2022-23 IBSC Action Research Program

Shattering Stereotypes: Helping Boys Cultivate Healthy Masculinity


The prospect of helping boys and young men navigate masculinity in current times can seem like a daunting task. Considering the rapid development of new theoretical models, it would not be surprising if educators struggled to even define masculinity. Andrea Waling (2018) describes the emerging trend of using “descriptive and categorical signifiers in front of the term masculinity as a way to account for men’s lived experiences” (p. 91). A browse through the literature provides justification for theories of hybrid masculinities, inclusive masculinity, caring masculinities, mosaic masculinities, sticky masculinity, and more. Waling (as cited in Haywood et al., 2017) believes the problem with these models is that they are presented as “a cause for what men do, rather than a relational process, or an effect of men’s relational processes with the social world” (p. 96). Furthermore, she notes that when approaching masculinity, we need to “create spaces for imagining actual changes taking place in how men are positioning themselves in different societal spheres and relations” (p. 145).

Ideally, spaces for change focus on positive behaviors as opposed to emphasizing negative masculine stereotypes. Ray Swann (2021) stresses that “when boys form narrow views of what it is to be a man, it can actually hinder their self-expressions. It can impact their ability to form close relationships or worse.” These damaging narrow views are exemplified by the “Man Box,” defined as “a set of beliefs, communicated by parents, families, the media, peers, and other members of society, that place pressure on men to be a certain way. These pressures tell men to be self-sufficient, to act tough, to be physically attractive, to stick to rigid gender roles, to be heterosexual, to have sexual prowess, and to use aggression to resolve conflicts” (Heilman et al., 2017, p. 8). Young men “outside the Man Box” are those who have broken out of the box, who reject these ideas and instead embrace more positive, original ideas and attitudes about what men should believe and how they should behave.

While attempting to navigate what sometimes may feel like a masculinity minefield, the boys in our care are experiencing a divisive social climate and pressures not seen for generations thanks to the pandemic. Rice et al. (2021) stress the importance of social and emotional engagement for young men and boys with their male peers, with girls and young women, and with other gendered groups, and they remind us of the dangerous tendency for boys to cover up vulnerable emotions. We must prioritize social and emotional well-being and current scholarship recommends incorporating a positive masculinity framework to support this goal. Wilson et al. (2021) highlight how “future health promotion interventions may benefit from applying the framework to support a positive psychosocial trajectory among boys and young men, with a focus on connection, motivation and authenticity” (p. 1).

IBSC invites teachers to undertake action research projects that provide opportunities for boys to exhibit “agency and emotional reflexivity” (Waling, 2018) as they explore masculinity concepts that focus on the relational. In this cycle of action research, teachers have an opportunity to investigate how they can encourage behaviors contributing to healthy and positive masculinity. Projects might focus on analysis of male stereotypes in literature and media, identification of positive male role models, or exposure to diverse gender perspectives. Alternatively, action researchers may opt to address how to provide opportunities for boys to share authentic voices, connect with peers, or set personal and/or schoolwide goals. This topic lends itself to all developmental ages and disciplines.


Contact Laura Sabo, IBSC action research coordinator, at sabol@stcva.org with questions about the research topic or the IBSC Action Research process. 

Contact Amy Ahart, IBSC chief operating officer, at ahart@theibsc.org with any questions about the application process.


Haywood, C., Johansson, T., Hammarén, N., Herz, M., & Ottemo, A. (2017). The conundrum of masculinity: Hegemony, homosociality, homophobia and heteronormativity. Routledge.

Heilman, B., Barker, G., & Harrison, A. (2017). The Man Box: A Study on Being a Young Man in the US, UK, and Mexico. Promundo-US and Unilever.

Rice, S., Oliffe, J., Seidler, Z., Borschmann, R., Pirkis, J., Reavley, N., & Patton, G. (2021). Gender norms and the mental health of boys and young men. The Lancet Public Health, 6(8), 541-542.

Swann, R. (2021, August 9). Positive masculinity: Creating authentic, motivated and connected young men [Webinar]. Understanding boys. https://youtu.be/xuy7Tl5Z57E

Waling, A. (2019). Rethinking masculinity studies: Feminism, masculinity, and poststructural accounts of agency and emotional reflexivity. The Journal of Men’s Studies, 27(1), 89-107.

Wilson, M., Gwyther, K., Swann, R., Casey, K., Featherston, R., Oliffe, J. L., Englar-Carlson, M. & Rice, S. M. (2021). Operationalizing positive masculinity: A theoretical synthesis and school-based framework to engage boys and young men. Health Promotion International.