How Boys’ Learning Styles Differ (and How We Can Support Them)

Boy doing homework in classroomI was convinced that Joe Smith—not his real name, of course—wrote his letter V’s wrong in the second grade, and I thought it helpful to inform him of such. After all, he needed all the help he could get, and I thought, as a precocious 7-year-old girl, I had a monopoly on how to craft the most beautiful V on paper—how clueless could Joe be, after all?

Much has been written in recent times about how learning styles are different, neurologically, between girls and boys. As a mother of two boys, this subject matter has come to the forefront in my own household and, in fact, smacked me in the face on occasion (metaphorically speaking). Eons past, I recall being able to sit (with ease and no second thought), criss-cross-apple-sauce, and keep my hands to myself during circle time. What was the problem with these darned, squirrely boys who just couldn’t sit still and wiggled and squirmed, waiting with bated breath for recess?

Well, fast-forward 35 years and enter my life as a mother of two boys. What a wake-up call it’s been! What an honor, privilege, and learning process it has been, and continues to be, to nurture, guide, and educate my precious boys. I am so sorry to Joe Smith and for my judgment of his V’s! Humor me with the following, if you are reading this, dear Joe.

Our culture at large needs to do more to support boys and their unique hardwiring in educational settings. Although my sons have the advantage of great teachers and a nationally respected school district, the structure of our educational system does not favor boys’ unique learning styles. For those with financial and geographical barriers to accessing educational support services (tutoring, etc.), the circumstances are much more grim. We, as a nation, are failing our young men in the area of educational support. And we need to change that.

Studies utilizing PET scans and MRIs show that boys learn very differently than girls. One of the pioneers studying gender learning-style differences, Michael Gurian, reports several key factors differentiating girl/boy learning:

  • Boys show more areas in the brain dedicated to spatial-mechanical strengths, whereas girls generally demonstrate a focus on verbal-emotive processing.
  • Girls are generally hardwired to be less impulsive, enabling them to sit still, focus, read, and write at an earlier age than boys.
  • Boys are often misdiagnosed with learning disabilities and attention-deficit issues when educators are not aware of the delicate neurology of the male developing brain.
  • Boys’ brains need more rest times during a day of learning. When bored, boys tend to “zone out” more than girls and require rest periods before reengaging in learning.
  • Boys are hardwired to be single-task focused, whereas girls’ hardwiring demonstrates strength in multitasking. Transitions are more difficult for boys due to this lateralization of the brain versus typical female cross communication of brain hemispheres.
  • Less oxytocin in the brain of males leads to more aggression and playful rough-housing. Girls, on the other hands, are more predisposed to cooperative negotiation, have a much easier time with impulse control, and can sit “criss-cross-apple-sauce” in the reading circle with ease. Many boys have a difficult time sitting still to hear the teacher’s story, as they are movement-driven (kinesthetic) in their learning process (research and findings cited from Gurian, 2006).

It is no surprise that in one study by Gurian (2005), 75% of students in a special education classroom were boys. The vast majority of special education student populations are, in fact, boys. This finding is curious in that it highlights the following: Boys are diagnosed with learning disabilities at a much higher rate than girls due to possibly 1) educational settings that do not support boy-friendly learning environments, 2) boys’ neurochemistry is different and more vulnerable than that of girls, thus indicating the need for adequate educational support for both boys’ and girls’ learning styles, and 3) evidence of hyperactive behavior is more prevalent in boys, thus, perhaps, a bias more toward referral to special education for boys (Hallahan and Kauffman, 2003).

Taking into consideration the many variables that affect learning style, including culture, family environment, resilience, and temperament as it relates to motivation, genetics, and uterine environment during gestation, among other factors, researchers recommend the following tips for ensuring a boy-friendly educational environment:

  1. Boys are energized and motivated by movement. Teaching styles which encourage the experiential/kinesthetic learning modality support boys’ natural biochemistry, helping them to stay engaged and focused. My son’s magnificent teacher sings with her class and plays guitar; she discovers earthworms and creates ice castles with her students. She is amazing. I only wish all boys could have Mrs. Overstreet as their teacher.
  2. Spatial-visual tools (pictures/graphics) assist with boys’ neurological needs in achieving literacy. Storyboards depicting images a boy is imagining can assist with translating story into words.
  3. “Boys do their best work when teachers establish authentic purpose and meaningful, real-life connections.” (Gurian, 2006). Topics of learning particularly interesting to boys include ideas they can directly apply to their lives (science projects involving the germination of a seed, etc.).
  4. Single-gender groupings for projects can be beneficial. Girls tend to verbalize during problem solving via cooperation and interactive learning. Boys are single-task driven neurologically, and enjoy a gentle banter that may include a camaraderie of innocuous, aggressive male bonding in the form of sarcastic (but innocent) put-downs and/or rough-housing (kinesthetic bonding not unlike playing football or karate).
  5. Allow boys to choose topics in reading that appeal to them (superheroes, nonfiction works, etc.).
  6. Ensure the presence of positive male role models (teachers, parents, extended family, tutors, community leaders, etc.) who emphasize the importance of education.
  7. Parental assistance with homework accountability. Help your son stay organized by overseeing weekly assignments and highlighting the importance of a designated homework time after allowing for kinesthetic movement and discharging of school-day stresses.

The above suggestions are by no means exhaustive but are applicable in educational settings, meriting further consideration to support boys in their journey toward self-confidence, purpose, and authentic contribution to society.

As a mother of two boys, I am both honored and obligated to ensure that my sons have the most appropriate supports to guide and engage them in their formal education. Much change is needed to help our future generations of boys to emerge from grades K-12 with confidence as they follow their dreams into adulthood.

For more on boys’ learning styles, please see:

  1. Gurian, M. & Stevens, K. (2005). The Minds of Boys: Saving Our Sons from Falling Behind in School and Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  2. Gurian, M. (2006). The Wonder of Boys. New York: Tarcher-Putnam.
  3. James, Abigail Norfleet (2007).Teaching the Male Brain: How Boys Think, Feel, and Learn in School.

© Copyright 2013 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Andrea Schneider, LCSW, therapist in San Dimas, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • erik

    February 11th, 2013 at 2:54 PM

    it hurts to see some kids being diagnosed wrongly because simply they do not conform to the mainstream and not necessarily because they have a problem. here it is about an entire gender, half the total population. as long as our educational system is rigid and does not allow for any room such misdiagnosing will continue.

  • emery

    February 12th, 2013 at 11:16 AM

    “Boys do their best work when teachers establish authentic purpose and meaningful, real-life connections.”

    hmmm. . . don’t you think that this quote is true when applied equally across the board to all students?

  • Andrea Schneider

    Andrea Schneider

    February 12th, 2013 at 10:35 PM

    Thanks for your comment, Erik…and Emery, you may want to read up on Gurian’s work (list at the bottom of the article)…as he writes specifically about this topic and supports the quote :)

  • Laney

    February 14th, 2013 at 4:00 AM

    My son has had teachers who have run the gamut from great to terrible.

    But the best one that he had and the one that I still think that he got the most from was the teacher who said he could move around when he needed to and manipulate the things that he needed to in class to help him learn best. It was unconventional but th teacher was willing to accept it, the other kids were fine with it, and my son had the best school year ever just because this teacher was willing to reach out to his learning style and think putside of the box a little. And not make us feel like this had to be a bad thing!

  • simi

    February 15th, 2013 at 10:08 AM

    all children don’t learn the same or thrive with the same things nor should we expect them to- focus on their strenthgs and not their weaknesses and you will find something good in everyone

  • 5boysamommyandabean

    June 19th, 2013 at 8:29 PM

    Thanks for this consise article. I went straight to Amazon and bought these books. Thanks!

  • Mary

    August 21st, 2014 at 11:03 PM

    … It’s the video games that depleting these boys brains if dopamine and the inevitable adrinaline crash. How can a boy learn when he just finished doing the most enjoying activity of his l

  • Gerald L.

    November 23rd, 2014 at 11:11 PM

    boys bounce and move a lot!

    Girls giggle and can sit still much longer!

  • Timika

    May 13th, 2015 at 2:37 PM

    cool, thanks

  • Jennifer B

    August 8th, 2016 at 2:41 PM

    As an occupationsl therapist, SI practitioner and Floortime coach I agree that boys need more rough, tumble and doing to engage and learn. Any tips on how to persuade parents and educators to allow boys to be boys?

  • Andrea Schneider, LCSW

    Andrea Schneider, LCSW

    August 15th, 2016 at 4:23 PM

    @Jennifer B — thank you for your comment. There is an excellent article in the NY Times: which addresses how exercise helps young brains to learn. It’s all about changing things on a systemic level, which is difficult…but I would recommend copying articles such as the one I am providing, that show evidence of physical exercise as benefitting brain health and academic growth — Andrea :)

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