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.
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 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.
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."
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.
Originally published in the May 2011 issue of Parents magazine.