How Boys and Girls Learn Differently

Does your son's fidgeting and wriggling mean they have checked out at school? Don't worry -- they are perfectly normal.

Medically Reviewed by Roy Benaroch, MD on March 25, 2011
3 min read

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.'"

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."

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 they'll have free time outside. Research shows that kids learn better after recess.