How boys and girls learn differently

How boys and girls learn differently



“My favorite times of the day are lunch and P.E.”

“The hardest parts of my day are P.E. and lunch.”

If you had to guess, which gender would you say made each of these statements?  Before we give the answer away, let us give you a little background on who we are.  We’re both counselors with more than 15 years of experience working with kids and families.  That means, over the years, we have sat with thousands of kids, literally, between the ages of 5 and 15.  And, hands down, the majority of boys love lunch and P.E.  And the majority of girls don’t.

There are a few basic reasons for this phenomenon…having to do with the emotional and physical differences in boys and girls.  The reality is that their school experience is significantly different.  Therefore, their learning during the school day is significantly different.  To be more specific, boys and girls have profoundly different styles of learning.  As Leonard Sax, MD, PhD, author of Why Gender Matters and Boys Adrift has said, “There are no differences in what girls and boys can learn.  But there are big differences in the way to teach them.”

So, let’s start with the girls.  A girl’s brain has several advantages that make the classroom setting easier for her.  It involves things like her hippocampus and the amount of serotonin being produced in her brain.  But we’ll let David get to those as he discusses how we can specifically be aware of boys.  She also has more oxytocins being secreted in her brain from her earliest stages of development, which is often considered the nurturing hormone.  The limbic system of her brain is more developed, enabling her to have more complex emotions than her male peers.

Basically, what all of this means is that she will be able to listen better for longer periods of time, and sit more calmly in her seat as she does.  She will not be as easily distracted as she learns.  But, if there is one area in which she will be distracted, from the time she enters school, it will be in the arena of relationships.  Enter the issue of P.E. and lunch.

For girls, these unstructured times at school can be quite daunting.  For many girls, much of her time spent in the period before lunch is consumed by thoughts—not of math, but of “Who can I sit with at lunch?”  Being chosen or not chosen on a team for P.E. creates tremendous amounts of anxiety, yet those are the ideal times for boys during a school day.

God has hard-wired your daughter with a profound desire to connect.  She longs to please you, as her parent, most of all.  But she will also really want her teacher to like her.  She’ll want to have friends and be included.   Because of her development, by the time she starts school, she will be experiencing a complex array of emotions, many of which will be tied to her perception of her connection to the world around her.

Because of the prevalence and power of emotions and relationships in her life, they can be used for good or for evil.  As previously mentioned, many girls who are struggling in school do so because they feel lost and isolated socially.  On the other side, she will learn better in an environment in which she can work with others.  Small groups are a great setting for girls to learn.  She will also understand concepts better when they are tied to some type of context.  Stories help anchor ideas for her.  She will write better if she’s able to talk about the subject beforehand.  She’ll retain information as she can connect it to some type of personal narrative.  She’ll want to understand the history of why Van Gogh painted a certain painting, rather than just simply look at the painting.  Girls learn and thrive in the context of connection and relationship.

Her counterpart is a very different animal!  He is hard-wired for activity and movement.  As we continue to examine the role of neurochemistry, we know that from the earliest moments, his brain secretes less serotonin, which is directly related to impulse control.  He has less of an ability to regulate his impulses throughout the academic day. In addition, the brain stem in your son houses more spinal fluid, which is a part of what makes him so physical.

As if those weren’t enough strikes against him, research tells us that a little girl’s frontal lobes grow at an earlier stage and are generally more active.  Our frontal lobes inform our executive decisions.  Put simply it’s why girls tend to think first and act second, a very logical series of events.  Boys tend to act first and then think later.  These factors help us understand why boys account for 80-90% of discipline problems in school.

This active, physical, impulsive creature needs space to move and move and move.  The school day requires him to sit and sit and sit.  Thus why he counts down to P.E. and recess, two periods of the academic day that we’ve sadly stripped down to a matter of minutes in most school settings.  He desperately needs breaks throughout the day that allow for activity and movement.

As for his learning style, boys start out primarily as tactile and kinesthetic learners.  He loves to touch, feel, build and explore with his hands.  As they grow, boys are primarily visual, spatial and experiential learners.  A high percentage of content throughout his day will be presented in an auditory format.  He desperately needs those who teach, coach and parent him to remember the very way that God designed him.  He needs us to accompany auditory instruction with visual content.  Because girls outperform boys in written and verbal expression, he benefits from periodically having the option to present a report by acting out a character, building a model, or creating a cool video that demonstrates his knowledge of the content more than a written book report may do.

When we correct or instruct him, he needs us to limit our words.  Too often we end up sounding like Charlie Brown’s teacher – “wah, wah, wah.”  Equally, he benefits from our appealing to all of his senses.  When we address him, gently touch his shoulder, speak his name if he seems to be drifting off, and make eye contact with him.

When he comes home from a long academic day, or if he’s spent an extended period of time at a table or desk while home-schooling, he needs a chance to move – to go outside and shoot some hoops, ride his bike or take the family dog on a walk.  We know that movement primes the boy brain for optimal learning.  Something as simple as 60 seconds of jumping jacks by his desk before a test can potentially alter the outcome.

Understanding these basic differences -the study of development -is a vital part of the journey in caring for these remarkable gifts God has given us to steward.  Studying their hardwiring allows us to parent more in tandem with their design, ask better questions, partner more effectively with their teachers, honor their uniqueness, and pray with more purpose.

5 things you need to know about your daughter.

  1. She is relational. Much of life will be viewed through this lens and she needs help processing the complexity of this.
  2. She will be hard on herself. Research shows that boys, when they fail, are more likely to blame others, while girls are more likely to blame themselves.
  3. She is strong verbally. Use this to help her talk through her emotions and perceptions.
  4. She needs to be encouraged to have a voice. Girls can easily shrink back in school settings because of their fear of what others’ think.  Help her find her confidence and voice.
  5. She will see herself through your eyes. Encourage her at every opportunity.

 5 things you need to know about your son.

  1. He is relational too. But eye to eye can feel threatening to him.  Sometimes our best conversations happen side by side (walking the dog) or while engaged in a task (shooting hoops, building Legos).
  2. He needs you to catch him being successful. He may spend much of his day being told “stop that, don’t, no,” or “quit fidgeting.”  Catch him being helpful, focused, obedient and kind.
  3. He is an experiential learner. Rather than lecturing him about fighting with his sister, simply name the behavior and tell him he will “give back” to her now by taking a daily chore of hers.
  4. He is weak in the ability to regulate. Help him develop this muscle by waiting until you finish a phone call, returning library books on his own and standing in line patiently, etc.
  5. He will benefit from breaking things down – doing homework with a timer for 15-30 minutes and taking an active break or finishing one chore and reporting back to you before being instructed on the next one.

To hear more on this subject, David Thomas will be speaking on the topic of  Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys at Brentwood Academy on Oct. 24  from 7 – 9PM. For the calendar of Parent Seminars and speaker bio’s go to

Sissy Goff & David Thomas are the Director of Child and Adolescent Counseling and the Director of Family Counseling at Daystar Counseling Ministries.

Resources by Sissy Goff, David Thomas, & Melissa Trevathan:

Raising Girls

Wild Things:  The Art of Nurturing Boys

Are My Kids on Track:  The 12 Milestones Your Child Needs to Reach

Intentional Parenting

About The Author

Related posts