Learning development of girls and boys

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At a glance

How the gender of your child can impact on their attainment at school – and what you can do to nurture your child’s learning and keep them motivated.

Gender differences

It is often assumed that girls and boys are hard-wired from birth to develop in different ways. But scientific studies have actually found that there are more similarities than differences when it comes to how girls and boys develop mentally and how they learn new skills.

But, on the whole, girls are more likely to be talkative, self-motivated and able to empathise with others – and more likely to have better verbal skills, which help them with reading and writing.

Boys, on the other hand, are more likely to be impulsive, competitive and less able to empathise with others. However, they tend to develop superior spatial skills which help with maths and science. Mental rotation of an object or image is a good example of a spatial skill – it gives you the ability to interpret graphs, maps and technical drawings.

Impact on learning and attainment

It’s widely agreed that girls generally start talking earlier than boys, and use more complex vocabulary. When they start school, most girls have slightly better verbal skills than boys - on average, they are a month or two ahead.

As they progress through primary school, girls continue to outperform boys when it comes to verbal skills. By the time children leave primary school, girls are about a year ahead with reading and the gap is even bigger for writing. However, boys are roughly level with girls when it comes to attainment in maths at primary school.

In recent years, girls have consistently been outshining boys in most subjects at GCSE level. Education experts believe this could be down to the element of coursework involved. Girls, on the whole, prefer continuous assessment and outperform boys in this area of the exam.

The gap in attainment at the age of 16, has led some teachers to believe that single-sex lessons in core subject are the way forward when it comes to motivating male students and improving boys' grades. They argue that boys, for instance, feel less demoralised in subjects like literacy when there are no female students in the classroom to compete with.

Others believe that girls and boys thrive best when the opposite sex is taken out of the equation completely - and advocate a single-sex environment, especially at secondary school level.

Some schools believe that a male presence – whether it is a male teacher or more involvement from dad at home – is a key factor in motivating boys and improving their grades. Others advocate a more ‘boy-friendly’ environment at school, whether it’s stocking more books in the library that appeal to boys or trying out different teaching styles in lessons to engage boys in learning.

Motivate and encourage your child

Your child’s education doesn’t just stop in the classroom. You played a central role in their learning development before they went to school and you’ll continue to be a primary role model throughout their school years. There are plenty of ways to help nurture your child’s learning and keep them motivated.

If your child seems to be struggling with their schoolwork, talk to them about it. Did they find a particular lesson or piece of work difficult? Suggest that they ask their teacher to go through the work one more time with them (explain that their teacher will be happy to do so). If it’s a lack of confidence, and a general feeling that they’re no good at a subject, lots of reassurance and encouragement should help.

If they are primary-aged and struggling with reading or writing, ask their class teacher how you can best help your child. Perhaps their teacher could recommend some short, fun activities you could do together at home or a selection of suitable and appealing books you could read with your child.

And, if you’re a dad, and your son is struggling, a male role model (like you!) helping him with his learning at home, could be just the boost he needs.

If your child is at secondary school and dealing with all the normal teenage anxieties on top of struggling with their studies, they may just tell you they don’t want to talk about it. Explain that you also found some subjects difficult and you want to help if you can. Again, lots of encouragement can go a long way.

But if you feel you're not the best person to talk to your teenage son or daughter about their schoolwork, ask for help from someone else your child trusts - this might be a teacher they like, a close family friend or a relative.

And finally, you might want to consider the option of an incentive to get your child back on track – it could be anything from a small treat for a younger child to a bit of extra pocket money for an older child. Having a reward for their efforts might just prove to be the best motivator.

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