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Boys vs. Girls: Catering to both genders in elementary school

When it comes to learning methods, boys and girls are not created equal. While both sexes are able to master a range of material, the ways in which they learn can vary greatly. Understanding the brain-based differences in male and female students is an important way for teachers and parents to help every child succeed.

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From getting boys reading to embracing children's need to move, teachers and education experts weigh in on the best ways to teach boys and girls in elementary school.

Getting boys and girls engaged

Take a moment and think back to your elementary-school days: did you prefer digging in the dirt, or listening to a teacher lecture about soil? Many young students lack the attention span and physical control necessary to sit still and passively absorb information, so teachers must keep learning active. Active engagement helps all students connect with material, but it is especially important for boys.

"While there are dangers to gender stereotyping, in general, boys seem to learn best when learning is active and engaging," says Pam McComas, EdD, the director of an independent elementary school with over 40 years of experience. "Girls seem to be able to tolerate more routine and more sedate activities."

Teachers can keep material engaging for both genders by including variety and choice.

"Vary the formats for learning," McComas says. "Mix cooperative group work with individual practice, whole group instruction and individual conferencing or coaching."

Allowing students to learn through a variety of formats caters to different genders and learning styles. For example, boys are generally stronger at abstract reasoning and enjoy doing math problems on paper, while girls tend to learn better using manipulatives such as area tiles and pattern blocks. One-on-one conferencing also benefits both genders by allowing the teacher to connect with the individual needs of each student.

Katherine White, a K-5 Spanish teacher in northern California, adds that giving students choice regarding their assignments allows both boys and girls to connect with material.

"In order to include both boys and girls in the classroom, teachers should allow for student choice," White says. "The use of learning centers, for example, where students are able to choose which topics they are most interested in, allows students to study an area of interest in depth. When students are given choice, they feel as though they are playing an active role in their education and are oftentimes more engaged in the subject-matter."

However, offering students choices at home and in the classroom means teachers and parents must be prepared to respect their students' decisions. Some literacy experts worry that boys are falling behind in reading and writing because many schools ban stories that include violence on any level.

When asked if zero-tolerance policies ostracize boys who prefer action-packed stories, McComas replied, "Yes, to an extent. Because there are many more women in elementary education than men, schools seem tipped toward behavior standards and literary tastes of women teachers."

Gus Sartorius, however, a male elementary-school teacher with 18 years of experience, believes that boys can appreciate literature in the classroom without welcoming violent themes.

"Boys have many opportunities outside of school to indulge their interest in [violent literature]. I have no problem with maintaining certain standards for curriculum-based learning at schools," Sartorius says.

Physical activity and learning

While violent stories, graphic novels and other alternative literature remain controversial, educators and researchers agree that physical activity boosts children's brain power.

"There was a trend in education to cut recess time in elementary schools to once a day, at lunchtime. That kind of thinking is so misguided," McComas claims. "Moving is important to all children, boys and girls. When students come to class after physical activity, their focus and mood are improved, they are less fidgety and tense and they feel invigorated. It is like priming our brains to process information."

Both boys and girls need opportunities to be active, but some elementary-school boys need more physical activity than their female counterparts. According to the article "Boy Trouble?" by Peg Tyre, a journalist specializing in social trends and education, students who exhibit a disruptive inability to sit still are disproportionately male. These boys are not consciously misbehaving or trying to interrupt a teacher's lesson, they simply haven't gained control of their growing, energetic bodies.

Rather than punishing students for fidgeting, teachers and parents are advised to give them opportunities to move around. Often, a child who can't sit still will be more than happy to help distribute worksheets, erase the board or take a fellow classmate to the restroom. Weaving physical activity into the classroom setting helps meet the needs of the most active students and limits disruptions to the rest of the class.

With inclusive classroom management strategies and an understanding of children's need to move, teachers and parents can create an environment that suits students of all genders and dispositions.

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