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

How Boys' Learning Styles Differ (and How We Can Support Them) | GoodTherapyI 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 hand, 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 that 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, Learning Difficulties Topic Expert Contributor

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

    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

    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 :)

  • lynn o.

    November 25th, 2016 at 9:21 PM

    I know this way of thinking was so accepted by many teachers and educators in the past. I hope now we have moved past this idea and into a much more effective way to understand the Male Crisis.. We so need to see how differential treatment or more aggressive and less supportive treatment given boys by parents, teachers, others from as early as one year of age is hurting boys. We need to see our average stress as composed of “many maintained layers of anger, fear, anxiety, preparation for defense, along with needs and a multitude some incorrect, hurtful weights and values that act as magnets for other layers in their lives. The very treatment given boys to make them tough is creating many harmful things for boys. Boys and Girls begin very equal, but due to much differential treatment: more aggressive treatment and less support for boys from parents teachers, and others to make them tough and not be seen as helping them too much from old world, we are inadvertently creating higher maintained average stress, a much lower social vocabulary, and much more social emotional distance from parents, teachers, other adults. This is creating may socially created problems (not genetic): more activity for stress relief; higher muscle tension that hurts handwriting; much lower social vocabulary that when combined with higher average stress, creates much more mental work for reading. The communication skills for boys with teachers is also much less due lack of experience and fear of adults over time along with more fear of communication in general due to more aggressive treatment.

    The much better treatment we as girls receive helps us so much in the information age. As girls we are treated much better and enjoy more hope and care from society. Since we as girls are given by differential treatment, much more continual, positive – mental, social/emotional support, verbal interaction and care from an early age onward, this creates quite the opposite outcome for girls when compared with boys. We enjoy much more care and support and care from society from infancy through adulthood and receive love and honor simply for being girls. This creates all of the good things. We enjoy lower average stress for more ease of learning. We enjoy much lower muscle tension for more ease and ability in handwriting and motivation to write. We enjoy much more positive, trust/communication from parents, teachers, peers, and more support for perceived weaknesses. We are reaping a bonanza in the information age. The lower the socioeconomic bracket the much more amplified the differential treatment from infancy and more differentiated over time through adulthood. In lower socioeconomic environments, there is also a kind of more set in place, attention, support and care for Female children as a kind of love and affection catharsis for girls. Such kindness would “almost never be given to boys”. Now with girls and women taking over many areas of society, we are enjoying even more lavishing of love and honor from society, while the boys and men are now failing more so and are now given even more ridicule and abuse by society. Mind you, this is also now coming from many girls and women using our still protected freedoms of expression and more so with false feelings of superiority.

    We are slowly creating a two class society of haves and have nots by gender due to this very differential treatment. I feel this will lead to a very large increase in violence toward women as Males begin to act out even fatalistically reclaim lost feelings of self-worth in society. We must provide our boys with the same support and care to prevent this.

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  • Joe

    December 15th, 2021 at 7:27 AM

    Great article, great understanding and i agree, I wish all boys could have teachers like the ones you praise in this article. I am 60, the youngest of 7 from a second gen immigrant farming family in Texas. My Dad was an alcoholic because of radiation poisoning in WWII stacking decaying bodies in Hiroshima. I LOVED the safety and male role models at school. I have raised 2 sons, not perfect as from 2 different marriages, but helped to raise tens of thousands through teaching/coaching here in Texas. From 1984 until now, 2021, the change in boys is so evident. Society, especially schools, are to blame. Those boys from families that understand can cope so much better. But unfortunately our families are breaking down at a fast rate and schools aren’t allowed to operate as they did in the 80’s. There are single moms raising boys that are very concerned. In my 36 years i have tried to assist when possible. This is one of those hidden problems because many times reaching out for help is an admission that something is wrong with your son. Often, advice is sought from female friends or relatives who may have the same questions. Many times, males are sought for advice, but their onnly point of reference is their own childhood which is often skewed from their perspective. The FEAR that is pervasive in todays society also is detrimental to a boys development because it stops them from being able to explore and learn by doing. Boys, and men, are so much like dogs. If people, especially women who are great at raising dogs, understand this, then they will understand boys (men) . We and dogs like 4 things 1-competition (sports, movement, cars etc..) dogs like to play/wrestle other dogs. 2-Food (when boys smell food, food is all that matters and energy is important if we are constantly competing) dogs are the same which is why they will overeat which is why so many pet dogs suffer from diabetes and FATNESS. 3-Pack(boys like being in a group because of competition and the feeling of companionship and team that fills emotional needs) dogs love being in a pack where quick fights often occur until an Alpha is determined. We love order. 4-Girls (for young boys this doesn’t become a factor until 10-13 unfortunately with technology this is forced into the mind through porn and other media which destroys rational thinking in males) dogs while a female dog is in heat will forget about 1-2-3 to pursue 4. I am in the process of beginning a site where i can hopefully help single moms who need advice. I do this in honor of my mom Verna who was a first generation Ukranian immigrant who was the BEST mother a boy could have. I know the majority of moms want to do the best and in todays world, the father is absent, or there just mentally absent from their role as father. Being a mother, especially to a boy, is the most difficult job in the world. God bless you.

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