When girls and boys of the same age get together, it is tempting to focus on the differences rather than the similarities in how they think and solve problems. The stereotype is that girls tend to focus on feelings and boys tend to focus on actions. While there is some research that supports this notion especially during times of stress [1, 2], it is not true of every child.  We must avoid intensifying stereotypes; otherwise, children may believe that some activities are not appropriate for them simply because of their biological sex. Parents are a big factor in helping children develop abilities in which they are interested especially if those interests contradict prevailing gender stereotypes. One little boy saw a man dancing on a children’s TV show and asked to take lessons. His parents encouraged him to take the lessons, even though he was the only boy in the dance class. Later the skills he learned from dancing helped him become an excellent soccer player. 

Verbal Skills

The average 20-month old little girl has twice the vocabulary of the average 20-month old boy. Because toddler girls begin to talk sooner and more clearly than boys [3] they have more practice. That earlier speech probably is the source of the stereotype that girls have better verbal skills. However, it is important to remember that boys will catch up later although if nothing is done to help boys improve, they may always seem like they are less verbal than girls. It is very important for boys to be included in conversations with parents and other family members. Girls are likely to have something to say, but boys may need to be encouraged.

Some verbal skills such as analogies appear to have a male advantage [4, 5]. One belief is that some female’s ruminative cognitive style leads them to consider every choice in an analogy and be more likely to change their answers [6]. Males were more likely to find the answer and move on. Remember, this will be true for many children but not for all. However, if there are problems in verbal ability, males are much more likely to be diagnosed with stuttering [7] and problems with handwriting [8]. There are some indications that boys have trouble with reading [8] although more recent information indicates that the problem is more obvious when a child is reading orally; on reading tests, boys and girls performed the same as long at the test did not require writing, an area in which boys had more trouble [8]. Some reading problems in boys may simply need time and reading to your son every night will help him more than anything else you can do. 

There is no difference in Males and females have similar verbal intelligence in spite of the fact that males are less likely to read for pleasure than females are. The problem is that by the time males have caught up to females in verbal skills, they may have never acquired the habit of reading and continue to believe that their verbal skills are not at the same level as those of females.

Spatial Skills

If women are stronger in verbal skills, men seem to have some advantage in certain spatial skills. One study found that 3- and 6- month old girls had more responsive left cerebral hemispheres and the same age boys had more responsive right hemispheres [10]. In right-handed individuals, the language center of the brain is focused on the left side while spatial skills are found in the right hemisphere.  Thus, the finding from Shucard & Shucard may help us to understand why a little girl will want to TELL you about something she is excited about, whereas some boys may prefer to SHOW you what they are excited about. A little boy will easily be able to learn to throw a ball and, since he is good at it, he is likely to throw other objects as well. If this is a problem, give him bean bags, soft foam balls, or other throwing toys designed to travel slowly and land softly. Girls may need somewhat more encouragement to throw. You can make a game out of it by helping your daughter to toss her toys into the toy box. 

Mental rotation, the ability to see dimensional objects in your mind and to be able to match the original object with a picture of a rotated view of the same object, is the primary spatial skill at which males are frequently better than females [11, 12]. A similar skill which shows an unmistakable male advantage is spatiotemporal tasks. Here, visual displays are moving similar to those in computer games [11]. If you want your daughter to learn the skills involved with computer games, you might begin by selecting games which involve strategies rather than quick reactions.

Perceptual speed is a visual task where girls have the edge. This task involves matching objects, pictures, and the like [4]. One area in school where this skill is important is in proofreading. Girls are better at finding errors than are boys. You can help your son learn this skill by playing “I spy” or doing puzzles which involve finding the differences in pictures.

Learning Differences

As a result of these and other brain differences, males and females approach the learning process from different viewpoints. Most girls will begin with words, either spoken or written, as their primary source of information. Boys, on the other hand, are more likely to learn better when they can manipulate or view the material. If a teacher begins a lesson by talking or by asking students to read, young boys may be less likely to understand the material. If a teacher begins a lesson by asking students to watch a demonstration or by having the students attempt a skill, some girls may find it difficult to understand what is asked of them. Neither approach is better than the other, just different.  You can help your children get ready for school by giving your son directions for a task and showing your daughter what you want her to do. In both situations, if your child is unsuccessful, point out where the problem lies and help your child develop the skills necessary to do the task.

A student who has trouble remembering or understanding what the teacher says is likely to be identified with an auditory processing problem. However, if a student has trouble retaining information from observing a demonstration, that student is rarely identified with a kinesthetic processing problem. Generally, verbal and auditory skills are identified as most important in the classroom. Students who learn in different ways, usually boys, may be identified as learning disabled even though they can learn very well using other modalities. Families can help all children prepare for school by providing learning opportunities with a variety of approaches.

Conclusion

How children learn is a major consideration in how well your child will do in school. Teachers pay attention to learning disabilities, to visual and hearing handicaps, to cultural issues, to language differences, and to a host of other factors that influence how successful children are in school. If you can help your child acquire skills which will enable her or him to read, write, and listen, you will be helping your child get ready for school.   

Steps Parents Can Take to Faciliate Cognitive Development in Boys and Girls

  • Females begin to talk sooner, but males will likely catch up with later support. To facilitate language development in your son, include him in conversations. Girls are likely to have something to say, but boys need to be encouraged.
  • Males are more likely to be diagnosed with language difficulties, including stuttering, handwriting, and reading problems. Read to you son every night to promote improved verbal abilities and reading habits.
  • Boys have greater activity in the portion of the brain associated with spatial skills. Indeed, boys are more likely to easily learn physical activities involving spatial knowledge. You can help your daughter to further develop her spatial skills by encouraging her to practice these skills, including tossing her toys into a toy box.
  • Boys' advanced abilities in spatial skills may be another reason why boys prefer video games more than girls. To inspire a girl with video games, select games that offer more strategy than quick reactions.
  • Perceptual speed is one spatial task that girls excel in. To promote perceptual speed in boys, suggest the use of find and identify tasks, such as "I Spy."
References
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  2. McClure, E. B., Monk, C. S., Nelson, E. E., Zarahan, E., Leibenluft, E., Bilder, R. M., et al. (2004). A developmental examination of gender differences in brain engagement during evaluation of threat. Biological Psychiatry (1047-1055).
  3. Kimura, D. (2000). Sex and cognition. Cambridge, MA: A Bradford Book/The MIT Press.
  4. Halpern, D. F. (2004). A cognitive-process taxonomy for sex differences in cognitive abilities. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13(4), 135-139.
  5. Hyde, J. S., & Kling, K. C. (2001). Women, motivation, and achievement. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 25, 364-378.
  6. Stumpf, H. (1998). Gender-related differences in academically talented students' scores and use of time on tests of spatial ability. Gifted Child Quarterly, 42(3), 157-171.
  7. Howell, P., Davis, S., & Williams, R. (2008). Late childhood stuttering. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 51(3), 669-687.
  8. Berninger, V. W., Nielsen, K. H., Abbott, R. D., Wijsman, E., & Raskind, W. (2008). Gender differences in severity of writing and reading disabilities. Journal of School Psychology, 46, 151-172.
  9. Shaywitz, S. E., Shaywitz, B., Fletcher, J. M., & Escobar, M. (1990). Prevalence of reading disability in boys and girls. Journal of the American Medical Association, 264, 998-1002.
  10. Shucard, J. L., & Shucard, D. W. (1990). Auditory evoked potentials and hand preference in 6-month-old infants: Possible gender-related differences in cerebral organization. Developmental Psychology, 26(6), 923-930.
  11. Hines, M. (2004). Brain gender. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  12. Linn, M., & Petersen, A. (1985). Emergence and characterization of sex differences in spatial ability. Child Development, 56, 1479-1498.