The newest underperformers at school are…

brain based ideas and tips

The newest underperformers at your school might be… are you ready to be surprised?

This post is about something quite controversial. In fact, it’s so controversial that many of you will be upset and send me emails, telling me I am wrong. But, the way I see it, I am the messenger of the truth. I don’t make up the facts.

Here is an inside story of the most ignored population at your school and 3 simple things you can do to improve the situation…

We are all about improving student achievement. But when we look at the data (on a national level, maybe not at your school), something jumps out. There is a population of students that has been slowly doing worse over the last ten years. You might be ready to jump in and say, “Special needs!” Or, you may be tempted to say, “Minorities!” Both of these populations do sometimes perform below the mean on State and National test scores (as do non-minorities and those who do not have special needs). But these are not the groups I am referring to. The school population that has been doing worse over the last ten years is…boys!

Let’s look at the research on our “target” population.

First, it’s time for an update on the brain research. The “gender-difference” research began as early as the 1950’s and it still roars ahead today, stronger than ever. When I did a search for “sex-differences, human brain” there were nearly 10,000 peer-reviewed scientific studies. You don’t need to look them up; I checked out several of the most interesting ones for you. Here’s what you may want to know.

Physical Brain differences: There are far too many differences to report on all of them! Many differences are because of brain areas with a higher density of sex steroid receptors. These include the amygdala, hippocampus, and cerebellum. In the amygdala, hormones regulate which gender best notices and recalls the “forest or the trees.” Females recall more details under stress and men recall the big picture better (Pletzer, Petasis & Cahill, 2014). Why? In the amygdala, memory processing is affected by testosterone and progesterone, which in turn, is affected by monthly hormonal cycles.

Overall, longitudinal studies in females show cortical gray matter volumes follow inverted U shaped developmental trajectories with peak size 1-3 years earlier than in males. White matter volumes increase during school ages in both sexes, but more rapidly in adolescent males resulting in an expanding magnitude of sex differences from childhood to adulthood (Giedd, Raznahan, Mills & Lenroot, 2012). Okay, so now what does this actually mean?

Learning: The differences in sex steroid receptors mean that genders are affected differently by stress. Exposure to early-childhood distress adversely affects the male brain more in learning areas and the female brain more in social-emotional areas (Weinstock, 2007). In short, when bad things happen at home, males are worse at learning. Learning deficits, reductions in hippocampal neurogenesis, memory issues and less dendritic spine density in the prefrontal cortex are seen more commonly occurring in prenatally-stressed males. Females are more likely to report more adverse social and emotional events, which increases risk for stress-related outcomes such as anxiety and depression later in life. The studies in this area are tied to our next topic, empathy.

Empathy: The brain structures for empathy show important quantitative gender differences. Plus, there is a qualitative divergence between the sexes in how emotional information is integrated to support everyday decision-making processes (Christov-Moore, Simpson, Coudé, Grigaityte, Iacoboni & Ferrari, 2014). While males can learn to become more empathic, females have a stronger biological basis for this trait.

Unfortunately, this trait has a downside: the more empathic one is towards the problems of others, the more bodily stress one typically feels. Empathy makes other people’s lives more relevant, which invites distress. Harboring the stress over the long haul shortens telomeres on our chromosomes (this event is associated with a shorter lifespan) and creates a host of other adverse health and lifestyle outcomes (Tomiyama, et al., 2012). In the real world, empathy shows up in the sex-differences in our life choices; read the next study.

Life / Career choices: The gender differences are real in the human brain, and here is how they play out. A huge study with 503,188 respondents showed that males prefer working with things and females prefer working with people, producing a monster effect size (0.93). “No big surprise there”, you say. By the way, any effect size over 0.40 is considered significant and over 0.80 is considered huge. Men showed stronger responses for realistic, hands-on interests (d = 0.84) and women showed stronger artistic, social and conventional interests (Su, Rounds & Armstrong, 2009).

What actually happens in most schools? Boys sit for hours, often with few energizers, music options, or athletic choices. Nationwide, more boys are struggling academically, while girls are soaring. Boys are held back in schools at 2x the rate of girls, and boys get expelled at 5x the rate of girls. Boys are diagnosed with learning disorders and attention problems 4x more often than girls. They do less homework, get lower grades, are more likely to drop out and make up just 43 percent of college students. Boys have 3x the rate of diagnosis for ADHD. Among males of color, nearly half of young men age 15 to 24 who graduate from high school will end up unemployed, incarcerated or dead (College Board, 2011 report).

The result in the real world? Women still dominate the social, empathy-centered fields such as teaching, early-childhood education, social work, medicine, and psychology. Men still prevail in the mechanical vocations such as welding, construction, plumbing, auto repair, oil drilling, and electrical engineering. Women in the United States now earn 62 percent of the associate degrees, 57 percent of bachelor degrees, 60 percent of master’s degrees, and 52 percent of doctorates. If this were an election, the press would call the female enrollment numbers, “a landslide.”

Why is this everybody’s problem? Everyone should care. One effect of the disappearing middle class in the US is that future tax revenues may fall short, creating a prolonged economic slump. Do you think I am kidding? In 1950, 19 of 20 (95%) able-bodied men were in the workforce (those ages 25-55). But in 2010, only 6 of 7 (or 85%, a 10% decrease) were in the workforce (U.S. Census, 2012). In the UK, Australia, and Canada male underachievement is seen as a national threat, and these countries have established dozens of boy-focused commissions, task forces, and working groups. They are changing practices at ALL levels. These countries use real-world evidence (not ideology) as their guide and progress is starting. If we in the US can’t get males back into the workforce, the US economy will struggle. Who will fund your retirement?

So what CAN you do, since changing national policy is not very likely?

Practical Applications


Foster CTE programs (career and technical education) within the school, not just as an “after graduation” choice. Dr. Ron Fitzgerald understood this problem decades ago. He pioneered one of the country’s most successful CTE programs at Minuteman High School in Lexington, MA. Ironically, many of his boys were transfers for discipline issues. Once in his school, they became productive and they graduated. Massachusetts now has a network of 26 academically rigorous vocational-technical high schools serving 27,000 male and female students. Students take traditional academic courses, but spend half their time apprenticing in a field of their choice. These include computer repair, telecommunications networking, carpentry, early childhood education, plumbing, heating, refrigeration, and cosmetology. Amazingly, these schools have some of the state’s highest graduation and college matriculation rates, and close to 96 percent pass the state’s rigorous high-stakes graduation test. Ron Fitzgerald’s school was the model for this boy-driven success.

Blackstone Valley Tech (Upton, MA) is another example of what schools can do. Just 1 in 4 Valley Technical student enters their freshman year with even a fourth-grade reading level. The school immerses these students in an intense, individualized remediation program until they read proficiently at grade level. These students get remediation PLUS college prep courses (honors and Advanced Placement classes), just so they can spend half the semester apprenticing in diesel mechanics, computer repair, or automotive engineering. You’d be surprised how motivated boys can be.

STRATEGY #2: Help boys DO something

Give them the goal of an end product–computer program, a booklet, a device, a poem, a rubric, study guide, etc. Include movement such as a motor activity, movement required to simply ‘get’, ‘share’, and ‘use’ things. Use energizers and skill-training activities, and help them learn to manage their own body better. Share with students their REAL options: it is NOT just EITHER college or the workforce. There are MANY life choices. Go online and download the free PDF called “40 Alternatives to College” by James Altucher. Click here to get the PDF. (It will download to your downloads folder.)

STRATEGY #3: Create BIG Challenges and force boys to THINK Differently

Help them build teamwork and assume responsibility for the learning of others. Show them how to compete fairly. Use games and open ended questions or unsolved problems to hook them in. Give them nearly impossible challenges. Help them set “Gaudy Goals” which inspire them to grow in order to reach them. Teach boys how to get and use feedback without becoming defensive (e.g. Carol Dweck’s growth mindset). Show boys how to manage their goals and encourage them to push through obstacles and failures. Check out my September 2013 BrighterBrain Bulletin for more on Gaudy Goals.

Brain-based teaching is teaching with the brain in mind. Notice how neuroscience is actually guiding us towards positive changes. This year, make your classroom MORE “boy friendly.” Implement ideas from this monthly newsletter and get ready for a miracle!

Feedback for me about this information? Just drop me a note:

Christov-Moore L, Simpson EA, Coudé G, Grigaityte K, Iacoboni M, Ferrari PF. (2014). Empathy: Gender effects in brain and behavior. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. S0149-7634, 00216-4.
Giedd JN, Raznahan A, Mills KL, Lenroot RK. (2012). Review: magnetic resonance imaging of male/female differences in human adolescent brain anatomy. Biol Sex Differ., 3, 19.
Pletzer B, Petasis O, Cahill L. (2014). Switching between forest and trees: opposite relationship of progesterone and testosterone to global-local processing. Horm. Behav. 66, 257-66.
Su R, Rounds J, Armstrong PI. (2009). Men and things, women and people: a meta-analysis of sex differences in interests. Psychol Bull.135, 859-84.
Tomiyama AJ, O’Donovan A, Lin J, Puterman E, Lazaro A, Chan J, Dhabhar FS, Wolkowitz O, Kirschbaum C, Blackburn E, Epel E. (2012). Does cellular aging relate to patterns of allostasis? An examination of basal and stress reactive HPA axis activity and telomere length. Physiol Behav. 106, 40-5.
Weinstock M. (2007). Gender differences in the effects of prenatal stress on brain development and behaviour. Neurochem Res. 32,1730-40.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply