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How to get boys to open up about their feelings – a case study

Emotional health training organisation Mind With Heart is on a mission to help schools flourish and build a more compassionate society.

Here the London based charity talks about its ‘Connected With Others’ programme which explores how positive relationships are key to our own wellbeing.

It is an interactive and mindfulness-based programme for secondary school students.

The aim is to equip young people with essential life skills that will support them throughout their education, as well as in their working and personal lives.


An emotional intelligence session at a school

The programme cultivates:

• Awareness to recognise their own emotions, as well as the emotions of others;

• Stability and resilience to be present with challenging emotions, and the ability to refrain from reacting habitually;

• Self-compassion and the ability to be kind to themselves;

• Emotional intelligence and listening skills, which enables them to give and receive support from others;

• Empathy and compassion to be a good friend to others, including those outside their immediate circle of care; and

• A sense of common humanity and a readiness to help.

One trainer held this course in a London secondary school over a 5-week period of 10 sessions long, and it was delivered over the course of 5 double lessons of 1 hour and 45 minutes each.

Interviews with 3 randomly selected boys from Year 9 (ages 13 to 14) were conducted before the training and again after the training was completed.

In addition, there was a focus group of 13 Year 9 boys, which was taken at the end of the course.

The majority of students were from a Bangladeshi ethnic background.

In terms of the general student population at the school, around half were from a low income background, eligible for Free School Meals.

Case study – Student 1 (‘S1’)

S1 is a 14-year-old boy; he is chatty, enjoys playing sports and his school friends mean a lot to him.

When he was asked in his pre-programme interview how he tries to support friends if they’re going through something difficult, he said ‘…if they forget about it and move on then it will help them focus more on different things’.

S1 wants to support his friends and be a good friend by cheering them up and distracting them.

By not acknowledging how his friends are really feeling, S1 dismisses their emotions.

S1’s response was the same when asked whether he felt supported by his friends: ‘I feel very supported by my friends. When I’m feeling sad, they would try to help me forget about it by cheering me up’.

In fact, many of the boys expressed the same thoughts on this, which highlights the problem of emotional avoidance rather than addressing and dealing with emotions.

In fact, when asked what empathy was, S1 said he had never heard of it and, when further asked what compassion was, he thought that it was ‘being very enthusiastic and keen toward something’.

Mind with Heart’s ‘Connected with Others’ programme aims to provide students with greater understanding and the tools to enhance their listening skills, expand their emotional intelligence and nurture their relationships.

After the programme, we observed in S1 an increased empathy, readiness to help, courage and openness to approaching emotions.

When asked about whether he would approach emotions differently he said, ‘I would. For example, if I was sad before I wouldn’t like to tell anyone, and I would think about it a lot.

Now [the programme] made me think about it, I get it off my chest. I’ll be able to get some advice…’. This was echoed across many of the individual participants.

It was clear that the training marked a shift in many of the boys, from perceiving themselves and/or others as ‘weak’ if they expressed their emotions, to it being a sign of ‘maturity’ and ‘strength’ to do so.

When reflecting on what he had learnt from the programme as a whole, S1 said, ‘it might not sound as important when you have other things like maths and science, but really when you think about it, it could be one of the most important things that people feel around the world’.

Case study – Student 2 (‘S2’)

In his interview before the programme, S2 said that, if he is down, he would speak to his friends, particularly those he has known for a long time – ‘they kind of understand me’. However, interestingly, he did not feel the same when speaking with his family. ‘Parents might have [experienced the same things], but at the moment they don’t really know.’

The interview also explored gender stereotypes and whether S2 felt pressure from these stereotypes. S2 was acutely aware of stereotypes such as boys ‘don’t cry’ and that they’re ‘meant to be tough’.

He further mentioned that he thought ‘some of them [his male classmates] feel shy and embarrassed to talk about how they feel’.

Connected With Others encourages participants to investigate emotions, but also aims to provide them with support, confidence and assurance to take home these conversations and continue them with their families. In addition, the exercises and activities aim to re-educate on social gendered norms relating to emotions. For example, one activity required students to create abstract drawings of 8 different emotions.

Students shared their drawings with the rest of the group. The activity opened the possibility for the boys to discuss the range of emotions they feel, while normalising the notion that boys experience a broad range of emotions. It seeks to challenge the traditional hegemonic masculine notions of boys only being allowed to show themselves as ‘tough’, ‘stoic’, ‘unemotional’ and demonstrates that boys can feel a wide range of emotions including being sad, angry, anxious, nervous, disappointed, depressed and shy.

After the programme similar questions were put to S2. He said that before he ‘would just keep it [sadness] to myself’ and to cope he would play sports. Whereas now, together with playing sports, he would also try to talk about it. Further, when S2 was asked whether there was anything he would do differently now if a friend came to him needing emotional support, he replied: ’now I would understand what they are feeling as well. Before [the training] I didn’t really understand… now I understand and would like to help because I know how it would feel to be in his position’.

Case study – Focus Group (‘F1’)

A focus group was conducted during the last 20 minutes of the final training session of the programme. During the first two training sessions it was observed by one of the interviewers that the students would often make eye-contact with each other around the room, try and read the expressions on each other’s faces and assess whether they were taking the practice seriously and even distract each other.

This type of behaviour is not unusual among boys; they think that they would be ‘judged’ or considered ‘weak’ if they were to take the sessions seriously. This was one of the biggest hurdles to overcome during the training and was demonstrated by their unwillingness and reluctance to answer any questions in front of the class.

Even the mention of the word ‘emotionally’ triggered laughter amongst them. One participant said that, before the training, he couldn’t speak to his friends about emotions ‘…you know how friends are like, most of the time it’s all about joking around. I don’t think they would take it seriously. But even if they did, I wouldn’t really feel comfortable to talk to them about my emotions’.

Another explained that he found it difficult before the training because ‘it’s just a bunch of boys and if you say something, they could judge you’. The training provided a safe space to help them move away from using humour to dismiss each other’s emotions. They were able to develop emotional awareness and felt greater empathy and understanding for each other’s emotions.

One student said ‘it allowed me to be more open because I thought the emotions I had… no one else experienced them but as the sessions went by I learned that other people experience the same things so it allowed me to be more confident in opening up’. Another student said ‘I think you just kind of put yourself down if you just avoid your emotions.… You can’t just be like ‘this is fine’. In being more connected with themselves and showing courage by opening up about their own emotions, they then felt further empowered to ask how others were feeling and wanted to be a better support for their friends.

For example, one student said, ‘this project allowed me to have a better bond with some of the people in this room, like my friends, because I’m able to talk to them’. Another agreed with this point and further added, ‘[I feel] more connections with everyone. Knowing their points of views’. There was a distinct change in the boys from the first 2 sessions of the programme compared with the final session.

In the final focus group discussion, the boys listened intently to one another and did not interrupt with joking or laughter. They recognised the transformation in themselves over the course, particularly regarding their ability to ‘open up’ and express emotions, one participant summing up by saying that it ‘helped us mature’.

To contact Mind With Heart visit their website

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