Gender Differences: Worlds Apart in a Classroom Together

Excerpted from

Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys

By ,

Two important developmental distinctions define boys' readiness for the tasks of elementary school and help explain their generally inferior performance compared with girls. First, boys mature more slowly than girls. Second, boys are more active and slower to develop impulse control than girls. This developmental pace appears largely biological, influenced by parents and teachers only to the extent that they provide support for that growth or fail to do so. Current scientific thinking about the nature-nurture debate highlights the inextricable link between biology and experience. A boy's early ease with throwing a ball or climbing may begin with developmental readiness, but his skill and interest grow when he finds encouragement for his hobby at home. A girl's greater ease with reading and language also appears to begin with an early neurological advantage, enhanced when she is encouraged in her reading habit. These influences-some biological, some cultural-combine to nurture a child's developmental progress. Nurture and nature cannot be separated.

The fact that girls mature earlier than boys means that they frequently achieve cognitive milestones at younger ages. They generally learn names for things sooner, such as the names of colors, and how to do simple counting. Because of this, girls are more ready when, in first grade, teachers commence with the first serious attempts to teach reading. The fact that many boys start out behind girls in these prereading skills means that boys are more likely to be miscategorized as learning disabled in the early grades.

In terms of activity level-and by this we mean motor activity, as in moving one's body around while running or walking-not many studies find sex differences until preschool. Or put slightly differently, gender differences in activity level between boys and girls become more pronounced as children approach school age. Recent research suggests that the main differences between boys and girls occur in social interaction. Boys in a group behave quite differently than boys alone, and boys are stimulated by the challenges presented by other boys. As with any gender difference, there is a lot of overlap between the populations of boys and girls: thus, there are girls who are more active than many boys. But by school age, the average boy in a classroom is more active than about three-fourths of the girls, and the most active children in the class are very likely to be boys. And even the more active girls don't seem to express their energy in the unrestrained way more characteristic of boys.

When we examine extremes of activity-hyperactivity, for instance-the sex differences become even greater. Most research finds that two to four times as many boys are diagnosed with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as are girls. For example, in a study of 8,258 kindergarten through fifth-grade children in Tennessee, all students in sixteen schools in one heterogeneous county, almost 4 percent of boys were diagnosed with the hyperactive-impulsive variety of ADD, whereas this was true for less than 1 percent of girls. So every class of at least twenty-five students is likely to find itself with one hyperactive boy.

The profile of boys as troubled learners stands out clearly to anyone who spends any time in elementary schools. As a second-grade girl commented ruefully one day: "Why are the bad kids always boys?" Our own experience is mirrored in research that indicates that a boy is four times more likely to be referred to a school psychologist than is a girl.

Some researchers have suggested that the preponderance of boys among the learning disabled (60 to 80 percent of learning disabilities occur in boys) would disappear if eight-year-old boys were taught in classes with six-year-old girls, because learning disabilities are diagnosed based on assessment of reading ability at a certain age compared with intellectual potential (IQ test results) at the same age. For decades, the Ethical Culture School in New York admitted five-year-old girls and six-year-old boys to kindergarten, because of the developmental disparity between boys and girls. The school eventually modified the practice because of the protests of that minority of parents who had very school-ready five-year-olds, but believes that the underlying wisdom of the earlier policy still holds. In the United States, at least some of the Waldorf Schools, with a creative arts-based curriculum, use a "pictorial introduction" to reading in the early grades in place of the more traditional reading skills and drills found in most schools. An administrator at one school where the curriculum takes a similar, less performance-based approach to early reading, once told us: "If you start teaching it any earlier, it looks as if all your boys have reading disabilities."

In short, the early age at which we teach reading favors girls, on average, and puts boys at a disadvantage. As a consequence, boys, on average, do not feel as able or as valued as the girls in the central learning tasks of elementary school. In therapy with boys, we frequently hear them describe themselves as losers or failures, even when they are developing skills at a pace that is normal for boys their age. Boys who struggle with genuine learning disabilities face even greater obstacles to school success, and their disheartening struggle as students easily comes to define their lives as boys.

Tags: Parenting and Families

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