Getting into the "Minds of Youth" at Prince George's Community College

Catherine Carney | 5/5/2010, 4:42 p.m.

A well-known author and therapist helped Prince George's County educators to better understand the mysteries of the male and female minds and the distinct differences between how girls and boys process information.

Michael Gurian, author of "The Purpose of Boys" and co-founder of the Gurian Institute in Colorado Springs, Colo., discussed gender differences in brain development before a group of teachers at Prince George's County Community College in Upper Marlboro, Md.

The hour-long presentation, Fri., April 16 served as a kickoff for the Prince George's County Early Childhood Interagency Committee's 13th annual Celebrate Children Conference.

"In 2010, part of our humanity depends on understanding that boys and girls are different," Gurian said.

Gurian, a social philosopher, co-founded the Gurian Institute in 1996 to provide professional development designed to increases student achievement, teacher effectiveness and parent involvement.

Gender is determined in three steps: first by chromosomes, then by prenatal hormones and finally by the postnatal environment, or societal expectation of gender roles, Gurian said.

He emphasized the fixed nature of gender differences that arose from chromosomes and prenatal hormones. Any responses or adaptations to gender-specific behavior would have to occur in the postnatal societal realm.

In an amalgamation of anecdotal evidence and scientific research, Gurian showed that men tend to relate to others through movement, throwing objects between themselves, while women relate more readily to others through verbal engagement and eye contact.

Both males and females are empathetic, he said, but while female empathy is more focused on inner feelings, males tend to show 'performance empathy.' That is, they tend to focus on helping others perform better within an established system.

While women in a stressful situation will tend to desire bonding and tactile stimulation, men in a stressful situation can become much more aggressive and prefer movement. Without other effective avenues for expression, girls are prone to verbal violence against a target, while males are more prone to physical violence.

Using two illustrations - a research experiment where male and female babies pulled on a string to change a picture, and brain scans of male and female brains at rest - Gurian showed that females are more likely to make connections, to quickly perceive when they need help, and to ask for assistance.

Males, on the other hand, may retain better focus for the task at hand, but will continue to try to do it themselves until they reach a breaking point of frustration and anger.

"As individuals and as a culture, we are afraid of male anger. We don't realize, for males, anger is often a way of saying 'I need help,'" Gurian said.

"Everything we want to do for girls at some point is going to hit a wall if we don't do the same for guys," he added.

"If we have a class of 30 with seven guys who are not being understood, what do they do? They cause a lot of trouble."

What does all this mean for the classroom? A male's interest is readily grabbed by graphics and movement, rather than words. Females tend to more easily pay attention in a verbal environment, Gurian told the audience.

For example, two-year-old boys will pay better attention at story time if they are given pictures to look at, while girls may be able to pay attention just by listening. In an assignment where a student is asked to recall an event, boys will often do much better if they draw a picture. Girls, on the other hand, may respond more easily in writing, he said.

"If Prince George's County doesn't come together to understand these children, we are going to lose generation after generation of boys," Gurian concluded.

"If you can't understand them at two, what's going to happen when they are 17?"

Audience members listened with rapt attention, often laughing in recognition at the gender-specific behaviors raised.

Bonita Owens, 65, of Laurel, Md., a daycare worker at Kiddie Academy of Laurel, said that she found the presentation very helpful in "understanding the male brain and thought process."

Trish Hilliard, 26, of Clinton, Md., who works as a counselor, said that she was also grateful for "the scientific knowledge of the brain chemistry of males and females, and how it develops even prior to birth."

"I can create interventions specifically for my adolescents based on this information," she said.