When I asked my then 13-year-old son what his first day was like at the independent all-boys’ day school where he was a new 8th grader, he said, “Great. Everyone has ADD.” He meant that he wasn’t the ADHD kid, the one who stood out in the crowd in ways that had brought him a lot of negative attention for, well, his entire educational experience up to that point. Of course, my son’s description of his new peers was not accurate. All boys actually do not have ADHD! As a mom of two ADHD sons and a long-time educator and psychologist, I could — and one day will in a blog dedicated to the topic — spend a lot of time on the unfair challenges boys learning to manage ADHD can face in school. For today’s ruminations, I am more focused on the biological features of developing boys that speak to why so many struggle in traditional school settings and see few, if any, benefits from prevalent therapeutic practices.
If it actually wasn’t a bunch of ADHD boys, what did my son notice that day? It was a certain something that he started, thankfully, to take for granted over the many days following that first day of school, that culminated in his eventual graduation and his successful matriculation to a college where he was awarded a full ROTC Army scholarship. Without that certain something, he would have been on a very different path.
My recent attendance at the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs Association annual conference reunited me with the work of Dr. Michael Gurian, a psychologist and brain researcher fighting to keep the science in front of us while we engage in our important, ongoing cultural discourse on gender identity and equality. It had been a while since I had read Dr. Gurian’s seminal works or heard him speak. His science-based, research and data driven contributions to education and mental health care’s understanding of boys’ development is more important than ever. Although contemporary discourse and policy are rightly focused on those historically oppressed, marginalized and abused by implicitly sanctioned institutionalized bias, we must have the courage nonetheless to advocate for boys we assume are continuing to benefit from inherent societal privileges of being born male.
Male and female brains are profoundly different, says Gurian. It probably won’t surprise any of us that females on the whole produce more spoken words in a day than men. This isn’t a character trait. It isn’t a result of painting baby rooms pink or giving little girls dolls for play. The female is simply wired with more language centers, allowing her, among other benefits, to naturally connect words to feelings and senses. The male brain has no language centers in its right hemisphere, resulting, on the whole, in lower language production. In the male brain, language is not naturally connected to emotions or senses. There are exceptions, Gurian acknowledges. Some boys are super verbal, some girls naturally reticent. That doesn’t change what good science is telling us.
Let’s reflect for a moment on education and mental health care. Both education and therapy are receptive and expressive language-based fields. Education even delivers and assesses students’ understanding of curriculum typically associated with right hemispheric visual-spatial functions, like math and science, through primarily language-based methods. Therapeutic practices generally ask the patient to sit in a chair and assume healing occurs through processing emotions via verbal expression. Meanwhile, that right hemisphere, where boys’ strengths lie, is left largely unengaged, or at least under-engaged.
So what was that special sauce my son tasted that saved him from taking another direction in life? No, this isn’t a blanket endorsement of single sex education (despite the fact that I am a fan). And I’m not saying we don’t need to teach our boys how to better access language in order to be better equipped for a whole host of tasks that adult life will demand of them. I am acknowledging that while most of us believe in these differences, our professional practices don’t adequately reflect that belief.
When I go to a conference for educators or mental health providers, the line for the women’s room is much longer. Gurian threw out a supporting statistic that only one in 10 new counselors or social workers is male. This is the feminization of education and care giving professions at work and it does have implications for boys’ academic success and emotional and behavioral functioning.
That developing male brain, the one that, on the whole, has fewer language centers and strong visual-spatial abilities, likes to move through space. It likes to throw things. It likes to be active. My son experienced the benefits of what Gurian calls “objects hurdling through space” in an environment where he didn’t get in trouble for doing what was just more natural for him. Just the absence of shaming and negative feedback for doing what came naturally made a huge difference for him. What gives me great hope for better future practices that will benefit boys is the clear up-tick in and/or appreciation of educational and therapeutic practices that effectively promote boys’ healthy development by speaking to and using their natural brain strengths.
A number of independent schools are courageously moving away from that singular focus on language-based instruction and assessment methods by creating innovative curriculum that is inherently right-brain oriented. In the mental health realm, therapeutic wilderness has had it right for a long time and is starting to get the recognition it deserves from both mainstream practitioners and health insurance companies. Using outdoor adventure therapy does effect enhanced insight and healing in boys who connect words to feelings by engaging first in movement and physical activity — they become, in essence, “objects hurdling through space.”
My own son’s journey, Dr. Gurian’s contributions, the increasing army of innovative educators and courageous mental health practitioners all give me hope that we can and will create systems that more ubiquitously promote and insist on social justice and equality while avoiding the negative effects that can and do result from treating boys and girls the same.