Let’s put it right up front: we’ll be talking about learning disabilities. There are four categories of learning disabilities that are commonly seen as having gender differences. Let’s take them one by one:
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): This is what used to be called Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). ADHD diagnoses have been in three categories: Predominantly Inattentive Type; Predominantly Hyperactive-Impulsive Type; and Combined Type. With the new diagnostic guidelines in the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-V, ADHD will be reduced to one diagnosis, and ADD will be a diagnosis of its own. ADHD and ADD will still be diagnosed in more boys than in girls, with most of the symptom presentation at school coming down to “he can’t pay attention.” ADHD is a real disorder, but it’s much less common than the number of boys labeled as having ADHD. If the only place your boy has attention issues is at school, his issues aren’t likely to be caused by ADHD. However, if the only place your son can pay attention is when he’s playing a computer game, he may indeed have ADHD. If your son pays good attention to you, here are three reasons he may have trouble paying attention in school, and some suggested approaches:
- Your son might not learn well by listening. This is a major problem in the classroom, because so much of what teachers do is transmit information by talking. I have this problem myself – poor auditory memory – and throughout my own life have had to take copious notes in every class I’ve taken to be able to absorb the material. The most effective teachers will use auditory, visual, and tactile (kinesthetic) learning tools, helping everyone in the class access the information and learn in the way that suits their learning style. Talk with your son’s teachers about his learning style, and see if you can’t work with them on increasing his success rate.
- Your son might be bored. If he’s a bright kid, he’ll get the point of lessons quickly, and then as the teacher works with kids who aren’t as quick as he is, he’ll start thinking of other things and stop paying attention. When the teacher introduces a new topic, your quick learner will be seen as inattentive. If your son is in a classroom with a group of kids who learn much more slowly than he does, or with a teacher who works slowly, see if you can’t move him to a different class.
- Your son might not be interested in the subject. Boys will only learn what they like – if they don’t like it, or think the teacher doesn’t like them, they won’t work. Again, it might take moving him to another class to spark his interest.
- Dyslexia: This is a general category that’s something of a catch-all for identifying problems in acquiring information from written words. Some forms of dyslexia are seriously disabling, requiring years of remediation. Others are simply due to the fact that the reading part of a boy’s brain develops later than it does in a girl’s brain. Part of the trouble processing words can be due to larger than normal saccades (I cover this in depth in Chapter 3 of the book) – saccades are the eye movements involved in reading. Your eyes go across the page, continuously darting forward a bit so that you know what’s coming up. Think about it: if you only read one word at a time, you’d have trouble making sense of the text. Larger than normal saccades mean that your eyes move too fast over the page, and you can’t tell where you are or where you’re going. Some boys may have larger than normal saccades that they gain control of as they grow older. The ones whose saccades stay too large to give them an ease at reading will likely be diagnosed as dyslexic. If your son has serious trouble with reading that continues into 2nd or 3rd grade, look into getting texts from Recordings for the Blind and Dyslexic. And never forget that reading out loud to your son every day will help him improve his verbal fluency.
- Dysgraphia/Dyspraxia: If dyslexia is a problem of input, dysgraphia is a problem of output. If your son has trouble holding a fork or a pencil with a mature grip, it’s likely he’ll also have trouble writing: dysgraphia. The gender breakdown on dysgraphia is slightly more boys than girls are tagged with it. This issue has an elegant solution: the keyboard. I myself have dysgraphia, and despaired of writing until I got my first typewriter. Now, with my computer keyboard, I have no trouble writing, and have the published work to prove it. Dyspraxia is dysgraphia on a whole-body scale – your son will have trouble tying his shoelaces, figuring out left from right, spelling, and pairing up names and faces. One comfort you can offer your dyspraxic son: Daniel Radcliffe, the actor who plays Harry Potter, has discussed his dyspraxia in interviews, and admits that he still has trouble tying his shoelaces.
- Dyscalculia: This is the “dys” of numbers. The lesser version involves having a poor memory for numbers, which is the milder form and can be managed by encouraging your son to write everything down, and to use a calculator. The more serious version means the child has no grasp of the concept of math at all: the reason for it, or the process to perform calculations of any kind. This disorder has no gender bias: both boys and girls are equally affected. The issue is worse for boys, though, since they’re expected to be more talented at math. The best approach to helping your son will be tutoring. Getting an older boy as a tutor is a great idea; adding some real-world, hands-on examples for your boy is another great tactic. Have him measure a rug, or a room’s floor, and walk him through figuring out the area. Visualizing the process that way will help him figure out the why, as well as the how, of basic math.
Next week, I’ll talk about how stress and competitiveness can color your son’s school and learning experiences.
In “The Parents’ Guide to Boys,” Dr. James lays out a brain-based approach to encouraging boys toward and through a successful school experience. In this blog post series, she shares some nuggets from the book to help parents learn what’s happening in their son’s developing brain, and guide him toward a love of learning.