Using brain science to explain learning barriers

Dr Michael Nagel.

By Melissa Grant

Do boys and girls really have different learning needs?

Child development expert Dr Michael Nagel believes so, and has written two new books to give teachers and parents greater insights into why that’s the case.

Drawing on the latest brain science, the books focus on the neurological differences between the sexes and what they can teach us about educating and raising boys and girls.

Released late last year, Oh Boy … Understanding the Neuroscience Behind Educating and Raising Boys explains what is really going on inside the head of a boy. It explores aggression, learning difficulties, behaviour, emotional problems, toxic masculinity and the challenges of technology.

It’s A Girl Thing … Understanding the Neuroscience Behind Educating and Raising Girls explores female aggression, self-esteem, relationships, emotional problems, peer-contagion and the challenges of technology.

Both Oh Boy and It’s A Girl Thing offer solutions and ideas for parents and teachers to get better learning outcomes for boys and girls.

Dr Nagel says the books aren’t about suggesting one gender is better than another.

Rather, they are about helping those involved in educating children understand that there are some behaviours that happen for a reason.

“Males and females share more similarities than differences,” he told Kids Today.

“But the differences that do exist are very pronounced and can have a huge impact, particularly on individuals at a young age.”

According to Dr Nagel, boys often get in trouble for fidgeting and being impulsive in the classroom when they aren’t wired to sit for long periods of time.

“We know that movement actually stimulates the mind for males and females alike. For boys, it’s almost a biological imperative. The irony is a lot of boys come into class and are often asked to sit for long periods of time in ways that just don’t feel natural for them.”

He said boys can also get frustrated when they are unable to do something in class.

“One of the things that boys are exceedingly bad at is being able to explain why they are struggling or why they are having problems, because for boys not being able to do something is not good.”

Dr Nagel says that while girls tend to do well on most measures academically, there is a point where social and emotional development can impact their learning.

“As girls hit puberty and adolescence they tend to form very close relationships with one or two individuals and when things go wrong, they can really go wrong,” he said.

“So social and emotional development (in girls) is probably more of a concern for parents and teachers than anything else rather than academic and scholastic.”

According to Dr Nagel, when puberty kicks in girls tend to jump into areas of relational aggression or ‘aggression in pink’.

He believes that how girls and boys express aggression is important for learning outcomes.

And while boys are more likely to express aggression physically, girls tend to show more relational aggression. This aggression can be in the form of spreading rumours or causing others to be isolated from their peers.

“There were a lot of girls that were doing very poorly at school and who identified that they had been bullied, but no-one had picked up on that because they would go to class and just be quiet,” Dr Nagel said.

Dr Nagel said there were strategies teachers could use to accommodate for gender differences in learning, citing an example of a teacher who had students do exercises for 5-10 minutes at the start of classes to help the boys settle down and be ready to learn.

“She found if she did that, when they got into class, they weren’t as restless,” he said.

Oh Boy … Understanding the Neuroscience Behind Educating and Raising Boys and It’s A Girl Thing … Understanding the Neuroscience Behind Educating and Raising Girls – have been published by AMBA Press and are available in bookshops and online.