| December 3, 2013

92Y Wonderplay Conference – Dr. JoAnn Deak’s presentation:

From the Neck up: Differences in Early Brain Development in Boys & Girls”

Justine Maloy

Teachers College

At the 2013 Wonderplay conference, held at the 92nd street Y, I had the pleasure of attending Dr. JoAnn Deak’s presentation titled “From the Neck up: Differences in Early Brain Development in Boys & Girls.” Here at Teachers College, we do not often talk about the biological differences between boys and girls in terms of how it affects our early childhood classrooms. We talk about risks and resiliencies, disabilities, poverty, multiculturalism, abuse, social justice – but not gender. When I use the term gender I am not referring to social gender, but biological sex: that which is found in our genes, and more relevantly, our brain. It may sound dubious or even sexist to focus on how boys and girls are different, but Dr. Deak insists that it isn’t – and that by trying to ignore the male and female biological divide we are doing a disservice to our students. She states that we must not only accept these differences, but in some ways we must go against them.

Via video and PowerPoint, Dr. Deak explained that sex influences memory, emotion, vision, hearing, stress response, and facial processing. Apparently there are distinct patterns found in 80% of girls, along with different and opposing patterns found in 80% of boys. Approximately 20% of girls and boys show patterns common with the other sex. Within weeks of birth some of these differences become apparent. The experiment citied showed that when put in a frustrating situation, 80% of boys reacted with tenacity and didn’t give up, while 80% of girls reacted by crying and giving up. While this may be a biological tendency, Dr. Deak emphasized that within the first 20 years of life human brains are malleable and these tendencies can be encouraged or overcame like most habits.

There were many other differences listed by Dr. Deak. In males the brain is larger and there are more neurons. In females the brain is smaller and has more connections. Women are more influenced by estrogen and oxytocin; men are more influenced by testosterone. This leads 80% of boys to react to new and potentially dangerous situations with a fight reaction, while 80% of girls react with a flight or freeze response. Hormones in utero also results in girls having an inclination toward fine motor skills, auditory and linguistic skills, and to being detail-oriented. Boys on the other hand have an inclination towards gross motor skills, visual and spatial skills, and to being gestalt oriented. Girls are more apt toward feeling anxiety, fear, and depression, while boys are more apt to feel anger.

While some of these inclinations can have positive effectives, they can also have negative effectives. Dr. Deak implored educators to be, in her words, “a teeter-totter.” A teeter-totter is a teacher who helps children balance, helps them both develop and temper the gender-based traits they are born with and expand the traits they are lacking. Educators must teach the majority of girls to challenge and be tenacious, to not give-up, and to deal with anxiety. Educators must teach boys how to stop and recognize danger, then turn away from it. They must teach boys how to control their anger. It seems a steep hill, but Dr. Deak gave some practical examples as well – such as bolding mathematical signs for boys to help them focus on details.

We cannot be so focused on gender equality that we refuse to practice gender equity – and in order to practice gender equity, we must acknowledge and understand that there are differences, biologically speaking, between boys and girls. We must also take those differences into consideration when planning our young students, so that we may help them learn to move past biological impulse to become more balanced people in the future.