What are the social, emotional, intellectual and physical differences between early years boys and girls, and how does this affect their attainment in school? Reception teacher Steve Mynard discusses boys’ attainment and SEAL

Last year, the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) published Confident, Capable and Creative: Supporting Boys’ Achievements. Targeted at practitioners in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS), the booklet states that ‘the qualities and skills that are most valued by schools, the ability to communicate orally and represent ideas on paper, are often the very aspects of learning that boys find most difficult.’ Of course, not all girls are ‘compliant and passive recipients of new skills and knowledge’, to quote the booklet. Nor are all boys ‘active learners and problem solvers’. In fact, inter-gender differences outweigh gender differences in some areas.

The publication of this booklet coincided with publication of the 2006-7 Foundation Stage Profile Results for England. These showed that girls continue to out-perform boys in all 13 assessment scales. The gap can be as much as 17% (in the case of writing) and is often around the 10% or 11% mark. A Rowntree Foundation Report published in 2007 found that these early gender differences reflect a pattern that can continue right up to 16: boys outnumber girls by 20% as low achievers at GCSE.

Boys and girls are different, and these differences are affecting attainment. An understanding of these differences, therefore, can help practitioners to meet the needs of all children.

Emotional differences
Around the age of four to five, some very interesting changes take place in children’s ability to understand, control and express emotions. At this age, children acquire the ability to alter their emotional expression. They may feel hurt on the inside after a disagreement, but they smile and say it doesn’t matter. Feeling one way and expressing it in a different way is known as ‘display rules’. Girls seem more adept at developing these skills.

There is evidence that a group of neurons in the portion of the brain called the amygdala have a strong influence on emotions, particularly on the memory of emotional reactions. There are some physiological differences between boys’ and girls’ brains, both in the amygdala and in the connection between the amygdala and cerebral cortex, which is responsible for thought and communication. This appears to be why girls become more emotionally competent than boys at an earlier age, but it does not explain why boys don’t always improve these skills as they mature.

Intellectual differences
Research into the physical structure of the brain may go some way to explaining differential attainment, too. Girls have consistently shown an advantage over boys in verbal abilities and this is related to differences in the organisation of the brain. Girls acquire language earlier than boys and have a greater ability to concentrate for longer during a conversation. Girls have better memories and can retrieve information more quickly from the memory. Boys tend to be more visually and spatially aware, so that they are better at throwing and catching, for example. They are better at mental manipulation of images, which may benefit problem solving, design and construction skills. There is also evidence that different rates of hearing development are more likely to benefit girls.

Physical differences
Gross motor skills such as running, jumping and climbing tend to develop slightly faster in boys. Fine motor skills including the ability to hold and use a pencil develop faster in girls. This may be one factor in giving girls an advantage in school, where written work is more highly valued in assessment tasks.

Supporting boys
I have just completed a very enjoyable year teaching a Reception class in a large village school. It was clear from the outset that we had a group of boisterous boys, and that they had very different needs from the rest of the class.

One of the key players in our group of boisterous boys loved everything to do with knights and castles. We had a class talk and the children came up with lots of ideas for play around this theme. The boys wanted a dungeon and jousting. The girls wanted a princess palace. I didn’t know if this was the right way to go; was I simply reinforcing traditional stereotypes?

We decided to start with some jousting. We got two space hoppers out of the shed and I provided some lengths of plumbers’ insulating foam – the stuff that goes around pipes to stop them freezing. Our first joust was very amusing. Two of the boys rode at each other on the space hoppers and started hitting each other with the foam tubes. In their mind’s eyes they must have had an image of real knights doing battle and they kept hitting each other, getting increasingly frustrated that neither of them would fall off! We needed some rules for our jousting competition and to bring more of a role-play element into it. We had another talk. One of the boys offered to bring in his knights’ helmet, breastplate and shield from home to make it more real. We persuaded him to leave his sword at home!

At the next jousting competition the rule was that whoever was wearing the helmet had to fall off. This was a popular decision as everyone wanted to wear the helmet, but no-one actually wanted to lose the joust. This provided a compromise. The other thing that helped to direct the activity was that I modelled being a knight for the children. I jousted with one of the boys and I wore the helmet. The children thought it was hilarious when I fell off and they quickly picked up the idea that it could be fun to be the person who loses the joust.

Some of the girls decided they wanted to be princesses and say ‘Ready, steady, go!’ to start the joust. After a very short while, some of the girls who did enjoy more physical play also wanted to have a go at jousting. Our tournaments became genuinely equal-opportunities, but the important point is that the learning experience came out of the need for boisterous play for the boys.

My teaching assistant saw the opportunity to broaden the boys’ experience and persuaded some of them to dress up as princesses and play in the castle tent we had put up. Through the drama work I have done over the years, I have always been keen to encourage children to see that, in role-play, boys can be girls and girls can be boys: just look at the great British tradition of pantomime!

Learning outdoors
Boosted by the success of our knights and castles play, I considered other ways to provide ‘boy-friendly’ learning without disadvantaging the girls. I have always been an enthusiastic advocate of learning outdoors and have lead many camping trips and woodland walks with older children. I wanted to bring something of this to my Reception class. I decided that cooking some food outside would be great fun for all our children and hoped that it would particularly inspire our boisterous boys.

I took in a sack of logs and some bricks from home to make a circle around a fire pit. I also took in a bow saw and the hammer and wedge I use for splitting logs at home. Newspaper and matches, enough large potatoes for the whole class and some tin foil completed the equipment list.

I knew I was going to have to be very careful about this activity so I made the rules clear to the children before we started. We had a semicircle of chairs around the fire, about 12ft away, and the children had to stay in those seats. We had half the class outside at a time, and if they didn’t stay in those seats, they would have to go back inside with our teaching assistant, who had the other half of the class. The children could only leave their chairs one at a time to help me build the fire, cut and split logs and carefully place them on the fire. The children who were sitting on the seats had clipboards, paper and pencils and drew some very realistic pictures of the fire. Some of them wrote words to describe the fire.

As the fire progressed, we set up a table to prepare the potatoes, and my teaching assistant came out to oversee that. By the end of the morning we had a pit full of baking potatoes and the children had minds full of learning. We laid out some tables in our outdoor classroom and when the parents arrived to pick up the children who were only with us for the morning we invited them to join us for baked potatoes with lashings of butter. Delicious!

Wider issues
Boys’ under-attainment is an issue throughout our education system: the statistics are undeniable. It is becoming clear that boys are being turned off formal education at a young age by the insistence that they jump through education hoops that just don’t match their learning preferences.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) backs up this view in their report entitled Starting Strong. The report asserts: ‘We know that to give boys and girls equal rights in the Early Years means to give them different and specific opportunities. It is not sufficient to say that everything is open to all children, since at this age children choose gender-specific activities.’
Children grow and develop socially, emotionally, intellectually and physically at widely different rates. The range of differences within a group of similar aged boys or girls can be huge. School leaders and teachers need to be aware of this. They also need to be aware that, particularly at a young age, boys and girls generally have different approaches to learning. Meeting these needs in the early years will build a strong foundation for future learning.

For practical advice on how to inspire your male pupils at school, for both early years and secondary, take a look at Teach to Inspire Boys.