Boys, stress & competitiveness in school

stressed boy imageStress

“Fight or flight” – we’ve all heard of it. We’ve all experienced it. When in a stressful situation, your body reacts with an elevated heart rate, a rise in blood pressure, increased breathing rate, dilated pupils. You’re on alert, ready to fight or flee in response to the stressor that caused the reaction.

In boys, fight or flight is highly visible – they will literally stomp out of the room or start yelling in response to stress. In girls, research in the past decade or so has revealed that their stress response is more “tend and befriend” than “fight or flight”, which makes a stress reaction by a young boy in a primary school classroom much more dramatic than that of his female classmates.

The challenge, for the teacher and for the parent, is to effectively communicate what’s expected without triggering a stress reaction. Speaking loudly and forthrightly to little girls will put them on stress alert. However, speaking firmly and forcefully to the boys in your life is imperative. In Chapter 3 of Parent’s Guide to Boys, I talk about the rules of discipline, one of which is “don’t sugarcoat the message.” Talking gently to your daughter is highly productive. Talking gently to your son will make him miss your meaning entirely, unless you’re comforting him when he’s sick or scared. He’ll think you’re making a suggestion, not mandating results.

If your son is feeling stressed at school, work with him and his teachers to see if it’s performance-based (he’s struggling to learn the material) or expectations-based (he’s not clear on what he’s supposed to do). Your son, like all boys, has an exquisitely-tuned sense of fairness – if he doesn’t feel he’s being treated fairly, he’ll get to fight-or-flight pretty quickly. Continue to read to him every day, creating that intimate space where you and he can talk about his day. Keep your ear tuned for indications that he’s struggling with something, and keep the communication channel with his teachers open. You’ll be able to nip most problems in the bud early if you do.


When your son hits primary school, you’ll see his natural competitiveness blossom. He’ll be compared to other kids on a daily basis, which will activate typical-boy conversations like “I bet I can do it better/faster” or “I finished before you did!” Boys will compete on physical abilities, who’s grossest (if you have a son, you know exactly what I’m talking about), obscure facts about a subject, computer gaming skills – but rarely do young boys compete in academics. Boys see effort paying off in sports and other activities, but when it comes to school they won’t compete if they don’t feel they can “win the game” – and since school is a new game in the early years, they don’t feel like they know the game well enough to win.

Here’s where the “everybody’s a winner” attitude that’s been prevalent for the last couple of decades turns out to be a losing proposition: boys don’t buy it. If everybody’s a winner, the one who actually comes in first sees his win cheapened. Giving everyone a trophy for showing up tells each boy he’s really a loser. Losing happens, boys know this, and it’s much better for them in the long run to let them compete to a win or a loss. Losing will drive a boy to work harder to win next time.

Turning competitiveness into a positive motivator in school will require you to be aware if your boy’s teacher is using the “everybody wins” approach. You’ll also need to pay attention to his interaction with his friends and classmates, and help him compete with them in ways that can translate well to academic skill. Board games like Chutes and Ladders and Monopoly are great at building counting, reading, and strategy skills in kids. You can work with other parents in your boy’s class to set up some regular game times, and an overarching “rules of engagement” to teach respect for the rules. You can also include physical games like Hide and Seek and Red Rover for game time sessions, which will let the boys burn off the physical energy they need to in order to keep their brains engaged for learning.

Stress and competitiveness are two things that your son will deal with all his life. Help him manage and leverage them both at home and in school, and he’ll reap rewards throughout his life.

Next week, I’ll talk about how friendships and bullying can color your son’s school and learning experiences.

In “The Parents’ Guide to Boys,” Dr. James lays out a brain-based approach to encouraging boys toward and through a successful school experience. In this blog post series, she shares some nuggets from the book to help parents learn what’s happening in their son’s developing brain, and guide him toward a love of learning.