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The Lost Boys

At home Joshua Day plays with blocks, reads pirate stories, and goes outside to run around. He likes to take apart his remote-control cars with a screwdriver and then reassemble them. "He's an average six-year-old boy," says his mother, Kelly Even of Pasadena, Maryland.

But in kindergarten, Joshua is a problem. He disrupts circle time. His worksheets keep coming home marked "Please be neater" by the teacher. And when the class goes outside for storytime, he tries to run around and ends up with a time-out. Excited about starting "big boys' school" last fall, he now hates it. Joshua isn't the only one. "In the past twenty years, kindergarten has become more like first grade, and that's put a lot of boys in a situation that isn't developmentally appropriate for them," says Leonard Sax, M.D., a physician and psychologist in Poolesville, Maryland, who has written articles on this issue and is at work on a book called Beyond Pink and Blue.

Once a haven for finger painting and sand tables, kindergartens across the nation are now increasingly more focused on academics. California, for instance, requires that kindergartners learn simple addition and subtraction, write brief sentences, record data on picture graphs, and deliver short oral presentations, among other skills.

The day is also longer and more sedentary than it was before. Nearly 60 percent of the nation's 5-year-olds are in full-day programs. Some have as little as 25 minutes of recess or, more alarmingly, no recess at all. "That's a long time to be a good little boy," says Lauren Beam of San Francisco, whose son was also causing trouble in kindergarten because, she believes, he had to sit too long.

The Brain's Role In Boys' Behavior

Why is this shift in curriculum particularly bad for boys? In the past decade, research including such technology as brain imagery has confirmed that sex differences in kids are quite pronounced. With their less-developed fine motor skills, boys at age 5 may have more difficulty than most girls holding a pencil or buttoning a coat. They usually need larger spaces to move around, require more breaks, and have shorter attention spans (all perfectly normal for boys this age). They also learn differently from girls and do better when lessons use hands-on learning rather than verbal instructions, which girls are better at following.

The result, say experts, is that some boys are being labeled as behavior problems. Many experts believe that boys are in danger of being misdiagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and prescribed drugs, for instance, because they can't sit still for long reading drills. (The vast majority of kids  -- by a ratio of four to one  -- taking Ritalin for ADHD are boys.) "I believe that some kids need medication. But the rate at which we're prescribing it to boys is way out of proportion with reality," says William Pollack, Ph.D., author of Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons From the Myths of Boyhood and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Dr. Sax sees the pattern often. "A boy will frequently tune out, and the teacher sees that in comparison, the girls are paying attention while this boy isn't and concludes that he has an attention deficit disorder. Eventually, he ends up in my office and I'm asked to put him on Ritalin."

Of course some girls are also having trouble in the classroom. In fact, many educators believe the academic standards are tough on lots of 5-year-olds: In a national survey, teachers said that nearly half of their students weren't ready for what's taught in kindergarten today.

Still, in general, girls do better than boys, as Marie Nordlie learned when her 5-year-old twins started school. While Katie could write her name and paid attention during storytime, Christopher kicked other boys under the table, pulled the girls' hair, and tried everything possible to avoid schoolwork. "He'd cry when I dropped him off. Reading and writing time were dreaded things for him. I felt like I was forcing this kid to do something he couldn't do," says Nordlie, who lives in Kirkland, Washington.

Concerned that holding Christopher back and moving Katie ahead would damage her son's self-esteem, Nordlie had both repeat kindergarten. Christopher's performance has since improved dramatically, and Katie is at the top of her class.

Other parents try to avoid behavior problems by delaying their sons' entry into school for a year, a phenomenon known as "redshirting." The practice has increased lately, with boys almost twice as likely as girls to start late. Yet while some parents swear by the strategy, educators are divided over it and studies are inconclusive. Delaying kindergarten gives certain children more time to mature, but the age range  -- sometimes up to two years  -- and the developmental differences in the average class can make it more difficult to teach. And it doesn't really address the different ways boys and girls learn information.

"Redshirting doesn't fix the underlying issue—which is a problem of resources, class size, and having a one-size-fits-all approach, with the size being geared more to a girl's," says Barbara Willer, deputy executive director of the nonprofit National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Some Promising Solutions

Various schools have started to make the classroom more hospitable for boys, with good results. Noticing a significant lag between male and female test scores, administrators have introduced more manipulatives  -- hands-on objects like coins, plastic blocks, or even cookies  -- and adventure and sports stories (topics boys can relate to) during storytime. Realizing that boys often need more time to process information, teachers have begun waiting longer for students to answer questions.

Carolyn Kobosko, a kindergarten teacher at Bodkin Elementary School, in Anne Arundel, Maryland, has started letting her students move around more between lessons; after the class works on the calendar, the kids will jump 13 times on the 13th day, for instance. "I let them wiggle it out and then focus on the next activity," she says. Such strategies have increased boys' participation, and in Bodkin's upper grades, where testing occurs, they've actually closed the gap with girls.

The Michael Gurian Institute, based in Spokane, Washington, studies brain differences and then trains teachers on how boys and girls learn. Recently, the Institute has been working with teachers in Missouri on developing classroom strategies to address these differences, including sending a child who needs to cool down on errands to other classrooms, allowing students to stand during lessons, and giving them "stress balls" to squeeze. When teachers began using these measures in the classroom at the Thomas Edison Elementary School, in St. Joseph, Missouri, discipline problems dropped significantly.

Leanne Anderson, who teaches kindergarten at the school, says the techniques have helped her engage students, but she's had to change her expectations. "I've had to realize that organized chaos can be okay, though it doesn't always look good. Some of the children need to stand. Some need to fidget. If you came into my room, you'd think no learning is going on at all. But, ironically, a lot is going on."

The benefits aren't confined to one gender  -- girls can do better with more time to answer questions too. And one Missouri preschool teacher, for example, got her female students to participate in the building projects by putting toy people with the blocks and Legos.

There's another, more radical solution to the learning gap: separating boys and girls. Traditionally, the vast majority of single-sex schools have been private, but there are 15 gender-specific public schools around the country, and that number is sure to grow now that the education-reform bill, which President Bush signed last year, allows more government funding for this type of system. Other public schools, like seven in Kentucky, have begun dividing classes into all-boys or all-girls.

Critics argue that coed classes provide more chances for learning. "Boys and girls have good things to offer one another: You need some girls to model the higher-level writing. And you need boys to model the math," says Carolyn Kobosko.

But schools that have experimented with single-sex classrooms have noticed improvement among boys, both academically and socially. For example, discipline problems dropped dramatically after the Thurgood Marshall Elementary School, in Seattle, started separating the sexes. Reading skills among the boys shot up. (Girls' scores, which were substantially higher, remained unchanged.) Yet there have been trade-offs. Thurgood Marshall has more boys than girls, so some classes have more pupils than they did before and the school is spending lots of time on teacher training.

What the latest research makes clear is that channeling boys' liveliness—whether in coed or single-sex classes  -- is critical to academic success. That doesn't surprise most parents. "Little boys are like puppies," says Kelly Even. "You need to let them out five to six times a day to work out some energy, or they're going to drive you nuts."

  Jennifer Bingham Hull, a mom of two girls, is writing a book on how life changes with a second child.