eternity to articulate it. They must then work up the courage to talk and work out who to talk to.  It’s a lot of hurdles to overcome.  If, as a new school counsellor, you imagine there are automatically going to be queues of boys outside your door you will be surprised (I did and I was).

Such is the challenge of working with men around mental health, particularly boys, that in 2019 the American Psychological Association (APA) introduced guidance for how to work specifically with males. This is official recognition, maybe for the first time, that different approaches are needed for boys and girls when it comes to psychological support.

Pastoral care needs to go beyond just being available. Most schools have that; most boys won’t take advantage of it. Effective pastoral care for boys must go a step further and be invitational.

Point nine, out of the ten recommendations in the APA report, says that psychological services for men should aim to ‘Build and promote gender sensitive support’. What does this look like in school?

Treat boys differently

Whether you are working in all boys’ school or in a co-educational environment it is important to modify the approach when it comes to ensuring boys get the pastoral care they need.  Research (particularly the work of Woodfield and Thomas) and experience (my own and others) suggest several ways schools can build pastoral support for boys.  

1. Redefine masculinity – Discuss and question with boys what it means to be a man.  Challenge the idea that men don’t ask for help, or that men don’t care. This present and powerful narrative runs implicitly and explicitly through society like a virus. And like a virus it causes a lot of silent harm. Dr Rob Pluke says creating a goal of emotional maturity is a valid, and effective aspiration for young men. For boys, EQ cannot only be about being vulnerable. It will be more relatable and appealing for them if it is also about resilience.

2. Make it compulsory – This does not involve marching boys in for forced counselling sessions. It does mean schools need to be proactive in providing support for boys. This should involve education through programmes such as Life Orientation (PSHE), talks or small groups where boys are exposed to issues around mental health.  

3. Track students – Mental health tracking is a way of proactively reaching out to boys. Essentially it is a regular screening of student’s mental health. Digital systems like AS Tracking can be used for this but are expensive. It is possible to develop your own through consultation with mental health professionals. Boys might not talk about their struggle, but they will show it through bad behaviour, falling marks, social withdrawal, and often increased levels of aggression (one of the few societal approved male emotions). Try and ensure these are picked up.

4. Tap into competition – Due to testosterone (all men), and the fact that it takes a while to learn how to manage (young men), teenage boys are very competitive. Given that asking for help is perceived as being ‘less than’, they often won’t. For a man it makes you feel, well, less like a man. Schools can mitigate this, and even tap into the competitive nature of the male psyche, to enhance pastoral care. At the University of Sussex, they did the following:

  • Limit places – This enhanced the status of a talk or support group.
  • Reframed care – One group intervention was renamed to the male friendly, ‘learning to lead’.
  • Introduced games and sports – This provided a comfort zone for many men.
  • Provided food – Events were run over lunch, or food was provided in some form (the way to a man’s heart?).

These initiatives saw male attendance at mental health events increase as young men could access support without feeling shamed.

5. Relational Exchange – School staff should know that it is an expectation (beyond academic and sporting) that they build relationship with their pupils. In terms of accountability this should be particularly with those in their tutor/advisory/pastoral care group. Dr Woodfield and her team identified the role of the Tutor as key in directing young men to get the help they needed.

6. Back up – Without reducing the validity of Point 5 it is not fair to expect teachers and tutors to also be quasi mental health workers. Access to specialist staff and associated professionals is essential. There should be clearly defined channels for such referrals.

Invitational Pastoral Care

Pastoral care needs to go beyond just being available. Most schools have that; most boys won’t take advantage of it. Effective pastoral care for boys must go a step further and be invitational. it must do so in a way that is gender sensitive and makes it easier for boys to be emotionally courageous. It is an act of hospitality.

I do not remember what it was that I was working on when that boy popped in all those years ago. I do remember that he didn’t come back. I hope it wasn’t something serious. I hope over time I have become more attuned to the needs of boys and their sensitivities around seeking support. I hope schools have too.

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Bibliography

Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Boys and Men, American Psychological Association 2018

Male Access and Success in Higher Education, The Higher Education Academy 2011

Male Students: Engagement with Academic and Pastoral Support Services, Equality Challenge Unit 2012

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