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Are little boys hardwired to be less successful in preschool?

Aiden and Milo play in a tree at the Child Educational Center.
Aiden and Milo play in a tree at the Child Educational Center.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

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In recent years, magazine articles and mommy-blogs have decried that increasingly academic preschool classrooms cater to little girls, arguing their faster development makes them better suited to those new rigors. But one brain scientist said that's a myth.

“No matter what measure of brain structure or function we look at, what we find is that there is much, much more overlap between boys and girls than difference,” said Lise Eliot, professor of Neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School at Rosalind Franklin University.

Girls do speak about one month earlier than boys, she said — but that's an advantage too small to show any perceptible difference in brain development.

That's not to say there aren't differences between girls and boys in the preschool grades. Some studies show that, on average, boys play rougher than girls.

Michelle Brown, an early education specialist who trains teachers for the Office of Head Start, said teachers find more success when they incorporate movement in teaching boys.

“Little boys learn a lot through being able to move and to manipulate objects and materials in the classroom and oftentimes that helps them to pay attention better,” she said.

But Eliot said theories like that mask how boys and girls are actually treated differently – by parents and teachers alike.

“We’re reacting differently to them and then telling parents, ‘oh you know girls talk earlier’ and  boys struggle to sit still in the classroom,’ in a way sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Eliot said.

Adults even play differently with children based on gender, Eliot said. 

“We tend to be a little more rough and tumble with boys,” she said.

Child psychologist Enrico Gnaulti, who has written books about children and play, said in fact rough and tumble play is good for all preschool-aged kids – girls included.

At 4- and 5-years-old, children experience pulsing and quickly changing emotions. If they're sitting in classrooms for long stretches and they don’t have a chance to blow off steam - which is how they regulate those emotions.

“They are going to need something to compensate for that in the way of play where they get to run wild,” Gnaulti said.

Eliot, the Chicago neuroscientist, agrees.

“I know of preschool teachers that have a wrestling center in the classroom,” she said.