Brain development; Girls and boys are different.
By DR Anne Moir Neuropsychologist

I have lost count of the time I've heard mothers worrying about their sons not learning to speak, read or write as fast as their sisters or friends' daughters. There is now specific brain-based research that proves these mums have no need to worry about theirs sons' slower developmental pace. There is nothing wrong with the boys! Their brains develop language abilities much slower than girls. This, to me, is one of the important findings of neuropsychological research during the past five years.

It has long been known from the research that girls generally learn to walk, talk and read faster than boys. Females perform better on verbal fluency, anagram solution and general tests of verbal ability. These are, of course, generalisations and there are always exceptions. And, as with all statistics, they can only be used to highlight the probability of behavioural patterns, not to predict individual performance.

In the last five years, scientific research has determined the overall brain-based cause for learning pace differences between the sexes:

Brain maturation and brainsex differences

The brain matures at different rates in girls and boys. This is especially true of the areas in the brain controlling language and fine motor skills, which develop faster in girls. Conversely, some areas of boys' brains mature at a faster rate; for example, those governing gross motor control, as evidenced by most boys' ability to kick a ball at an earlier age than their sisters. Spatial ability also develops earlier in the male brain. Young boys are generally going to be better at solving three-dimensional puzzles and building things than their less spatially aware female siblings.

  • Girls: Verbal and fine motor control areas of the brain mature 2-4 years ahead of the boys.
  • Boys: Spatial ability and gross motor control areas of the brain mature 2-4 years ahead of the girls.

Brain maturation is detectable even when the baby is still in the mother's womb, and the differences between the sexes are manifest already.

What it means in the class room

These brain-based developmental differences have major ramifications in early education. In our schools, where such emphasis is placed on verbal ability and the skill to write neatly, are we asking the boys to do things that their brains are not ready for? As our research clearly shows, early primary age schoolboys generally lack the fine motor skills necessary to write the letters of the alphabet neatly. A five- to seven-year-old boy is being asked to perform in the classroom at a level for reading and writing that his brain is not ready for.

Johnny sits next to little Jenny, who is doing it all so well and being praised by the teacher. He can see that he is not doing as well as she is and boys are competitive even at that young age. So does the thought pass through his mind: "I'm no good at this", and he then either gives up or plays up?

Sadly, many mothers have told me that their young boys' liveliness and enthusiasm for going to school have been dented very soon after starting their primary education. A few weeks into school life, Johnny comes home all upset, saying he doesn't like school. Is that really so surprising if the curriculum - exactly the same for boys and girls - doesn't allow Johnny and his mates to show off their talents? We are asking them to sit still, write neatly, be quiet. All easily achievable by Jenny and her friends but a real stretch for Johnny's gang!

What's to be done?

Educationalists need to devise ways that allow boys to shine in the area where their brains are developing - specifically the gross motor control and spatial areas. Johnny should be solving three-dimensional puzzles and assembling things until the appropriate areas of his brain have developed sufficiently to match Jenny's neat handwriting skills.

Girls generally do better in school than boys in nearly every subject - and this is especially true in the early years of education. Are we short-changing boys and girls because educationalists have not even begun to apply their brain-based knowledge at this most fundamental level?

The brains or girls and boys are different in all sorts of ways and it makes a difference to how they learn. Just understanding those biological differences is a powerful tool for any teacher.


There are two good articles written by Dr Leonard Sax that pull together all the relevant research:

Academic references
Rhoshel K. Lenroot, et al. Sexual dimorphism of brain developmental trajectories during childhood and adolescence. NeuroI mage 36 (2007) 1065-1073
Harriet Hanlon, Robert Thatcher, and Marvin Cline. Gender differences in the development of EEG coherence in normal children. Developmental Neuropsychology, 16(3):479-506, 1999.
Killgor, W.D. & Yrgelun-Todd, D.A. Sex-related developmental differences in the lateralized activation of the prefrontal cortex and amygdala during perception of facial effect. Perceptual and Motor Skills Journal, Vol: 99, 2004 and Cerebral Cortex, Vol. 11, No. 6, 552-557, June 2001 ©right; 2001 Oxford University Press
Michael D. De Bellis et al. Sex Differences in Brain Maturation during Childhood and Adolescence. Cerebral Cortex, Vol. 11, No. 6, 552-557, June 2001