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Boys lagging behind when school starts

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Boy in school uniform playing soccer alone in the school yard


Right from birth, boys and girls don’t begin life on the same starting block and how this impacts their development through the early years, their adolescence and then adulthood is a question researchers are trying to understand.

A report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), Australia’s children, finds boys are more likely to be developmentally vulnerable on school entry than girls across all Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) domains, but particularly emotional maturity.

This means boys aren’t as prepared for school as their female peers.

“If the AEDC didn’t show that boys aren’t developing as well as girls, I would be worried that it wasn’t accurate,” says Dr Sally Brinkman, Head of Child Health Development and Education at Telethon Kids.

“It is important to understand that it is considered biologically normal for boys to not develop as quickly as girls.

“It doesn’t matter what country in the world you are in, in those early years, boys will not develop as early as girls particularly on the social and emotional developmental areas.”

Dr Brinkman co-authored a South Australian study to understand how gender differences in early childhood influence outcomes later in life.

“Some researchers would say boys don’t catch up to girls on those social and emotional developmental areas until their teens,” she explains.

“But they will catch up and, in some circumstances, take over particularly in the areas of formal language and cognitive development and mathematic skills.

“There are lots of arguments around whether that is due to development or whether that is society and culture.

“Research is fairly clear that in those early years, before five years old,  the gender difference is more to do with biology and the brain, than culture.

“For example, in countries that are extremely male-dominated, girls will develop more quickly than boys in those first five years, but once they get into the school environment and that male-dominated culture kicks in, boys tend to take over more quickly than in societies that are gender-equal.”

Some researchers would say boys don’t catch up to girls on those social and emotional developmental areas until their teens. But they will catch up and, in some circumstances, take over particularly in the areas of formal language and cognitive development and mathematic skills.
Dr Sally Brinkman

Neuroscience versus culture

While the research found boys to be more developmentally vulnerable than girls across the board, the difference was greatest for emotional maturity.

Dr Michael Nagel, an Associate Professor in the School of Education at the University of the Sunshine Coast explains that at conception the brain of every child starts off the same,  but during the first trimester, with the introduction of additional male hormones triggered by a boy’s Y chromosome, this is when the brains of boys and girls start developing differently.

He explains that the brains of boys are hit with testosterone which is linked to inattentiveness, impulsivity, physicality and movement.

Testosterone can impact on serotonin which is primarily linked to processing emotions and acts as a calming mechanism.

For girls however, Dr Nagel explains that studies have shown that the female brain appears to be coded to grow more quickly across the hemispheres than boys, with the left hemisphere being slightly larger than the right, giving them the edge on comprehending and processing language.

“Girls will talk more and with greater fluency early in life and such differences are also due to the fact that the rates of maturation of the brain’s hemispheres are different between girls and boys,” he explains.

“Moreover, studies beyond those focusing on the brain tell us that females, as compared to males, typically have higher verbal IQs, greater proficiency in a range of language related tasks and abilities as well as superior verbal fluency.

“In practical terms, what all of this means is that girls talk more and with greater fluency than boys and this capacity is intimately linked to a girl’s emotional skill set.

“Neuroscientists believe that because the female brain is not immersed in high levels of testosterone in the womb, a girl arrives in the world better at reading faces, hearing human vocal tones and empathising with others.”

As for culture, Dr Brinkman explains that this will also impact a child’s development.

“There is lots of research that shows that parents, unknowingly, will stereotype what a normal activity is in terms of boys versus girls and what those gendered expectations are considering the culture that they are from,” she says.

Dr Brinkman adds that research has found that parents will talk to girls more than they will talk to boys, even before the child starts to speak.

“There are some interesting studies where parents have been given little books to read with their children,” she explains.

“In the book, the illustration is of a child climbing a tree, but you can’t actually tell if the child is a boy or a girl.

“Depending on the educational level of the parents, which parent is reading the story and depending on the gender of the child they are reading to, you get very different ways of reading that book.

“Low educated parents, and particularly male low educated parents, are far more likely to assume the illustration is of a boy climbing a tree, reverting to the stereotype that boys climb trees.

“Whereas if you have an educated mother, they will talk about their own childhood and when they climbed trees.

“This definitely has an effect on how children see themselves and perceive the world they are being raised in.”

Should we be doing things differently?

Dr Brinkman explains that we shouldn’t necessarily shift our focus to boys just because girls are doing better.

“People are starting to suggest we shift our focus to boys in the early years, but also in school and this gets us into dangerous territory,” she says.

“We don’t want to see one gender over another being supported through the education system, but rather the idea that boys and girls need different support at different times depending on what their developmental skills are at the time.”

She adds that girls doing better, before and during school, has impacts beyond our current knowledge.

“Australia is getting better at being a gender equal society and with that the social structure has supported female’s education, so girls are advancing through education much better than they used to,” she says.

“Development is cumulative, so the developmental advantage of girls in education means more women are entering university than before, and more women are completing their first degree than before.

“That then has impacts for society as we now have an increasing portion of educated women becoming parents and it will be interesting to see what that means for those children and their future.”