Alex was a typical active, exuberant 5-year-old boy, but his preschool teachers didn't approve of his energetic personality. "They worked hard to calm him down," says his mom, Susan Giurleo. "The teachers didn't appreciate his busyness and thought his academic abilities were below average, even though he knew all the colors, the entire alphabet, and how to count to 100." As a child psychologist, Giurleo was reasonably sure that her son didn't have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), yet Alex continued to have behavior and performance problems at school.
Lots of boys do. Statistically, they're at least four times more likely to be expelled from preschool than girls, and they're twice as likely to be diagnosed with a learning disability or to be held back at some point during their education. Girls rule in today's classroom. On average, they have outperformed boys in standardized reading and writing tests for years and have recently caught up to boys in math and edged ahead in science. Indeed, the gender achievement gap grows over time. Boys lag in almost every subject by middle school and are four times as likely as girls to drop out by high school. Now, more than 58 percent of all U.S. college students are women, who obtain the majority of associate's, bachelor's, and master's degrees.
Why are boys being left behind? In part, it's because they start out at a disadvantage. "Three out of every four boys in a typical kindergarten class are more physically active and developmentally immature than the girls are," says Parents advisor Michael Thompson, Ph.D., coauthor of It's a Boy! But schools (including many preschools, which have shifted their emphasis to academics rather than teaching social skills) may require students to quietly complete worksheets rather than let them run around and play. This trend has made the classroom a far less friendly place for boys. Understanding the obstacles in your son's academic path is critical for helping him thrive -- now and in the school days ahead.
Boys are less mature than girls.
Thayer Allyson Gowdy
Studies have revealed intriguing differences between girls' brains and boys' brains at age 4. In general, a girl's frontal lobe, the area that monitors impulses, is more active than a boy's and matures at an earlier age. Female brains are also coded to secrete higher amounts of serotonin, a brain chemical that fosters self-control. "Generally speaking, girls begin school with a greater ability to maintain focus for extended periods of time and to follow multistep directions," says David Thomas, the director of counseling for men and boys at Daystar Counseling Ministries Inc., in Nashville, Tennessee, and coauthor of Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys. "Boys are more likely to drift off in thought or become restless." While boys' ability to concentrate improves by age 8, their sustained focus typically lags behind that of girls until adulthood.
Boys have more trouble sitting still.
Thayer Allyson Gowdy
Boys seem to be hardwired for activity in a way that girls aren't. As a result, staying seated is a far more challenging task for a young boy than for a girl of the same age. In fact, half of 5-year-old boys are incapable of being attentive for more than a 20-minute stretch, according to Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D., author of Boys Adrift.
Boys also possess noticeably higher levels of dopamine, the chemical that helps direct both body motion and the flow of information within the brain. A study in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology suggests that movement improves boys' working memory, especially among those with ADHD. Male brains typically enter a period of minimal activity (known as a neural rest state) more often than female brains, so fidgeting and wiggling around may actually help boys learn.
Boys need more time to learn how to read.
Thayer Allyson Gowdy
Odds are, you were taught how to read in first grade. Today, though, children are typically expected to master that skill by the end of kindergarten. While the literacy standards have changed, the nature of kids hasn't, and the push toward early reading seems to be impeding boys more than girls. Why? The parts of the brain that process words develop more slowly in boys than in girls. A large study at Virginia Tech University, in Blacksburg, found that a typical 5-year-old boy's language area is comparable to that of an average 3?-year-old girl. (By contrast, the brain region tied to math and geometry matures a bit earlier in boys than it does in girls.)
Pushing boys to read before they're biologically ready can do them more harm than good. Girls often become the classroom stars in the early years, whereas many boys struggle to keep up and become frustrated. "The acceleration of the early-elementary curriculum has soured a lot of young boys on school," Dr. Sax says. "By age 6 or 7, many of them have decided that it's a waste of time."
Try this blueprint for boys.
Getting your son off to a good start in school remains the best way to help him secure a bright future. To find the optimal setting and work with his teachers to create opportunities for success, follow these suggestions.
- Seek out a boy-friendly preschool. Ask the director to define the school's philosophy. Since boys tend to learn best by doing, an "academically rigorous" approach is probably not as good a fit for your child as a "play-based" environment. To get a true picture, visit the classroom in action. "You want to see the boys building things and looking happy and productive," Dr. Thompson says. Ideally, the teachers will find fun ways to introduce skills to help children develop the fine motor skills they'll need for handwriting. For instance, Judy Ronzani, director of the Sonshine Patch Preschool in Janesville, Wisconsin, has the boys thread bolts and twist small screws onto a wooden board that has holes drilled in it. "It's a fun, boy-friendly way to develop the muscles that are used in writing," she says.
- Ask about recess. Free play gives kids an opportunity to burn off excess energy while fostering important social connections. It also helps boys, in particular, develop self-control and can help boost their memory and language capacities, according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, a child-advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. While many districts are reducing or even eliminating recess in the name of academic progress, Dr. Thompson recommends that schools expand it to twice daily to benefit boys' learning.
- Let your child follow his passion. Whether it's dinosaurs, trucks, or baseball, odds are your son is fascinated about something. Nurture his hobby by checking out books on the subject as well as visiting museums and libraries, building models, and watching documentaries. Your son will pick up valuable language, math, science, and social-studies knowledge, and he'll become a more self-motivated learner. You could even suggest some ways that the school might be able to incorporate his special interest into the curriculum.
Susan Giurleo, whose son, Alex, was struggling in preschool, ultimately decided to switch him to a different program, where he's doing well. She's impressed by his new school's flexible approach, including the fact that once his teacher found out that Alex loves monster trucks, she brought in books about them to read to the class.
- Give him downtime. Though you want to encourage your child's education at home, resist the urge to practice reading or letter-writing right after school. After a long day in the classroom, boys need some time to run around and play. "Let your son climb, throw, bike, or shoot hoops -- whatever he needs to do," Thomas says. Giving him a chance to move will also increase his alertness when it's time to work.
- Resist early labels. High-energy, emotional boys are easy magnets for the ADHD label. But doctors and psychologists warn that it's often difficult to accurately diagnose this disorder in children under 6, since their attention span at this age isn't naturally long anyway. If your son's teacher expresses concerns about his behavior or attentiveness, ask her to be specific. Squirming during a long lesson isn't nearly as concerning as if he displays an inability to follow directions, constantly talks out of turn, or displays dangerous, impulsive behavior (such as running into the street after a ball during recess). Your child's doctor can help you separate normal boy behavior from a potential problem and, in the case of ADHD, can recommend a helpful course of action to minimize its effects.
- Consider waiting an extra year. "Redshirting," the practice of holding off for an extra year before starting kindergarten, has become an increasingly common way to give kids an academic and social edge. And it might make perfect sense for your son. Talk to his preschool or day-care instructor to gauge whether he's poised for the next step. If he plays nicely with other children; displays an interest in books, letters, and numbers; and can focus on a puzzle or a drawing for at least five minutes, he's probably ready. Should you decide to wait, don't worry about his falling behind his peers. "Education is not a race," Dr. Sax says. "The goal isn't to see who can do something first but to develop a love of learning. If that means allowing a 5-year-old boy another year to lie on his back and look at the clouds, so be it."
Originally published in the May 2011 issue of Parents magazine.