A look into research on learning differences between boys and girls is enough to confuse any parent. Years ago, research showed schools were leaving girls behind, catering to the spatial learning abilities naturally found in boys. Then, research suggested schools were failing boys, as proven by their higher rates of mood-managing medication and lower SAT participation rates.

Today, many experts suggest that while there are learning differences between the genders, there are just as many differences within the genders. Each student learns differently and has his or her own set of strengths and weaknesses.

But that's not to say the topic of gender-based learning differences should be ignored. Single-sex classrooms are a popular choice among parents looking for the right fit for their child, and teachers in public and private schools alike take gender (as well as different learning styles) into account when developing lesson plans.

Washington Parent talked to D.C.-area experts and educators about what they see as either inherent or environmental differences between the genders. Their answers ran the gamut, but several differences surfaced again and again, with research and observations to back it up:

  •   Boys are more likely to be diagnosed with learning disabilities, including ADHD, and exhibit signs earlier.
  •   Boys tend to lag behind girls in language, attention and fine motor skills, especially in lower grades.
  •   Girls are more likely to struggle with spatial learning, including math.
  •   Girls are more likely to exhibit signs of anxiety or depression due to schoolwork.

Learning Disabilities

First grade classrooms are full of boys who poke the seat in front of them, blurt out during lessons and squirm in their seats. Unsurprisingly, boys are diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, at a rate of roughly two times that of girls.

Maureen Loftus, the executive director of LearningRx Tysons, which focuses on brain training to help students overcome learning disabilities and cognitive weaknesses, says it's a problem she sees often with parents who come into the center.

Learning challenges are often identified earlier in boys, she says, because they're more open about it. They can't sit still in their seat and are often less reluctant than girls to turn in incomplete homework assignments.

“Boys are much more brazen about it,” Loftus explains. “They'll have 45 missing assignments, but they'll still go to class. Girls would rather skip class than go to that class missing so many assignments.”

Girls may very well have a learning disability, too, but they often try to hide it, she says. And because their learning disorder is less likely to be related to hyperactivity, it goes unnoticed until later on in schooling.

She says many girls come through the center at turning points in schooling, such as the transition from elementary to middle school.

“All of a sudden, the bar gets raised, and they can no longer compensate for their learning weakness,” shes says.

Pamela Tedeschi, an educational consultant with a practice in Chevy Chase, says most psychologists can diagnose ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and ADHD in children by grade 3, if not earlier. If a child is struggling in school, consider having him or her tested for a learning disability to determine the root of the issue.

Early Education

With boys often maturing slower than girls in the areas of language, attention and fine motor skills, they're at a disadvantage during the early years of education, many experts say.

“Our lower schools and elementary schools are designed for girls,” Tedeschi says. “They can sit longer, and they have better fine motor skills at an earlier age. … Kindergarten used to be for milk and cookies and socializing, and it's really not like that anymore. Today, many kids end kindergarten knowing how to read, and that's fine, but it doesn't work for everybody.”

Boys, in particular, may struggle in lower grades because their brains aren't developed enough to grasp the concepts of reading and writing. Compounded by an inability to sit still for as long as girls, and you've got a sizable disparity between genders, says William Stixrud, a clinical neuropsychologist in Silver Spring.

Stixrud argues that the “shifted goalpost” of teaching first-grade material in kindergarten isn't paying off in the long run. Whether a child learns to read at age 5 or 7 doesn't have a substantial impact on reading ability later in life, he says.

“Schools are increasingly not structured to support boys very well,” he says. “ … Boys need kindergarten programs that are singing- and play-oriented. And they need male teachers who can support that.”

At the all-male Landon School in Bethesda, teachers are aware of these differences, says Marcos Williams, the director of the school's Center for Teaching and Learning Resources. In the lower school, teachers work hard to create an atmosphere that establishes reading as something “cool,” and verbal scripts are emphasized to pave the way for reading.

As for boys' need to move, the school has come up with some creative solutions, he says. Besides frequent breaks that allow the boys to go outdoors, some classes offer Pilates balls as seats or standing desks to children who prefer them.

Spatial Learning

While girls' strong verbal and auditory skills give them an advantage early on, some research suggests spatial learning develops faster in boys. There are plenty of exceptions to this rule, experts say, but it's something to be aware of in classrooms.

“Boys tend to be stronger in visual processing,” says Loftus, of her observations at LearningRx. “They tend to be stronger in the more concrete things—math facts and those types of things—and they struggle with the more conceptual. But I've got girls in here who are strong in math and science and reasoning, too.”

Each school handles this differently.

At Landon School, the math curriculum is advanced starting in third grade, with the belief that the boys are more capable of handling accelerated math instruction at an earlier age.

At nearby Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, girls are encouraged to pursue math and science careers with textbooks that promote strong female images. Hands-on laboratories help form connections to the real world, and collaborative learning groups add to the experience, according to Maryann Will, a middle school learning specialist with Stone Ridge.

Meanwhile, at St. Stephens and St. Agnes School in Alexandria, the school is coed with the exception of middle school math and science. When the two schools merged in the early 1990s, educators opted to keep those areas separate because of research out of Harvard that suggested it was beneficial.

Algebra I teacher Gail Johnson says she sees a marked difference between the behaviors of each class. For instance, on the day she handed out graphing calculators to boys, they instantly started touching the buttons and experimenting. Girls were a little more timid they each named their calculators and by the next day, they were in love, she says.

Johnson says separating math and science classrooms allow both groups to excel. Girls aren't overwhelmed by the boys' competitiveness in class, and boys are pushed to collaborate rather than compete. Both classes are held to the same standards and given the same tests, she assures.

Anxiety

Research suggests the amygdala, the center for human emotion, is more developed in girls, causing them to experience more anxiety related to learning.

This can manifest itself as stress, anxiety, depression and eating disorders, Stixrud says.

Before puberty, the rates of depression and anxiety disorders are about even. After puberty, the girls are much more at risk, he says. In fact, Stixrud says he talked to a pediatrician about the issue, who told him many of the girls who attend the most elite high schools in the area tended to be on anti-depressants and anxiety medication.

“I think we need to recognize that girls have more vulnerability to being stressed,” he says. “ … Boys won't work five or six hours a night on homework. Girls will.”

Stixrud and others say many girls have an inclination to want to please their teachers. They are more open about their emotions and will get outwardly upset if they don't receive the grade they were hoping for.

Johnson, the Algebra I teacher of single-sex classes, says since she started at the school nearly 20 years ago, she has shifted from comforting girls who didn't receive the grades they wanted to giving them her “Can you take a punch?” speech that was formerly a staple in the boys' classroom. She hopes by changing the culture, she can help the girls accept that mistakes are a part of learning.

The key is to create a low-stress environment while still pushing a student to develop personally, Stixrud says. Placing pressures on keeping up with other students with different strengths and abilities, or on getting into the most elite colleges, puts an unnecessary burden on the student that won't help him or her to grow.

The Bottom Line

There is so much yet to be discovered about the inner-workings of the human brain. Teachers should be aware of individual learning styles, which very often differ from the stereotypical strengths and weaknesses of genders.

However, knowing what researchers see as the major gender-based learning differences can help teachers and parents understand why a child might learn the way he or she does.

“Even if we haven't quite pinpointed all the differences in the brain, if you see differences in their behavior, you need to be accommodating to that,” Stixrud says.