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How Boys and Girls Learn Differently

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BOY AND GIRL IN CLASSROOM
Jonathan Kirn via Getty Images

Men are from Mars, women are from Venus... or are they? Are the differences between boys and girls really that great? Or is our biological determinism more of a self-fulfilled prophecy?

Neuroscience tells us that yes: boys and girls are different. Boys' brains are larger, but girls' brains grow faster and typically their interests and learning styles vary somewhat. But are these differences as significant as we once thought?

New studies tell us that it is the environment that we create for our children that has the greatest impact on the way they learn and what they learn. We can go back through history and point out notable men and women who have gone against gender stereotypes. We can talk about Wolfgang Mozart, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo -- men who had fine motor dexterity, could sit for long periods of time, had beautiful handwriting and who were interested in arts, literature, music and writing.

We can talk about women such as tennis legend Billie Jean King, astronaut Sally Ride, one of the country's earliest civil engineers Marilyn Jorgensen Reece, Aviator Jacqueline Cochran, doctor and researcher Elizabeth Blackburn and so on -- women in history who were interested in athletics, math, engineering and science.

In today's world, the outliers are more the rule than the exception, and parents have the greatest impact on both the suppression and enhancement of our children's genetic makeup.

All generalizations are false, including this one.

It is true that many boys pick up less social cues than their female counterparts. That girls make more serotonin and oxytocin, so they are calmer and more interested in emotional connection. Boys mature more slowly than girls and girls have more of their cerebral cortex defined for verbal function. The hippocampus, where memory and language live, does develop more rapidly and is larger in girls than in boys. This impacts vocabulary, reading and writing skills. Boys, on the other hand, have more of their cerebral cortex defined for spatial relationships. As a result, they learn easily through movement and visual experience. Also, because girls have more serotonin and oxytocin, they can sit for longer periods of time, easier than boys who may need movement to feel comfortable.

However, there is very little gap between what girls and boys can learn, and herein lies the rub. In fact, the differences are most pronounced in young children, and as children grow older, their home environment, their interests and their peers have the greatest influence over their behavior. By the time children are in the 12th grade, the differences between boys and girls are very subtle. Understanding these subtle differences can help educators guide their students in a positive way, meeting them and their needs where they are.

When little boys don't want to make eye contact and they fidget in their seats, and little girls are caught talking and sending notes, a savvy teacher can organize her classroom in which she takes into consideration that little boys need to move around, and little girls need to express themselves verbally, and interprets this as part of their biology rather than misbehavior. A savvy parent can be sure that there are playtime opportunities during the day for both boys and girls to unwind and express themselves in a creative way. Further, allowing children to start school especially little boys a little later, perhaps even by a year, gives them an edge. A more mature child can handle school material in a much better way.

In my years as a researcher and educator, I've found it to be true that boys and girls perceive their school problems in different ways. Girls tend to take their problems and failures personally, and are much more self-critical. Boys, on the other hand, see their problems in more focused ways and will assign their failure to a particular area of study rather than over-generalize and see themselves as lacking. Ironically girls tend to do better in school than boys and are more likely to stay in school and graduate.

So what can we do to help boys and girls have a happy, fulfilling, well-rounded, and successful school career?

  • Be certain that your child's school has a recess program that includes unstructured playtime.
  • Be careful to not label children, especially with labels such as ADD and ADHD, unless they are diagnosed by a health care professional. Many boys and some girls are just on the outer edge of active and are being mislabeled.
  • Encourage girls to play with toys and activities that allow them to use their spatial relationship and manipulation skills.
  • Encourage boys to take study breaks and allow your son to be active during those study breaks.
  • Help your daughter talk through her feelings about schoolwork and school problems. Because girls may focus on communication, relationships and attention for approval, they can easily get caught up in an intense emotional experience. Often a girl will subvert her own feelings, including needs, to get the approval of others and this causes self-esteem issues.
  • Engage your daughter in sports to help her build confidence.
  • Help your son with literacy skills, including reading, writing, journaling, drawing, creativity, fantasy, humor, war and mythology. Boys are action-oriented, often competitive and impulsive risk-takers, so giving them an opportunity to express themselves creatively and explore their interests is very important. This will help connect their words to their feelings and validate both.
  • Offer your daughter the opportunity to experience STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) using everyday examples. By having access to a computer, girls can build, design, and explore anything from architecture, medicine, engineering to culinary experiences. You can also enroll your daughter in one of the many STEM programs around the country.
  • Make sure teachers understand the different learning styles of boys and girls so that they are able to create a learning environment that meets the needs of both, by teaching different modalities that capture girls' needs for spatial learning practice, including geometry, and boys' needs for enrichment projects.