Why do boys fall behind in EYFS?

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By Helen Marriott
on 25 September, 2016

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Do boys learn differently to girls?

I often hear the statements ‘he is an August born boy,’ or ‘they are typical boys’ being used to explain the lower attainment of boys at the end of EYFS, especially in terms of Literacy (writing and reading) and to a lesser extent Personal, Social and Emotional Development (PSED).

There seems to be an acceptance of the differences between the sexes, which continues throughout school with a different emphasis at different times. For example, in secondary school, the difference between the number of girls versus boys doing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects is explained away by gender.

Is it time to look again at the reasons behind these differences and what we could and should be doing to support all children to achieve on a level playing field, and to achieve to the best of their ability. Whilst the issue continues throughout school, I will mainly be looking at the early years.

Gender Performance Gap - Recent Findings

The BBC recently published an article summarising a report by Save the Children UK that is based on a study by the University of Bristol. The report suggests that boys are ‘twice as likely to fall behind girls’ in the early years. This follows on from a report in The Telegraph (March 2016) that one in five children are behind in language development by the age of five. To put this in context, that is almost 130 000 children in England or about six in every reception class.

Some of the statistics shared by the BBC (referring to 2015) are startling and include:

  • 25% of boys (compared with 14% of girls) were unable to listen to simple instructions and answer ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions.
  • If pupils were in receipt of Free School Meals, the difference increased to 38% boys (compared with 23% of girls) not meeting the required level.
  • There were differences across the country. The greatest gap in EYFS scores being in St Helens, Merseyside (31% of boys and 14% of girls not meeting the expected level by the end of EYFS), whilst the narrowest gap was in Richmond upon Thames (11% of boys compared with 6% of girls). On average, there was nowhere in England where boys outperformed girls.

Looking behind the headlines there seem to be a few suggestions as to why this may be; biological factors, gender stereotypes and expectations.

Is there a biological reason?

Woolston looked at how boys’ and girls’ brains develop in the womb. Boys produce large amounts of testosterone in the womb; McCarthy, a professor of physiology in Maryland who studies early brain development reports that male babies are born with as much testosterone as a 25 year old male, which then plummets at birth until they reach puberty. Animal tests show that testosterone in the womb affects a developing brain bulking up the connections in some areas whilst paring down others. Girls make some testosterone, but considerably less than boys, therefore having minimal effect. They also make female hormones that seems to have little effect on brain development.

Changes between the sexes continue after birth, these include:

  • MRI studies show that some areas grow faster in male brains whilst others grow faster in female brains. Therefore, at the same age their brains may be at different developmental stages but they do eventually catch up with each other (although I could not find an exact age for when this happens)
  • Male brains grow bigger than girls’, although the significance of this is unclear
  • Some research has shown that the caudate (the area of the brain that helps control language and emotion) tends to be larger in girls
  • Other studies have shown that the corpus callosum (which connects the two sides of the brain) is larger in girls. One theory for this is that girls use both sides of their brains to solve problems
  • In male rats they have found the amygdala (the part of the brain that controls deeper emotions such as fear) is larger

Berenbaum explains, however, that young brains are extremely plastic and key regions grow and shrink depending on how they are used. It is important to note that these differences don’t necessarily mean that one gender will be better than the other at specific skills.

When tests were carried out on older children some differences were found, girls were better at memorising and reciting lists of words, and to a lesser extent better at tasks requiring finger dexterity and quick thinking. On the other hand, boys were more adept at spatial tasks. However, what I found more interesting and significant was the fact that in tests both boys and girls were equally competent at maths, which raises the issue that in later years, is the widening gap a result of gender stereotypes as opposed to a biological one?

Do gender stereotypes play a role?

Gender stereotypes have a significant effect, Seth wrote in ‘The real difference between boys and girls’ about her experiences as a parent raising a boy and a girl. She avoided giving any gender stereotyped toys and actively offered ‘boys’ toys to her daughter and vice versa. She quotes one study that found that when 18 month olds were shown pictures of a truck and a doll most girls went for the doll whilst the majority of boys went for the truck. Whilst 18 month olds may have been influenced by stereotyped gifts, other research suggests that these differences are evident even earlier, from birth.

Seth’s review of gender research suggests that boys like motion, move more, become more agitated and find it harder to self soothe, enjoy being in larger groups and are comparatively fearless. On the other hand, research found girls were more likely to mimic, develop fine motor skills, be more attuned to human voices, more likely to establish and maintain eye contact. This range of skills are all key to early communication and therefore girls start using gestures, understand what is being said and will talk more through the toddler years  with the gap beginning to narrow at 2 ½ years. The Save the Children report refers to earlier research suggesting that girls are more likely to develop persistence, independence and flexible thinking. These attributes and behaviours are key skills to enable them to learn.

Parental and teacher expectations

Parental and teacher expectations also have an impact, an article in the telegraph in March 2016 highlighted the discrepancy between what parents expect their children to do and what they are able to do. A survey asked parents of 2 and a half year olds how many words their child ought to know. 47% of parents believed that their children ought to know 100 words or fewer whilst in reality an average child’s vocabulary would be six times that at that stage of development.

If we have low expectations of children, at home and school, they will often live up, or should that be down, to them. I fear that in classrooms the expectations placed on children are increasingly high and some children will struggle to meet all of them all of the time. However, I also believe we are too quick to excuse whole groups of children for example ‘he won’t take turns, he’s autistic’ or ‘they don’t need to sit for the story, they are EAL,’ rather than look at their individual needs.

How does all of this impact in the classroom and what can we do to best support the children we work with?

All of these studies are general and there are issues with ethics in setting up control groups when using children. A Norwegian study in 2015 revealed that in kindergarten (the children studied were between 30 and 33 months old) girls were more interested in language activities than boys. This in turn means that boys may receive less linguistic stimulation and be less prepared for school than girls. The great thing about children is their differences and there will always be those who prefer to play/carry out activities associated with the opposite gender but all of these children are still well within the norm.

If we accept that there are differences, whatever the reason between the way and rate that boys and girls learn, is it fair that we make no allowances for gender? As we become more aware and better educated about different learning styles for SEND, we make adaptations for individual learning needs. These adaptations, at present, are still on a relatively small scale. Should we be making larger more general changes to adapt to the way boys and girls differ?

At present, when I go into schools I usually find changes being made for gender are around writing and it is normally about ways to encourage boys to write, which may be by putting writing activities outside or in the construction areas. In the past we have tried separating different groups, SEND, EAL to be supported in separate classes but recently they have been reinstated into mainstream classes with support on the side. Is this how we are currently supporting boys, would they be better served in single sex classes with different methods of teaching? Having done a quick literature search on the academic and social results of boys and girls taught in single sex classrooms as opposed to mixed sex classrooms there seems little, if any consensus; maybe something to considered in a future blog…

One thing that all the studies I found agreed upon was the importance of catching children in the early years and the importance of good quality teaching and learning at that stage. One described the early years of a child’s life as a ‘light bulb moment’ in which essential language and communication skills are learnt, potentially shaping the course of their whole lives. Recently I was fortunate to be trained as an ELKLAN trainer, which involves training staff working with children to help develop fundamental communication skills (receptive, expressive, vocabulary, memory etc.). I have spoken to staff using this approach and they have described how they have seen the real benefits to developing language skills in classroom situations using the skills they learnt on the course, as opposed to always removing children for interventions. Please get in touch if you would like to know more.

Ending on a positive note, having recently been involved in the Early Years moderation process I was fortunate to visit over 30 schools where I met a great group of practitioners who knew their children’s individual needs, and did the best they could with a range of outstanding and varied methods to support all learners. I think the key message from all the research I have read and practice I have been involved in and/or seen, is that we need to continue our good practice of embracing and supporting all individual children’s strengths and learning styles and support each child as an individual, regardless of gender.

For more information around the topics raised in this article, or for support developing language and communication skills in the early years, contact Helen Marriott on 0844 967 1111.

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