Teaching Boys/Teaching Girls: Do Our Sunday Schools Honor Both?

by Marlene LeFever

“I’d rather teach girls than boys,” Jayne said. “Girls listen and answer questions. With the boys, I’m always yelling to get their attention and begging them to get back in their chairs.”

Many teachers agree with Jayne. Boys are biologically, developmentally and psychologically different from girls. Only recently have we begun to realize that boys and girls don’t always thrive in the same classroom. Neurologist Dr. Bruce Perry of Houston said, speaking about boys, “Very well-meaning people have created a biologically disrespectful model of education.”

Ask yourself as you read on if your Sunday school is stacked against boys or girls. Many honest teachers will admit, “I’ve been teaching mostly to girls.” The follow-up question is obvious, “What changes am I willing to make to teach children the way God made them?”

Secular teachers are also examining their classes. Boy/Girl research was rarely part of their college educational curriculum. In a study of leading teacher education textbooks, only three percent of their space said anything at all about gender.

The Talking Advantage
Have you heard the story of the little girl who told her best friend that her father hadn’t spoken to her in three weeks? The friend looked appalled until she heard the explanation. “Oh, my dad isn’t mad at me. He just doesn’t want to interrupt.”

Girls’ brains develop differently than boys. Girls have larger connections between the left and right sides of the brain, and their frontal lobe is more developed. This leads to most females having language skills that are superior to boys of the same age. Girls also have better listening skills. When it comes to answering questions and class participation, girls rule.

You can make things more equal if you give boys a little more time to think through what they might say. For example, ask children to show you that they are ready to contribute by raising a hand, standing, or even patting the top of their heads. Wait three seconds before calling on anyone. This brief think-time gives boys a chance to process. It demonstrates that girls’ quick recall is not the gold standard that boys struggle to reach. Boys and girls just process information differently, and you will be honoring both.

Never evaluate boys against girls the same age. Evaluate boys to boys, girls to girls. Boys at age six are on average about six months behind girls in school readiness. A child develops at his or her pace. Remember the adage: “It’s the early bird that gets the worm, But it’s the second mouse that gets the cheese.”

Most boys use the right side of the brain in a learning situation. Information moves more quickly for boys from one part of the brain to another when they’re moving. Boys are smarter when they are taught through spatial activities. For example, ask your five-year-olds to run to the window wall if the answer to a review question is true or to the bulletin-board wall if the answer is false. Boys’ minds often think in patterns or maps. So, ask the fifth graders to consider the classroom floor a map of Jerusalem and walk to the places in the city where Jesus washed the disciples feet, was crucified, and was buried. At each spot, ask children to explain why this ancient event is important to them today. Both boys and girls will enjoy these activities, and often boys will excel.

Creative God
Notice that I have qualified the things I’m saying about boys and girls: “Most boys . . .” Or, “Often girls . . .” You will teach children who do not fit the pattern set by the majority. That’s great! Encourage them to use their unique learning abilities, and never to feel “wrong” about them. We want our children to affirm their gender and know that God is creative. He made each of us different.

Smells and Yells
Girls take in more sensory data than boys. They like bulletin boards. They make value judgments based on what the teacher wears, and how with-it his or her hairstyle is. They want the teacher to verbalize how much he or she likes them.

Boys respond more strongly to non-verbal communication, a high-five or a pretend, air punch. These actions show that their teacher likes them.

Frequently even the classroom temperature is more suited to girls than boys. Girls like the temperature at 75 degrees. Boys on the other hand are more comfortable when the temperature is 69.

Boys usually don’t hear as well as girls nor is their sense of smell as keen. In a perfect world, boys should sit nearer the teacher. This rarely happens so a teacher needs to speak a little louder to make certain boys are actually connecting. A discipline technique teachers are often taught suggests that she lower her voice to almost a whisper. The theory is that the children will get quiet and concentrate on what the teacher is saying. Discipline restored! Maybe, but with boys the concentration lasts only a few seconds. Boys are most comfortable with a louder voice teaching them, just one of many reasons why we need more men in our preschool and elementary classrooms.

Girls are better at controlling impulse behavior. (As adults, women get fewer speeding tickets than men.) Girls have more serotonin in the bloodstream and the brain. This makes them biochemically less impulsive. They don’t often kick, punch, and yell. And, doesn’t that make the life of a Sunday school teacher easier!

Just Gotta Move
Boys are more impulsive. They are more fidgety. They need to be in constant motion or they get bored. Boys may want to be “good” by girl standards, but they often spend so much time trying not to move that they don’t have any energy left over to really learn. In “The Trouble with Boys,” Peg Tyre notes that the pressures to sit still and learn, “are undermining the strengths and underscoring the limitations of the ‘boy brain’-the kinetic, disorganized, maddening and sometimes brilliant behaviors that scientists now believe are not learned, but hard-wired.”

“You Have a Headache, Don’t You?”
Girls are usually more empathic than boys. I spent three years teaching at a missionary school in Japan. At the time I was prone to severe headaches, but since there were no substitute teachers, I would load myself up with Anacin and get myself to class. Never once did a boy notice I was ill. Almost always a girl would. Girls were better at reading my face and subtle clues about my pain and better at responding empathically.

Boys were better at doing things to help me in the classroom. Action was involved.

Girls read faces, boys read things. From babyhood, girls are more fascinated by human faces and boys are more fascinated by mobiles.

Pay Attention
Girls have an easier time paying attention than boys. Their minds are active most of the time, so that even if they aren’t all that interested, their eyes focus and they participate. Their brains have 15 percent more blood flow, so they continue to take in information while their minds are at rest.

Not boys! When they aren’t engaged, usually physically as well as mentally, their minds enter a “rest state.” They are just gone! A wise teacher brings them back with movement that is part of the learning process, the use of models, pictures, and symbols, and content that interests them. For example, boys like Bible stories that take place in different locations, contain competition, and have real life connections with today.

Girls like Bible stories that have interaction between people, lots of conversation, and stories that contain romance.

What to do?

Discuss the following with your volunteers:
– Which would you rather teach and why-boys or girls?
– What would we gain and what would we lose if we had same-sex Sunday-School classes?
– What activities in our Sunday school lessons for next Sunday would appeal more to girls than boys? Boys than girls? Is the lesson weighted toward one or the other?
– How do we attract more male teachers?

Marlene LeFever is Vice President of Educational Development for David C. Cook, and a seminar leader for Children’s Pastors Conference (CPC), specializing in research that helps professional leaders and volunteers better teach today’s children.

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