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Do Boys Have Learning and Attention Issues More Often Than Girls?

By Bob Cunningham

It seems like boys have learning and attention issues more often than girls do. Why is that?

Bob Cunningham

Advisor-in-Residence, Understood

It seems that way because, in fact, more boys than girls are formally identified as having learning disabilities and ADHD. And not by just a little bit. Boys make up around two-thirds of kids identified as having what IDEA refers to as a “specific learning disability.” And boys are also more than twice as likely to be identified as having ADHD.

But saying that more boys are identified as having learning and attention issues doesn’t mean that boys actually have learning and attention issues more often than girls do.

A well-known study of 400 students found no gender gap when it came to learning issues. But that was using scientific criteria. When teachers made the call, they recommended twice as many boys for a learning disability program.

One reason may be the differences in behaviors between boys and girls. We know that boys in general tend to draw more negative attention in schools. One report showed that boys represent around 85 percent of all discipline referrals. Another showed that 22 percent of boys had been formally disciplined, versus 8 percent of girls.

We also know that boys with ADHD tend to show more hyperactivity, impulsivity and physical aggression than girls with ADHD. That behavior makes them stand out from the other boys.

Meanwhile, girls with ADHD are more likely to show a different set of symptoms and side effects. These include anxiety, depression, constant talking, daydreaming and low self-esteem. But their behavior appears more typical of how other girls behave.

In other words, boys with ADHD are more noticeable than girls with ADHD. And that may explain why more than twice as many of them are identified with the disorder.

We don’t know whether boys actually have learning and attention issues more often than girls do. But we do know that when kids are identified they’re more likely to get the best support. If girls are under-identified it means that many aren’t getting the help they need. So parents of girls who are struggling might have to be even stronger advocates for their child.

About the Author

Portrait of Bob Cunningham

Bob Cunningham serves as advisor-in-residence on learning and attention issues for Understood.

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