How Hawai‘i’s Independent Schools are Tackling the Problem of Learning Differences Between Boys and Girls

The gender equation.
The Gender Equation.
Photo: Karen DB Photography

When it comes to school, boys and girls shouldn’t be treated equally. That might sound backward, but it’s not sexist—there are fundamental differences in how each gender learns, many of them biological. Eventually, we all get to the same place. But, especially during the early years, fostering a love of learning and producing students who excel requires leaders to recognize these differences, so they can cultivate a generation of kids that reaches its full potential.


There’s no such thing as a “normal” child. Everybody learns in his or her own way. But even though gender is not strictly binary, boys and girls typically have significant learning differences. Studies since the ’90s have shown that male and female brains develop in different sequences, at different times, at different paces, and the gap between the behavioral skills of girls and boys in kindergarten is even larger than the ones between rich and poor students or between white and minority students the same age. The biggest issue with boys usually occurs around this time, when they’d rather be running around than sitting still, while girls tend to develop different issues later, especially around puberty, when what they look like becomes more important than what they know and who they really are. These differences mean that teaching everyone the same information in the same format all at once can actually be more harmful than those seeking equality understand. Kids who aren’t ready for a structured classroom, who would rather be doing something else or who can’t understand their work can learn to hate school very quickly.


Over the past few decades, education has evolved dramatically. “Kindergarten [today] is at least first grade as we once knew it,” says Paul Singer, the head of Assets School, which focuses on kids who are gifted and/or dyslexic. “With the advent of things like No Child Left Behind and all this emphasis today on accountability and testing and testing and more testing, there’s a domino effect. We’re starting earlier and earlier, even though every bit of educational research that’s out there says, don’t do it.” The No Child Left Behind Act measures where students are based on standardized tests that don’t take into account gender differences, which can make those who don’t measure up feel like failures and alienate them from school. But just because a 5-year-old girl knows her ABCs better than her male classmate doesn’t mean he’s incompetent. It’s not the appropriate time to teach him (or test him on) that. Even worse, if this trajectory continues, middle-school-age girls will have no problem using their language skills to learn, while boys will still be struggling to read on the same level, hindering their performance further. Case in point: On the Hawai‘i State Assessment, administered to public school students in grades 3–8 and 10, girls averaged proficiency rates 12 percent higher than boys in English and language arts from 2008 to 2013.


St. Andrew’s
Kids at St. Andrew’s Learn through hands-on activities from an early age.
Photo: Karen DB Photography


The Challenges of Teaching Boys

As Singer points out, we’re learning, with a barrage of research, that these methods of starting rigorous intellectual activity earlier aren’t the most effective way to teach today’s children. Significant gender differences mean boys just aren’t developmentally ready, “and if teachers don’t get that, those boys are constantly being pointed out, criticized and reprimanded, and, sooner or later, it takes a toll on their self-esteem,” Singer says.


Researchers Harriet Hanlon, Robert Thatcher and Marvin Cline found that the areas of the brain involved in targeting and spatial memory develop about four years earlier in boys. That means what young boys really need is time to explore their worlds firsthand and gain experiential knowledge, rather than just textbook knowledge. (Girls develop their language and motor skills six years earlier, so they do fine in classrooms.) In the long run, male and female brains catch up to each other by the time they’re 30. But, if boys aren’t hooked on learning early, school won’t be rewarding to them, and it will be much harder to engage them later in life.


‘Aiea parent Lesley Yost’s 5-year-old son, Asa, loved the preschool environment at St. Andrew’s after only one week, she says. “He told me, ‘Bye, Mom. You can go.’ He really, really enjoys it. My son’s very social so he loves to make friends, he loves doing school, he loves to talk to teachers. He is Mr. Aloha that way.” Asa will be starting school at the Prep this fall in St. Andrew’s first kindergarten class for boys (see sidebar on page 9). “This is his first time in a real classroom environment. … He calls it the big-boy school.” To hook the incoming kindergarteners and first graders on learning, St. Andrew’s has themes in the classroom each week. One week, it was superheroes. The next? Bugs, “so of course he’s excited.”


In Girls on the Edge: The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls, Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D., talks about visual systems—how our brains interpret what things are and where they are going. Girls are more interested in “what” and “why” questions, possibly because they have more resources in the “what” system, while boys have more resources in the “where” system. Girls like understanding, boys like action. At Saint Louis School, educators recognize this. That’s why the physics teacher started off the school year with blowing things up before getting into the boring principles, which were the first chapters in the textbook. “Sometimes for boys it’s just getting them to like the topic at hand … because they [can] put up these barriers that ‘school’s not for me,’” says Sione Thompson, Director of Advancement at Saint Louis.


It’s the same for girls. To really love learning, they have to be interested in the topic. They are usually more invested when background information, stories and other disciplines are involved. “It’s like if you want to study China, you’ve got to learn the food before you get to the history,” says Betty White, principal of Sacred Hearts Academy, an all-girls PK–12 school. 


“It’s like if you want to study China, you’ve got to learn the food before you get to the history.”
—Betty White, principal of Sacred Hearts Academy, an all-girls PK–12 school.

When boys aren’t motivated to do well, they simply won’t. Girls are different. According to Sax in his book Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men, most girls will do their work simply to please their teachers and parents, and that approval is gratifying enough. Boys still crave satisfaction but will often turn to other means to get it, such as video games. Once boys experience the rewards of saving Gotham City from the Joker just by pressing a few buttons, they’ll be less likely to seek out real-life challenges to satisfy their competitive spirits.


When Michael Thompson, Ph.D., co-author of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys, visited St. Andrew’s last year, Punchbowl mom Lyn Utsugi realized there’s much more to her son than she ever imagined. A PBS program based on the book made her realize that her son “is so different from my daughter, and the way he learns. I know I would’ve recognized it, but I don’t know that I truly would’ve understood it as much as I do had I not seen that program.” She credits the book for the way she sees her son as a boy, not just a child.


If boys are not engaged in school, they’ll often act out. “Boys tend to have one type of ADHD, which is the hyperactive, impulsive type,” says Darlene Robertson, director of professional program development at Assets School, which is coed. “Girls have more the inattentive type of ADHD, which is more the daydreaming, the distractibility. That’s why boys tend to get identified far more frequently, because they stand out.” But whether these actions are products of legitimate disorders or simply show a lack of interest, many kids will go on medication for ADHD.


Arguably, the biggest problem with these medications is that they work, regardless of whether or not a child actually has a disorder. In Boys Adrift, Sax says a study by MIT professor John Gabrieli found that “medication for ADHD improved the performance of normal kids by the same degree that it improved the performance of kids with ADHD.” This wouldn’t be that big of a deal if overprescribing didn’t have side effects. It does. Kids who take medication often become lazy later in life, even if they only use it for a short time or don’t have ADHD to begin with.


All of these factors come together to produce high-school dropout rates that are higher among boys than girls—in every state. The National Center for Education Statistics found a gap ranging from a 0.2-percent difference to 1.7 percent in the 2009–2010 school year, with an average of 4.7 percent of girls and 5.7 percent of boys dropping out from Hawai‘i public schools. But not all those who stay in school graduate: From the ’02–’03 to ’11–’12 school years, there was an average disparity of 5.3 percent between the number of graduating high-school females and males, according to Accountability Resource Center Hawai‘i.


Assets School.
Students at Assets School overcome their learning differences with curriculum targeted to their specific needs.
Photo: Courtesy of Assets School 


The Challenges of Teaching Girls

Girls have a grasp on language and motor skills about six years earlier than boys do.
Photo: Karen DB Photography

While girls are able to sit still and focus from an early age, that doesn’t mean they’re getting all they need from school. In Girls on the Edge, Sax says they’re more prone to anxiety and depression than boys, and rather than fill their time with video games to satisfy a need, girls often latch onto obsessions. This can be anything from overachieving to alcohol to anorexia, which in turn lead to what Sax refers to as “anorexia of the soul.”


Why is this a problem?

Even if girls are succeeding academically, that doesn’t mean they’re becoming well-rounded adults with a strong sense of self. “Whether it’s a boys or a girls school, we want to do everything to build up that child’s confidence,” Sacred Hearts’ Betty White says. “We want to empower them in every aspect of their being. You can take a very smart child academically … but if they do not have the skills to get along in a group, they’re going to suffer.”


While the biggest problem with boys is that their brains develop more slowly than girls in the areas that childhood education focuses on, the biggest problem with girls tends to be their emphasis on their social lives and the faces they put on for the world, which is paramount during middle and high school. They may strive to be the smart girl or the athletic girl or the pretty girl, even if that’s not who they really are. They are performing, not living, Sax says.


Girls don’t always have the confidence to outperform boys in their classes. They’re giggly. They’re more easily embarrassed in front of boys, so they shy away. Lyn Utsugi’s daughter, Kamryn Matsumoto, is at the age when most girls would like to have boys around (she’s going into ninth grade this fall), but Utsugi can tell that attending all-girls classes at St. Andrew’s Priory is already making Kamryn more confident in herself after just one year. Utsugi tells me about an instance in which Kamryn experienced something that would’ve been embarrassing had there been boys around, but, because it was just girls, “it was just funny,” Utsugi says. “My son made a comment, saying, ‘You guys are weird,’ and my daughter said, ‘That’s the great thing about my school … you can be weird and it’s really OK.’ You don’t have to hide who you really are. She doesn’t realize that’s what the message is, but I do.” Utsugi says being in a small, gender-specific environment after attending a large, coed school and even homeschool has boosted Kamryn’s self-confidence. She didn’t want to transfer at first, but the other girls at the Priory were welcoming, friendly and helpful, not like the backstabbing tweens you see on TV. “She’s really blossomed. That’s all we can ask for as parents, that our child is happy and thriving.” Plus, small class sizes means Kamryn won’t recede into the background or fall through the cracks—the numbers won’t allow it.


The identity crises girls face, ranging from the colleges they want to attend to who they are sexually, must be handled beyond the classroom in communities of women who can teach girls what’s really important: creating a strong inner self. That’s how you develop not just straight-A students, but leaders. “I believe there is more than just getting a good education, getting character development,” White says. All-girls schools can “give teachers the opportunity to teach to the learning styles of girls so they are ready for the world.”


But it’s not just that boys and girls are different. “Because I’ve always taught in a coed situation, I think people are as different as genders are,” says Ruth Fletcher, dean of professional programs at Punahou School. She points out that differences between one girl and another can be greater than the differences between a girl and a boy. The importance is on educating the individual, whatever subjects are preferred, or the manner of self-expression, and finding a school that best fits his or her needs.


Even in single-gender schools, the differences between individual students and their learning needs can be a challenge for teachers.
Even in single-gender schools, the differences between individual students and their learning needs can be a challenge for teachers.
Photo: Karen DB Photography 


Gender Stereotypes

Though some differences are indeed biological, stereotypes play just as big roles in the development of children and what it means to be a girl or a boy. If we acknowledge these gender stereotypes, we may actually be subconsciously enforcing them (“boys will be boys”). On the other end, if boys feel they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, they’ll feel conflicted, or worse, wrong. Why do I like writing? Why do I want to dance? These aren’t boy things. That’s why some schools promote experimenting, even failing, in what are considered safe environments.


“I think regardless of whether a school is single gender or coed, [we have to make] sure that the kids feel safe to learn and safe to take risks within a safe environment and, eventually, by the time they leave our programs, they feel comfortable and confident in themselves,” says Sophie Halliday, director of studies at St. Andrew’s Schools. “What we’re trying to do is sort of make them aware of the barriers, whether it’s a learning difference or preconceived notions and stereotypes about gender, make them aware and then make them not issues for them.”


But it’s tough when kids are aware, from a very early age, of what society expects from them. Halliday’s son is not even 5 years old but knows the difference between what are considered boy things and girl things. “All you need to do is walk up and down the aisles at Toys ‘R’ Us and you’ll see where the gender stereotypes come from,” Singer from Assets says.


What are we doing to deal with these myriad problems facing young people today?

“As with a single-gender school, we’ll try to provide multiple means of representing materials and information,” Fletcher says, stressing a variety of approaches. “[We’ll] just try to do things that would be helpful for both boys and girls.” Punahou subscribes to the principles of Universal Design for Learning, which means it helps students access information and express their knowledge in various ways, so that everyone can engage in learning. “I think, as a school, we try not to limit to gender. For example, we don’t buy into any of the stereotypes for gender. If you’re a girl and you really like robotics and engineering, go for it, that’s a really good thing. We really try to look at each individual more than their gender.” 


“For example, we don’t buy into any of the stereotypes for gender. If you’re a girl and you really like robotics and engineering, go for it, that’s a really good thing. We really try to look at each individual more than their gender.”
—Ruth Fletcher, dean of Professional Programs at Punahou School 

At Saint Louis, the only all-boys college preparatory school left in the state (Damien Memorial School began admitting girls in 2012), officials often fight the stigma that all-boys schools are for whipping boys who misbehave into shape. “We educate the community that it’s more than just that,” Sione Thompson says. “We have a clear set of curriculum. Ninety-nine percent of our young men don’t go to colleges that are single gender, so we are preparing them for the real world.” It’s all about knowing how the boys learn and then using that to structure classes, not trying to change the boys to fit the school.


“When girls’ schools started focusing on what’s good for girls—they’re reflective learners, they’re experiential learners—everybody said, this is good for everybody,” Sacred Hearts’ White says. “So you saw the coed schools, they would focus on these same skills. What we’re seeing in girls’ schools works for all children, but we have a little heads up in girls’ schools or boys’ schools because we can focus and zero in more on those skills.” At Sacred Hearts, the focus is on project-based learning and getting girls into STEM fields—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—by providing safe environments in which to explore what have traditionally been male areas of study. That leads to self-awareness and confidence. “They feel safe going into a physics lab and having trouble and not understanding. … It’s safe to fail.”


St. Andrew’s also focuses on STEM fields and teaching girls that can do whatever they want, regardless of gender stereotypes. “If people could just focus on children and what is appropriate to them, they would make really good choices for their own child,” says Sandra J. Theunick, head of St. Andrew’s Schools. “If you can diffuse it, take away the local norm—what looks normal, what’s not normal and all that—and just focus on your child, the research, how [they’re] going to learn best, whether it’s in coed or single gender, that would be a gift to those children.” Theunick did her own unofficial research into female Nobel Prize winners and found that a great deal of them went to all-girls schools. “They were taken seriously,” she says. “They said, ‘Yes, you’re a woman, but you can do this.’” Without boys around to fill the stereotypical male roles, girls in single-gender schools tend to aim higher and become more successful than if they went to coed schools. A review of national secondary-education test results in the United Kingdom shows that girls who attend single-gender schools achieve gains greater than those who attend coed institutions­—six times greater, according to Girls on the Edge.


Even though Assets focuses more on learning differences in general than on gender, the issue does pop up. Singer says that girls who are intellectually gifted are the most at risk for self-harm and in need of social groups. “When we’re trying to group the kids into classes, one of the factors we do look at is to make sure that a girl is not by [herself] in a class,” Darlene Robertson says. “There is at least one other girl. That’s one of the issues that some parents have brought up, even though they come to Assets to address their learning differences, they are also conscious oftentimes of the fact that there are not as many girls for their daughters to interact with.” By being aware of what boys and girls need to succeed both academically and socially, these schools become effective at nurturing students to their potential. Each school stresses that learning has more to do with the individual student than whether it’s a boy or a girl, but knowing how each gender learns in order to teach the individual makes all the difference, as does having a charismatic adult for a teacher, regardless of his or her gender.


Different Means to the Same Ends

For the future of education, progress means convincing parents that school today is not what it used to be when they were growing up. “It really takes a village to raise a child,” Halliday says. “Parents sort of expect their kids to learn how they learned. They don’t really understand how educational research has evolved and that everything we do has a purpose. We put all of this work into the kids, but it’s only a slice of their lives.” Singer says that today’s educators are fighting conventional wisdom and, at times, these kids’ cultures, social backgrounds, values and attitudes. Schools today have to overcome the way children have been indoctrinated so that they may flourish later in life. “Everybody wants progress … but nobody wants change.”


Betty White sees this progress taking place already. She sees parents come to Sacred Hearts looking for help with their children’s learning differences, looking for advice, instead of denying their children may need extra assistance. And it goes both ways. Sione Thompson says, “I do believe the teacher’s role has changed over the last 10 years as coming from the all-knowing to kind of the coach and ‘Where are you’ path, and ‘How can I be that charismatic leader for you?’”


When you look around a classroom, whether it’s all boys, all girls or a mix of the two, you’ll probably notice some overarching gender differences, but, most likely, you’ll see stronger differences between each individual. As Halliday says, “There are really all types of different girls [and boys] and, at base, it’s really about finding out who each and every one of these kids are and reaching them somehow,” by taking them seriously and encouraging their passion.           


At Sacred Hearts Academy, an all-girls school, the Chock sisters take an interest in robotics, typically a male-dominated subject in coed schools.
At Sacred Hearts Academy, an all-girls school, the Chock sisters take an interest in robotics, typically a male-dominated subject in coed schools.
Photo: Courtesy of Sacred Hearts Academy


A School for Boys

After 147 years of teaching girls at the Priory, this fall St. Andrew’s Schools is adding a Preparatory School for Boys, a K–5 program known as the Prep, starting with kindergarten and first grade. It’s the only all-boys elementary school in Hawai‘i, providing what is comparably available to young girls at not only the Priory, but also Sacred Hearts Academy and Huakailani School for Girls in Kailua.


“Just being conscientious of [how the brain develops in each gender], we can really tailor the environment in a single-gender setting,” says Sophie Halliday, director of studies. For instance, every day will start with P.E. “For boys, they really can’t sit still for half an hour, 45 minutes, quietly working on worksheets. … We’ll start in the morning with a P.E. cur riculum [and] transition into a sort of social-emotional learning curriculum.” Halliday says boys get a lot of stereotypical messages about what it means to be a man, including not expressing their feelings. “If that social-emotional development doesn’t happen, it has dire consequences for when they reach teenage years and adult years.”


A typical classroom at the Prep won’t have any desks—just large tables, or work stations, and a rug area. “A lot of what we’re doing is very movement- and activity-oriented,” Halliday says. “The boys will be learning through stations. We’re encouraging independence. They’re sort of hitting the targets they need to hit, but they’re doing it in a way that they don’t have to sit there and do it. They can hop around if they want to.” It’s more about embracing their energy, not trying to suppress it.


Parent Lesley Yost, a graduate of the Priory, is really impressed with the addition of the boys’ school. “I think it was kind of a brave step to start this,” she says. She’s excited to send her son, Asa, to kindergarten there this fall. “My boy is a boy’s boy. He does not like to stay still. He loves running around, he loves playing, he loves building, he loves doing all those things that boys do, and I wanted that environment for him.”


“Academics is just one slice of a child. Of course, you need to get the academic readiness and all of that in there,” Halliday says, “but we’re … helping them love to learn.” On top of academics, physical and social-emotional growth, the emphasis will be on respectful behavior and helping students become more self-aware. “Those are really important components,” she says.


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This story originally appeared in the 2015 Private School Guide.