Amid the swirl of activity in my son's preschool class, I watched from the sideline as he and another boy acted out a chase scene with action figures, then moved on to piloting spaceships, losing focus when it was time to sit and do the art project.
As I watched him fidget in his small molded plastic chair, this scene exemplified all that I'd heard about little boys in school: They have a harder time than girls sitting still and they don't follow directions as well.
As he heads into kindergarten, I want to know what I can do as a parent to make sure he is raised and educated in an environment that respects gender differences by providing learning experiences that enable both boys and girls to succeed-without reinforcing gender stereotypes that leave the impression that boys are bad at expressing themselves and girls are bad at building things.
"Children as early as preschool decide math and science is for boys, literacy is for girls," says Lise Eliot, an associate professor at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine & Science and author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain.
While communication with teachers and school officials is important, parents can also work outside the classroom to encourage developing all sides of kids.
"My motto is cross-train," Eliot says. "Offer your sons the verbal and relational experience that girls are more likely to have, and give daughters the spatial and physical experience that boys are more likely to have."
Eliot's book discusses how parents, teachers and society can unknowingly reinforce gender stereotypes.
For example, in 2010, University of Chicago researchers found that female elementary school teachers can pass on their anxiety about math to female students. When a teacher was anxious about math, the performance of girls in the class was affected, but not boys.
Eliot says that at home, parents should do what they can to counter any stereotyping that may be happening in the school building, by doing such things as taking girls to science museums, encouraging them to build with blocks or construct things. And for boys, "make sure you talk and listen to boys the same way as girls," Eliot says. "We know mothers talk more to daughters than their sons. Moms and dads need to have more effort to have two-way conversations with their sons."
Preparing for school
Chris Maxwell, director of the new schools project for the Erikson Institute, a graduate school in child development, says the similarities are definitely greater than the differences in terms of how to prepare any child for school.
"One of the biggest places we see differences in boys and girls is how they relate with other children. In preschool they already are showing they prefer same-gender play," she says. "Anybody who knows young boys knows their play and interaction with other boys tends to be more physical and intense, whereas girls take care of each other's needs and feelings and talk at even younger ages."
She suggests parents look for gender balance in play opportunities that are provided in the classroom.
While same-gender play is important developmentally, Maxwell says she's looking for situations where boys and girls intentionally are given opportunities to work together. Similarly, parents should look to make sure children are not always separated out by gender.
"Are the kids always lined up by boys and girls?" she says. Does the teacher say things like "Oh, the girls are being really quiet, the boys are loud?"
Educators and parents should take note of gender differences and make sure they are not choosing one gender's way as the "correct" way, says Dr. Leonard Sax, author of Boys Adrift and Girls on the Edge.
For example, parents should encourage the natural tendencies of a boy's imagination. Sax points to research showing that when young elementary school students were given paper and a box of crayons, most boys drew an action scene, often with stick figures, while girls drew people with complete faces, hair, clothing.
Parents should not correct boys' drawings to make them more like the girls' drawings, but instead should encourage the boy to tell a story about the scene to help him make his scene better.
"In most first-grade classrooms, a person is supposed to have eyes, mouth, hair and clothes. If not, it's defective; the right way is the girl's way," Sax says. "Many 8-year-old boys in this country think school is a waste of time. They think there is one right kind of story and their story is not allowed."
With girls, he suggests parents play school, letting their daughter be the teacher and the parent playing the role of student. The parent can draw the alphabet but make a mistake, encouraging the child to correct it.
"It encourages her to question an activity. You want her to have the confidence to say 'Daddy you goofed,'" he says.
He says teachers may be telling boys in class to be quiet, sit down, calm down, while singling out quiet girls who are sitting still.
"We praise girls in elementary school for saying nothing, for sitting and being quiet," Sax says. "We wonder in middle school, why doesn't this girl raise her hand? We need to empower girls to raise their hands."
With either gender, experts recommend keeping an open line of communication with teachers about your child's strengths and needs.
Crystal Yednak is a freelance writer and author of An Explorer's Guide: Illinois.