Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Health & Parenting

Font Size

How Boys and Girls Learn Differently

Does your son's fidgeting and wriggling mean he’s checked out at school? Don't worry -- he's perfectly normal.
By
WebMD Magazine - Feature
Reviewed by Roy Benaroch, MD

Shortly after my son started his first year of elementary school, I asked him to name his favorite subject. "Basketball," he answered without skipping a beat. "Everything else is boring."

Declarations like this -- "I like recess and P.E. best!"-- from young boys about their school experience sometimes raise concern for parents. But according to Michael Gurian, co-founder of the educational research and training Gurian Institute and author of The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons From Falling Behind in School and Life, they shouldn't. Parents should actually take these words as a clue about how their child learns. "What they are saying," Gurian says, "is, 'If you want me to learn well, you have to understand how my brain and body work when I learn.'"

Boy Brains and Girl Brains

Studies show that boys learn differently than girls. Brain scans tell part of the story. In general, more areas of girls' brains, including the cerebral cortex (responsible for memory, attention, thought, and language) are dedicated to verbal functions. The hippocampus -- a region of the brain critical to verbal memory storage -- develops earlier for girls and is larger in women than in men. "That has a profound effect on vocabulary and writing," Gurian says.

In boys' brains, a greater part of the cerebral cortex is dedicated to spatial and mechanical functioning. So boys tend to learn better with movement and pictures rather than just words, Gurian says.

"If teachers let boys draw a picture or story board before sitting down to write," he says, "they'll be better able to access color and other details about what they are writing. They can access more information."

There are also biochemical differences. Boys have less serotonin and oxytocin -- hormones that play a role in promoting a sense of calm -- than girls. That's why it's more likely that young boys will fidget and act impulsively. "Teachers think the boy who can't sit still and is wriggling in his chair and making noise is being defiant," Leonard Sax, MD, author of Why Gender Matters and Boys Adrift, says. "But he isn't. He can't be quiet.”

Sax says there are no differences between boys and girls in terms of what they can learn. "But there are," he says, "big differences in the way to teach them."

Helping Boys Learn

Sax and Gurian say parents can work with teachers and schools to best support their boys' educational needs.

Move it. Children should be allowed and encouraged to move around while they do their work. Leg tapping, standing, and doodling while kids read, write, or take a test -- activities often seen as distractions -- can help many boys learn.

Wait a year. Kindergarten is much more academic than it was 40 years ago. "We're asking 5-year-olds to do what 6-year-olds used to do," Sax says. Although opinions vary, some boys with a fall birthday may benefit from delaying school an extra year. Consult your boy's teachers before deciding.

Get outside. Confirm that your son's school offers playtime in the yard (many new schools are being built with no playgrounds) and that even on bad-weather days he'll have free time outside. Research shows that kids learn better after recess.

Reviewed on March 25, 2011

Today on WebMD

Girl holding up card with BMI written
Is your child at a healthy weight?
toddler climbing
What happens in your child’s second year.
 
father and son with laundry basket
Get your kids to help around the house.
boy frowning at brocolli
Tips for dealing with mealtime mayhem
 
mother and daughter talking
Tool
child brushing his teeth
Slideshow
 
Sipping hot tea
Slideshow
Young woman holding lip at dentists office
Video
 
6-Week Challenges
Want to know more?
Chill Out and Charge Up Challenge – How to help your tribe de-stress and energize.
Spark Change Challenge - Ready for a healthy change? Get some major motivation.
I have read and agreed to WebMD's Privacy Policy.
Enter cell phone number
- -
Entering your cell phone number and pressing submit indicates you agree to receive text messages from WebMD related to this challenge. WebMD is utilizing a 3rd party vendor, CellTrust, to provide the messages. You can opt out at any time.
Standard text rates apply
Which Vaccines Do Adults Need
Article
rl with friends
fitSlideshow
 
tissue box
Quiz
Child with adhd
Slideshow