Elevating Executive Function for Boys

Two Things Missing in All But a Few of Our Schools

For the most part, our nation’s educators spend much, if not most of their time and resources determining what academic subjects our children will learn and experimenting with methodologies for how such content will be taught.  To be sure, academic content and teaching strategies are important factors in education but they are by no means the only variables that determine a quality education.

Not by a long shot.

Most educators tend to take a broad brush to academic content and teaching techniques, assuming children and young people who have common intellectual capacities and language learn the same way and that the mastery of academic subjects is the end goal in the educational process. Both premises are dead wrong.

The First Missing Part

Let’s start with the first missing part in most schools’ programs today: The gender factor in educating children.  For one thing, boys and girls learn differently, despite having a common intellectual capacity and/or language. The difference stems from differences in the biology of boys’ and girls’ brains. Put one way, boys are wired differently than girls. Which means, as a society, we are not doing our best to educate our youth when schools insist on putting boys and girls together in a common learning environment.   Put it another way: Boys think, learn and act differently than girls.

Several findings from credible studies of the human brain in recent years show that male brains are more often at rest in the brain stem which tends to prompt a physical “fight-or-flight” response when threatened. That’s in contrast to the limbic system of a female’s brain that tends to favor communications, rather than physical responses in such situations. Boys’ have a larger amygdala – a strange and hard-to-pronounce word that describes the part of the brain that processes anger and fear and prompts more aggressive behaviors.

Boys’ brains tend to have a larger cerebellum, resulting in better sensory perception, coordination, and motor control as well as higher levels of spinal fluid.  The effect is better messaging between the brain and body, resulting in quicker movements but less control of impulses on the part of boys.

On the other hand, the limbic system in boys’ brains has fewer connections to verbal processing, resulting in boys typically using less emotion-based descriptive language when responding to stressful and highly emotional situations.

So, What Helps Boys Learn Better?

These and other neuroscientific findings tell us that boys are more physical, aggressive, impulsive, competitive, mechanically inclined, and less communicative than girls who tend to be more efficient multi-taskers, communicative among other behavioral characteristics. Now, let’s talk about what boys need, both in terms of their physical learning environment as well as how best to teach them. 

Michael Gurian is an author and authority in single-gender education whose institute bearing his name trains schools’ faculties and staff on boy-friendly teaching strategies. Some of what his findings have shown may seem at first to have little to no impact but that’s not the case. The findings that follow have proven to be effective guideposts in the Gurian Model Schools where the recommended learning environments and teaching strategies are in place. 

  1. Boys are visual learners. They require more and varying visual stimulants to keep them interested than do girls. They need to literally draw or in some way, symbolize or illustrate their thoughts before they start writing in order to be more expressive and detailed in what they write. They also tend to learn by doing through designing and making projects.
  2. Boys need a short break during class so they can stand up, stretch, and exercise in place. This transitions their brain from a resting state to one that is more prepared to learn.
  3. Boys’ eyes function best in bright settings and natural light. Weather permitting, boys classes can be more effective conducted outside during the day.
  4. Boys need to stand rather than sit for lengths of time. For example, stand-up desks with a swinging foot rests allow boys to move about enough during class for their brains to remain in an active mode.
  5. It’s no secret that boys have more behavioral problems than do girls. While physical activity stimulates their brains and manages impulsive behaviors, the fact is boys need different approaches, such as these and others to further manage their classroom behaviors.
  6. That segues well into at least two other problems that arise for boys in a coeducational classroom – distractions that occur when boys pay more attention to girls than pursuing learning and fear of failure. Boys are more willing to take risks in their quest to learn if they feel safe from the fear of failing in front of the opposite sex.
  7. Boys like to compete, so learning strategies in the class that allow them to do so are very effective.
  8. Boys respond well to both relevant and novel information in the classroom. Designing projects with this in mind is beneficial.
  9. Boys are more likely to thrive in structured environments where teamwork, expectations and direction are firmly in place in their classes and organizational activities. Programs such JROTC and extra-curricular community service opportunities help respond to their need for structure and teamwork.

It goes without saying there are boys who do succeed in coeducational environments.  But one can only wonder how many more boys could excel if the learning environment and teaching practices through which they learn were tailored to respond to what makes boys’ brains different that those of girls. 

Effective Learning Goes Beyond Just Acing an Academic Course

Our society’s problems in educating young people reach beyond the gender-based education needs in our schools to include how we define what is effective learning. There’s much more to the learning process than simply taking an academic course, cramming for the final exam and even acing the course. How many times do we hear students say something to the effect that “I forgot everything I learned in that course a week after the final exam.”

“Executive Function & Self-Regulation,” a paper written by Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, lists three skills that are crucial for learning and development. They help (children to) plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. The skills and the comments contained in the study are listed verbatim in boldface along with additional comments added to those in the study.

  1. Working memory governs our ability to retain and manipulate distinct pieces of information over short periods of time. We would add that it goes beyond memorizing lists of dates, names and facts and regurgitating them on a test. It is key to the ability to digest new information.
  2. Mental flexibility helps us to sustain or shift attention in response to different demands or to apply different rules in different settings. Adding to that, mental flexibility involves learning how to apply grit and resiliency to challenges, to get along with others, work as a team, and mentor others.
  3. Self-control enables us to set priorities and resist impulsive actions or responses. Some other obvious benefits, not included in the Harvard study, include working under clear policies, managing anger and stress, learning how to make good decisions, set goals, and manage time.

Children are not born with these skills. However, they are born with the potential to develop them through their relationships with adults and the conditions of their living environments — their homes, early childcare and education programs, and other positive settings they frequent on a regular basis. As learning environments, schools are ideal settings for these skills to be embedded in the curriculum.

Sadly, that’s only the case in a relatively few schools where leadership and character development programs teach these development skills in a single-gender learning environment that takes into account that boys and girls learn differently.