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Parent to Parent: Boys’ and girls’ learning styles often differ

Football players and firefighters all in one morning. What more could preschool boys want? More importantly, what do they need to be able to thrive in school?

More positive male role models is a good place to start. Toward that goal, Paul Nichols, first-year head football coach at Davidson College in Davidson, N.C., is encouraging his staff and players to be a part of their community, not just their team.

One of Nichols’ new assistant coaches, Diauntae Morrow, helped lead a class of 4-year-olds on a recent field trip to the fire department. There, volunteer firefighters shared safety tips, put on their gear and let the children see inside a firetruck. Some of the boys were enthralled both with the former football player and firefighters in ways their teachers don’t typically see.

“What number do you call if a fire breaks out?” one firefighter asked the kids. He provided his own answer: “You call 911, but only if you really need help. It’s not a game.”

Then he explained the familiar “stop, drop and roll,” instructing the children to “roll like a hot dog” if their clothing ever catches on fire. “Just keep rolling until the fire is out.”

He knew his audience: “Never go back inside your house, not for anything, not even for a stuffed Daffy Duck. If you have a pet inside, we will try to get it.”

As the firefighter donned his intimidating gear, he told the kids not to be afraid of him. “Think of me as a person in a fireman costume at Halloween,” he said.

A visit to the fire station may be a once-a-year treat, but the excitement of the children – especially the boys – is a reminder that different teaching strategies need to come into play to reach kids with different learning styles, especially those with behavior or learning problems.

Use visual aids, and find examples of your concepts that are relevant to the child. Go outside into nature, and provide space for students to spread out. Don’t rely on boring lectures as your default teaching tactic. Some ideas for breaking out of a teaching rut while engaging kids of differing abilities include:

• Use music. It can make a big difference for students with behavioral or learning issues. Rhythm, melodies and songs can help children memorize and learn.

• Combine music and nature, such as making a rainstick out of a cardboard tube with rice inside. Let a child who is having trouble controlling his impulses turn it over and over.

• Head outside – not just for playground time, but for hands-on learning.

Are you or your child’s teacher always saying “use your words”? Your daughter might be able to do that, whereas boys are often less verbal and may not be able to problem-solve with words as well. “The Minds of Boys” (Jossey-Bass, 2007) by Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens explains that, often, boys and girls learn differently. Here are some preschool classroom tips pulled from the book:

• Boys need lots of room to play. When confined in small spaces, boys often get frustrated and discipline problems occur. Watch a preschool classroom of boys and girls, and you’ll likely see that boys need more floor space and table space than many of the girls.

• Boys need books with lots of pictures, books that talk about how things work and how things grow, books about heroes, and books about things they can take apart.

• Boys need blocks of all sizes, small and large, as well as interlocking so they can build, tear down and build again.

• Boys tend to move between tasks more slowly than girls and need more time for transitions.

Parenting tip

A new resource for teachers is “Writing the Playbook: A Practitioner’s Guide to Creating a Boy-Friendly School” (Corwin, 2013) by educator Kelley King. King is a trainer for the Gurian Institute, which focuses on giving teachers new insight and strategies on gender differences in education.

Betsy Flagler, a journalist based in Davidson, N.C., is a mother and preschool teacher. If you have tips or questions, please email her at