Should we teach boys versus girls differently in preschool?

by Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. on May 16, 2011

in Bam Radio Series on Early Childhood Education, Teaching Boys versus Girls

Let’s face it – little boys and little girls have some basic differences. They look different, they smell and sound different (sometimes), they have different body parts, and sometimes they even play differently. But the real question is, should we teach them differently?

Rae Pica with Dr Cordelia Fine, Abigail James,Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. on Bam Radio

The most recent topic of discussion on Bam Radio titled “Debunking 3 Big Fat Myths About Teaching Boys Versus Teaching Girls” seeks to answer that question.  Click on the link to listen to the experts (and me) discuss this topic.

My thoughts…

If you spend any time in the early childhood classroom you will often see the boys head over towards the blocks while the girls head over to the art table. So perhaps it is fair to say that boys tend to be interested in one type of play and girls in another.

But is it fair to assume that all boys like blocks and all girls like art?  Should we teach boys differently than we teach girls? Do we teach boys differently than we teach girls? During the Bam Radio interview, Abigail James stated, “People expect children to learn in certain ways because of their gender. We need to expand the way we approach learning in a more comprehensive way.”

Perhaps you do not think that you teach the boys any differently than you do the girls in your classroom. Perhaps you believe that you give each child equal opportunities to participate and succeed regardless of gender. Perhaps you are not aware of any gender bias in your classroom management or in your teaching style. I am not here to say whether you have any gender bias or not but I do think that it is important for all of us to reflect on our own teaching practices and consider whether or not any part of our teaching practices are driven by gender bias.

Questions to ask yourself…

  • Do I expect boys to be interested in one type of learning or play and girls to be interested in another?
  • Do I encourage the girls differently than I encourage boys?
  • Do I discipline girls differently than I discipline the boys?
  • Do I hug the girls and high five the boys?
  • Do I compliment the girls on how pretty they are dressed and ignore how the boys are dressed?
  • Do I compliment the boys on how fast they can run but ignore how fast the girls run?
  • Do I simply shake my head when I see the boys hitting each other but go into a state of shock when I see the girls hit each other?
  • Do I wait for girls to verbalize their thoughts when they are answering a question but jump in and “help verbalize” or speak for the boys when they seem a little stuck?
  • Do I think boys who cry need to toughen up but girls who cry just need more time to mature?
  • Do I send the boys to Time Out when they misbehave without much discussion but when the girls misbehave, take time to discuss how they can make better choices?
  • Do I naturally tend to give praise to the children at the art table for their effort but walk by the block center and tell everyone to play nice or we will put the blocks away?

Our attitudes about boys and girls as a gender are often reflected in how we teach them and even in how we care for them. It is important to recognize any hidden attitudes we may have about gender. By being aware of any gender bias you may have, you will be better able to “expand the way you approach teaching and learning in a more comprehensive way.”

A Lasting Impact…

Cordelia mentioned in the Bam Radio interview that preschoolers “already know an awful lot about gender… I don’t think we should be assuming that what we see in their play behavior is this sort of natural unsocialized state – that would be to ignore the previous first five years of experience of their lives.”  Not meaning to be disrespectful, but I didn’t understand exactly what she meant by this statement since preschoolers are still experiencing the first five years of their lives. But what I did get from this statement was that as preschool teachers, we are extremely influential during the first five years of life and when it comes to preschool age boys and girls, our teaching approach can have a life-long impact on their learning potential.

This article is being shared with you by Deborah Stewart of Teach Preschool - Promoting excellence in early childhood education at home and in the preschool classroom!

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Comments on this entry are closed.

1 Mrs. S May 16, 2011 at 11:39 pm

Of Course! Of course we should be teaching boys differently than girls. We should be teaching each child as an individual, as if each one has his or her own individual education plan. Perhaps a boy needs a little more art time to perfect his cutting skills and perhaps a girl needs some block building time to perfect her spatial reasoning skills. Each child should be taught the skills they need to develop in a way that the child can practice with enjoyment and retain the knowledge. Idealistic? Yes. Attainable? Of course.

2 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. May 16, 2011 at 11:48 pm

Absolutely – teach each child based on his or her individual needs and they will be successful!

3 shalini May 17, 2011 at 7:46 am

Hey Deborah,
Well one way to interchange their areas of learning, you could keep some art materials in the block play corner for boys to respond to, or even integrate in their work… the girls could be given blocks or old cartons and let them create blocks and other building materials.
It is fun! this activity in a class :)

4 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. May 17, 2011 at 3:33 pm

Yes – a simple interchange of the materials in different centers is a great way to invite learning and participation from both boys and girls. Great thought here!

5 Scott May 17, 2011 at 8:50 am

As I examine what I do and think about other classes I’ve seen, I think we tend to teach active kids (mostly boys) and quieter kids (mostly girls) differently. The kids who play more cooperatively or play more to themselves or choose activities that are calmer tend to be treated one way. The kids who are loud or choose activities that create noise or need to move their bodies at all times tend to be treated another way. Now I need to go ponder this some more. Thanks for generating more thoughts, Deborah.

6 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. May 17, 2011 at 3:31 pm

You make a great point there Scott – We do tend to teach active versus quieter kids differently – now you got me pondering too!

7 Annette W May 17, 2011 at 4:03 pm

You are so right about it being more than just teaching, but how we talk to and interact with the genders.

My little girl is as active as any boy…and acts out physically…

Thanks for giving some things to consider.

8 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. May 17, 2011 at 9:23 pm

I am so please you are leaving with some food for thought!

9 Selmada May 17, 2011 at 4:25 pm

I have twin boys who are almost 2. They have been offered the same things at the same time and with the same approach. They are not the same. They have different primary interests. I give them the time they want to explore those, but I make sure they have access to the things they like ‘some of the time’ too.
The physically larger boy likes art, and role play and pretend. He’ll play with blocks and cars now and again, but they are not an obsession. At the playtime drop ins you can find him in the playhouse.
The smaller, more delicate twin, loves blocks and cars and trains (and trains and trains) and sports. He will color and glue and enjoys it for short periods of time but always goes back to the blocks and things with wheels.
For their birthday next week, they are both getting custom waldorf dolls and books. One will be getting a duplo bus and one a Mr Potato head (which he saw at a friends and played with non-stop for almost 2 hours).
Both will ooh and ahh and point when a firetruck goes by. People will comment that they ‘are boys’. I think they are just 2 year olds who (will eventually) pee standing up instead of sitting down.

10 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. May 17, 2011 at 9:22 pm

This is such a wonderful perspective to share Selmada – your insight from having a set of twin boys really brings to light that all children come to the table with their own interests and personalities. I love your final sentence:) LOL!

11 Lori May 17, 2011 at 7:53 pm

I agree with Selmada. My boys are SO different from each other even though they are of the same gender. Even with their differences, they still play so well with each other, but also play well with girls too. I do believe they are differences between girls and boys that we can generalize, but education needs to be based on the child, not the gender. Thanks for the great read. I really enjoyed it. :)

12 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. May 17, 2011 at 9:23 pm

“education needs to be based on the child, not the gender” – I absolutely agree! Well said!

13 Teri Sibenaller May 17, 2011 at 10:12 pm

I do not make any “assumptions on how genders are to be taught”; but rather focus on a unified approach in positive reinforcement for guidance, discipline and to tailor and encourage the individuality of each child with enthusiasm and respect. I do not believe in stereotyping genders, or tailoring teaching methods, just because a student is male/female. Each child is respectively a unique individual: no instuction manuals attached!

14 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. May 17, 2011 at 11:22 pm

“Each child is respectively a unique individual: no instuction manuals attached!” I LOVE it! Did you come up with this because I would love to add it to my quotes!

15 Child Care Aware(R) of Central Missouri May 18, 2011 at 3:31 pm

I do see boys in general playing differently than girls in general, and I appreciate what you said about not assuming this is “natural” but rather that it comes from what they learned about gender during those earlier years of life.

On a similar note, I had to catch myself yesterday when I started to compliment a little girl on how pretty her hair is. I try to compliment children for trying hard, being kind, etc… rather than appearance, but sometimes it is just on the tip of our tongues to say something like that! It’s a conscious effort to change our habits.

16 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. May 18, 2011 at 6:21 pm

I try to compliment on effort too but I almost always compliment on pretty hair and so forth. I just can’t help myself:)

17 duckworth May 21, 2011 at 12:24 am

Long — Before we even begin to teach boys and girls differently we need to understand how differential treatment is creating differences in maturity, motor skills, activity, and yes, also acdemics. We need to see how the aggression given Males to make them tough is creating higher average stress as early as nine months. We need to see how the reluctance to provide kind, stable, verbal interaction and support combined with more aggression given is creating more social distance, lag in maturity, and more activity as a natural stress relief. We need to see how the higher average stress is also creating higher muscle tension that hurts handwriting and motivation to write (more pressure on pencil and tight grip). My learning theory shows not only how differential treatment from the outdated belief Males should be strong is hurting Males, but also provides cognitive tools to improve learning and motivation. When we can see little boys and girls as equal but differing in treatment, then we can begin to use those variables as tool to help all students and adults. I greatly fear the misguided belief that boys are somehow genetically different while ignoring such large differential treatment they receive.

18 Sarah June 28, 2011 at 10:20 am

This is on my mind today as I dropped my four year old girl off for her first day of preschool. She entered the class, and was immediately addressed as a boy by all of the teachers. She has short hair (because brushing long hair was a daily battle) and was wearing khaki shorts and a blue shirt. Not “girl” clothes, but not “BOY” clothes either. She dresses herself each morning, and although I do tend to buy gender neutral clothing (with hand me downs to baby brother in my mind), she also has dresses and pink & purple clothing to choose from. She prefers to wear shorts and shirts in whatever colour first comes out of the drawer.

My daughter loves dinosaurs and space and art and dolls and trains and lego. She’s very empathetic and very energetic. She has no interest in princesses and no affinity for pink. I worry about how school is going to impose gender rules on her. She knows some of the “rules” already: pink and frilly means something is “for girls”. However, she hasn’t (as of yet) felt that these rules need to apply to her.

I cringe when I read about teaching boys and girls differently. Because, although I do believe that there are some differences between boys and girls, the research tends to show that overall differences between the sexes are small (with a few exceptions). Much smaller than the range of difference among children of the same sex.

My daughter is a girl. She’s not trying to be a boy. She’s not a “tom-boy”. She’s a girl with her own interests. These interests are not good or bad based on where they lay on the spectrum of gender-appropriateness. I hope that she can hold on to her self as she goes through the educational system.

19 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. June 28, 2011 at 12:44 pm

This is part of what building a community is all about. It is about receiving each other, getting to know each other, caring about each other, and enjoying each other. And all of this is made possible when we are accepted for who we are as individuals and given opportunity to grow as an individual – grow at our own pace and in our own way. I hope your teachers see the uniqueness in your child but even more so, I hope they value the uniqueness by treating her with respect and giving her opportunity to explore the way she would like and the opportunity to make friends she can bond with and have fun being with. If we can let children be who they are and meet them where they are at and let them be the guide for what interest them – then we will be well on the path for building a valuable learning environment and a community of learners.

20 Brenna July 24, 2011 at 9:48 am

Yes, we should teach each student in his/her own way and technique. We don’t know those ways until we ‘get in there’ and get to know each student. I have one boy who will spend all day in the block center and one girl who will spend all day in the housekeeping center. I have to limit their times in those centers or they will not explore other centers on their own — even though I change up those centers regularly. When they do venture out of their favorite centers and explore other activities, they have a good time and are very creative.

21 mama roses August 1, 2011 at 10:31 am

Very interesting topic. I would say it turned out to be more of a discussion point than a post! I could pick up so much from the comments, rather ‘contributions’.
To Mrs. S point I would rather expose my son more to areas that would be challenges to a typical boy.
I cannot help but make sure that my son has ample arts & craft exposure. He is probably one of the few boys among a whole lot of little girls at the craft table.
He has the pencil grip and scissors covered at 2.5yrs.
He wears coral, pink and even floral prints (if men can wear them then why not little boys).
He plays with trucks, sticks, chainsaw (yes!) and everything else that any other boy would. He is boisterous, loud and silly with boys.
He defied the much mythed boys potty-train later (at 15mths we were done).
He walks away with my shoes, mostly whites and pinks. Loves to walk in heals.
He has a hair dresser kit, will don hairbands and anklets if given a chance. Dolls…ummm no. Because I did not really play with them (my brother did with mine, probably)!
I cringe each time someone calls him beautiful or compliments his eyelashes/eyes when he is around. This is only because I do not want physical appearances to take a front seat with him.
It is more the environment than the genes that shape ones personality and it does not stop in the early years.

22 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. August 1, 2011 at 9:55 pm

Wow – you really are laid back! I have a grandson and am not so sure his daddy will be quite so flexible in how my grandson dresses and what he plays with. It will be interesting to see:)

23 mama roses August 7, 2011 at 10:54 am

I think Deb it is more cultural. He’ll some through just fine, like all others.

24 Nancois October 2, 2011 at 9:40 am

I just came across this; really interesting reading for a preschool teacher in a large childcare center. I am on a mission to break the habit of some teachers and parents (not so much the children!) of giving small children a “reputation” before they ever hit Kindergarten! I was with the same group for 2 school years, starting at age 2.9 till they were 4.9. Several of them were thought of, even spoken of, as the boy who loves “girlie” dressup clothes, the sweet little princess girl, the shy one, the way-too-rough one… Of course I saw them change and grow and surprise us all through our time together. Mixing up unexpected items thoughout classroom centers helps them find new interests, they spend time with someone new when a “best” friend is out for several days, they become more successful with activites that used to frustrate them… Isn’t this exactly our goal for them? Yes, they have innate interests & may always love to draw or build or care for babies. But the 1st boy now only dresses up when something new & fabulous is brought in; otherwise he is too busy building wonderful structures in the block center. And the way-too-rough child also loves to clean up the classroom, learn about healthy foods, and hear stories about other children’s homes and families. He is well-rounded, just like you & I, of course!
*All the way back to one of the 1st comments by Shalini, a great book for the block center is Block City by Robert Louis Stevenson.

25 Deborah J. Stewart, M.Ed. October 2, 2011 at 9:53 am

Thanks for your thoughts on this topic and the reminder of the “Block City” book! I need to get that book. I love your mission! “I am on a mission to break the habit of some teachers and parents (not so much the children!) of giving small children a “reputation” before they ever hit Kindergarten!”

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