“Boys twice as likely to fall behind girls’ in early years”
18th July 2016
A statement released today from Save the Children saying that a quarter of boys in England – 90,000 – started reception class struggling to speak a full sentence or follow instructions is not new. Differences in the rates of development at different stages between boys and girls have long been known.
The report, based on a University of Bristol study, says children who start school behind often never catch up. The problem is not with the fundamental gender differences in rates of development (boys do catch up later on) but that the education system fails to recognise these biological differences and accommodate them. The findings also raise questions as to whether modern child rearing environments in which children have less physical space in which to play than previous generations, and spend more time engaged with e-media is having a greater effect on boys.
I wrote about some of the developmental gender differences in an article published in the spring edition of the Montessori International Journal in 2010. A transcript of this article is below.
Sally Goddard Blythe looks at the early development of both sexes and explores how the differences in boys’ needs can be nurtured in a positive way.
Boys and girls are different. Males, often viewed as the physically stronger sex are actually more vulnerable in the early years than females, suffering a significantly higher rate of spontaneous abortion, premature birth, infant mortality, a range of illnesses in the early years including ear, nose and throat infections and a tendency to be fussier and more irritable in infancy. They are also more likely to suffer from developmental disorders including autism, attention deficit disorder and dyslexia.
Greater susceptibility to this range of problems is thought to result from a combination of larger brain size and slower rate of maturation before birth, the presence of only one X chromosome and exposure to higher levels of pre-natal testosterone. Testosterone depresses the functioning of the immune system.
While girls appear to have advantages in the early years, the scales start to balance out at puberty, when girls’ growth and maturation slows down about two years earlier than that of boys’. By the mid-twenties many earlier biological developmental differences in learning outcomes level off provided that both sexes have enjoyed equal opportunity to develop in ways supportive of gender specific learning needs. Despite many recognised behavioural differences between the sexes, differences in the architecture of the brain are surprisingly small and are thought to result largely from pre-natal exposure to different hormones, particularly testosterone. The effects of small differences in hormonal environment increase with time and at different stages of development resulting in divergence in how the brains of boys and girls function.
The most profound difference between girls and boys is in the sequence of development of the various brain regions. A study published in 2007 demonstrated that there is no overlap in the trajectories of brain development in girls and boys showing that they develop different skills at different times and in different ways. These natural differences are reinforced by nurture, cultural expectations and experience. If genes and hormones set the scene, experience can amplify or diminish differences, raising the question: how can education foster and accommodate these different rates of maturation, needs and learning styles to bring out the best in both boys and girls?
What are some of the acknowledged differences between boys and girls?
(Note that these are general differences and there can be considerable individual variation on specific criteria.)
- Boys grow more quickly than girls from early on in gestation and male cells have a higher metabolic rate making them potentially more vulnerable to damage at stages of rapid proliferation.
- Boys have a slower rate of maturation in the respiratory and immune systems before birth making them more susceptible to illnesses in the early years.
- Boy’s brains are about 9% larger than female brains, but girls mature at a physiologically faster rate up to puberty.
- More boys than girls suffer fetal distress during the birth process and have lower Apgar scores at birth making them more vulnerable to damage.
- Newborn boys secrete more stress hormone in response to a surprising stimulus than girls, making them more reactive to certain stimuli.
- Girls are ahead of boys in the early aspects of expressive language, including use of gesture and first words (about 1 month earlier), vocabulary growth (about 2 months earlier in toddler-hood) and about 15% more verbally fluent than boys at 4 – 5 years of age. There is no difference in receptive language at 5 years of age.
- Boys are generally better at visuospatial tasks while girls are ahead in verbal skills.
- Boys are usually superior in strength and endurance in gross motor skills but slower at developing fine motor skills.
- Boys are physically more active and impulsive and less likely to calm themselves than girls.
What are the positive aspects of male differences and how can these be nurtured in the educational environment?
The male brain is wired to respond in external, rather than internal, ways. This can leave boys at a disadvantage in a school environment, when teaching focuses on the sedentary development of verbal skills at the expense of active learning. As early as kindergarten, kinetic, impulsive boys are told to sit down, be quiet, and do their work. Teachers are expected to provide a calm, controlled classroom, but boys tend to learn by doing and if activity in the classroom is suppressed they need to “let off steam” in other physical ways.
Regular physical activity can be introduced easily into the school day. The “Fit for Learning” programme is one example. Developed by Professor Pat Preedy and Chris Lees at a primary school in the Midlands, “Fit for Learning” enables teachers to break up learning sessions with physical activities. The sessions are led by teachers and require no preparation, minimum space and resources. Staff have reported significant improvements in children’s coordination, behaviour and concentration. These empirical findings mirror standard practice in other cultures such as Japan and Taiwan, where twice as many recesses are incorporated into the school day in the early years while educational attainment remains high.
Normal attention span is approximately equivalent to 3 to 5 minutes per year of a child’s age. Therefore, a 2-year-old should be able to concentrate on a particular task for up to 6 minutes, and a child entering kindergarten should be able to concentrate for 15 minutes. The longer a child has to sit still beyond his or her natural attention span the greater the amount of fidgeting, vocal activity and general disruption. In Finland, pre-school education pays particular attention to the physical needs of children, incorporating up to two hours of outdoor play into the preschool day enabling boys to work off their physical energy while encouraging girls to develop gross motor skills, resulting in a more level playing field when all children begin formal instruction in reading at 7 years of age.
Boys need extra encouragement to develop verbal skills in the early years, because reading ability grows out of spoken language. Language develops through use, not just through passive listening. “Sounding out” is an important precursor to being able to decode visual symbols phonologically and sounding out begins with speech, conversation, telling stories and singing. Singing, sometimes erroneously regarded as a “girl” activity can help prepare the voice, the eye and the brain for reading and is suited to boys because it involves active learning. Cathedral choristers provide examples of how regular singing can enhance every aspect of academic learning.
Physical readiness also plays an important part in a child’s ability to sit still, pay attention, hold and control a writing implement and to transfer thoughts via the motor system on to paper. While boys’ gross motor skills are generally more robust than those of girls, they tend to struggle for longer to master fine motor skills. Problems with writing can be minimised by separating the mechanics of writing from cognitive processing, teaching penmanship as one skill and encouraging them to talk about ideas and answers before putting them on to paper.
Rough and tumble play is also important for boys because it allows children to explore in creative ways and to test boundaries of strength and control without aggression. In ancient Greece, athletics and wrestling were important elements of a boy’s education, as control of the body was considered essential training for the mind. Wrestling was used to develop control of strength and of temper. All healthy young mammals engage in rough and tumble play and there is a correlation between the appearance of this type of activity and maturity in the frontal lobes of the brain which are involved in creativity, imagination, empathy, planning and self-control.
One reason suggested by leading scientist Jaak Panksepp for the increasing incidence of ADHD amongst children (particularly boys) may be, “the diminishing availability of opportunities for pre-school children to engage in natural self-generated social play. Pre-clinical work indicates that play can facilitate behavioral inhibition in growing animals, while psychostimulants (ritalin for example) reduce playfulness. The idea that intensive social play interventions, throughout early childhood, may alleviate ADHD symptoms remains to be evaluated. As an alternative to the use of play-reducing psychostimulants, society could establish play “sanctuaries” for at-risk children in order to facilitate frontal lobe maturation and the healthy development of pro-social minds”
These recommendations were confirmed recently by Dr Abigail Norfleet James, author of “Teaching the male brain”. Speaking at The International Boys’ Schools Coalition (IBSC) conference in central London in January 2010, she said that boys and girls have distinct skills, with boys generally being less verbal, having less acute hearing, slower perceptual speed and being less likely to be able to control their impulses. While boys generally have better spatial skills, more acute vision, they learn best through touch, are more impulsive, more physically active and are “movement orientated” throughout primary and secondary education.
If boys and girls are to have equality of opportunity in education, then education needs to take these small but significant differences in rates of maturation and learning needs into account from the outset. 
Durden-Smith J, de Simone D, 1983. Sex and the brain. Pan Books Ltd. London.
The NIH/NIMH study. 2007. Sexual dimorphism of brain developmental trajectories during childhood and adolescence. NeuroImage.36/4:165-173.
Eliot, L, 2009, Pink brain, blue brain. How small differences grow into troublesome gaps – and what we can do about it. Hougton Mifflin Harcourt. New York.
Knowle C of E School. Knowle. Solihull.
Goddard Blythe SA, 2003. The well balanced child. Hawthorn Press. Stroud.
Panksepp J, 2007. Can play diminish ADHD and facilitate the construction of
the social brain? J Can Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 16/2:57-66.
Norfleet James A, 2007. Teaching the male brain. Corwin Press. CA
Norfleet James A. Presentation at The International Boys’ Schools Coalition (IBSC) Conference. London. 19th January 2010.
Sally Goddard Blythe is Director of The Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology in Chester. www.inpp.org.uk and a consultant in neurodevelopmental education.
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