Does gender really matter, if you’re a six-year-old boy?

Sigmund Freud popularized the notion of the “latency period.”  According to Freud, children from the age of 5 until the onset of puberty were more or less gender-neutral.  For girls and boys in elementary school, according to this perspective, gender doesn’t matter much.  Only after the onset of puberty, in middle school and high school, does gender become salient.

Or so Freud and many others believed.

They were wrong.   The world’s largest study of brain development – conducted primarily by investigators at the National Institutes of Health – has demonstrated that the trajectories of brain development are profoundly different in girls and boys.  These differences are just as evident in 6-year-olds as they are in 15-year-olds, and in many ways more pronounced than the sex differences between the brains of adult men and women.  In other words, sex differences in brain development tare more substantial for 6-year-olds than they are for 30-year-olds.  You can read the full text of the 2007 update of the NIH/NIMH study, at no charge, at this link (PDF; Adobe Acrobat required).

This study and others (reviewed in chapter 2 of my second book Boys Adrift) demonstrate that in the language areas of the brain, the brains of many 5-year-old boys look like the brains of 3- or 3½-year-old girls.  Many boys mature at a different developmental pace than most girls do, not because boys are dumb, but because boys are different.  Why does that matter?

In the past 20 years, there has been a dramatic acceleration of the early elementary curriculum, beginning in kindergarten.  In most kindergartens today, children are expected to do what 1st-graders were expected to do in previous generations.  In many American kindergartens today, children are expected to sit for long periods doing paper-and-pencil exercises.   In some ways it's analogous to giving scrambled eggs to a baby (see my previous post).  You're subjecting the boy to a stress which may not be developmentally appropriate. 

The result, too often, is boys who are bored, boys who are not engaged in school.  It’s easy for these boys to be (mis)diagnosed as having attention-deficit disorder, because they are NOT paying attention.  But not every deficit of attention is attention-deficit disorder.  I have personally been involved in many cases where boys who have been diagnosed with ADHD were able to be outstanding students, motivated to learn, WITHOUT MEDICATION, when parents moved their son to a school where teachers understand how girls and boys learn differently.

In my second book Boys Adrift I go into considerable detail about what constitutes a “boy-friendly classroom.”  For most elementary-school-age boys, that means at minimum:

1.       The teacher is seldom standing still, but usually moving – from the front to the very back of the classroom, and side to side. 

2.       The teacher is speaking in a louder tone of voice (but NOT shouting or yelling; the classroom must always be a safe and nurturing place).

3.       The teacher is frequently interrupting herself to ask questions of students, to make sure that they are on the same page.  “Jason, can you please summarize what we’ve been talking about here?  No?  OK, Richard, can you help him out?  Summarize what I’ve just been saying the past few minutes.”

There’s much more information about best practices for a boy-friendly classroom – such as what kind of competitive formats work and which don’t – in Boys Adrift.  I also discuss some of the special advantage of all-boys classrooms in the book.

Bottom line:  If your son is struggling in elementary school, and the teachers say that he has ADHD and needs medication:  first, make sure you understand the risks and benefits of these medications, which I discuss at length in chapter 4 of Boys Adrift.  Second, visit the school and talk with the teachers.  If there’s a bad fit between the needs of the school and the educational needs of your son, the solution should NOT be to put your son on prescription medications.  Drugs should never be the first step.  The first step should be either to change what’s happening at school so as to accommodate your son’s needs . . . or to find a different school, one where teachers have more training and more understanding of how girls and boys learn differently.

Leonard Sax, MD, PhD
Executive Director, NASSPE
19710 Fisher Avenue, Suite J
Poolesville, MD  20837
Telephone: 301 461 5065