My elementary-aged classroom is full of students who have behavioral disorders. While there are eight boys in my class, for some reason, there aren’t any girls at all. Why is that?
Why does the behavior classroom next door to me only have boys, too?
Why did the behavior classroom I ran two years ago only have boys in it?
Why is it that 97% of the calls I’ve gotten to help General Education teachers with difficult students … are always about boys?
Behavior statistics are so lopsided when it comes to boys versus girls, and the investigator in me wants to know why. Are boys’ brains really that much different that girls’? Is it hormones? Is it environmental differences? Is it societal expectations?
While it’s difficult to find accurate, up-to-date statistics regarding gender differences between boys and girls who have behavioral disorders, most studies estimate that boys are about three times more likely to have ADHD, ODD, and Conduct Disorder. I’m desperate to know if these findings are due to nature or nurture.
One theory is that boys and girls actually have the same likelihood of living with these disorders, but girls are far less likely to be diagnosed with them. Generally, this is because of evaluator biases about what the disorders are “supposed” to look like. Most doctors search for the symptoms that boys tend to exhibit instead of simply looking for symptoms in general. For example, a girl who daydreams too much is significantly less likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than a boy who bounces around too much.
Both kids have the disorder, but one is considered a problem while the other is not. Both kids probably struggle academically in school, but one will end up with a medical diagnosis while the other will not.
Another theory on why boys are more often considered behavior problems is that the symptoms they exhibit are more disruptive to the people around them, which makes adults more likely to recommend them for evaluation. If a boy and girl both have Oppositional Defiant Disorder, for example, the boy is more likely to be defiant in a louder, more aggressive way while the girl will probably be defiant in a less obtrusive way.
The boy might shout, curse, throw things, hit people, or throw a tantrum, but the girl will probably go into silent refusal for three hours without moving. She might hide, run away, cry, steal, manipulate, lie, or self harm, but the odds of her throwing a chair across the classroom are low. Although the girl’s behaviors will raise red flags amongst teachers and parents, her behaviors are easier for adults to overlook. Oftentimes, adults either won’t notice her behaviors at all, or they’ll find ways to work around them because they aren’t super disruptive.
In other words, the ways behavioral symptoms manifest in girls are less inconvenient to others, which means girls are less likely to receive the help they actually need.
A friend of mine recently equated this paradigm to that of the protests happening around America right now. He said, “When someone’s behavior creates tension for others, people actually start to listen to their cries for help. Change starts to happen because people don’t like feeling uncomfortable. But when there’s no tension–when someone suffers quietly–others will ignore it because that’s easier. They’ll ignore it because they can do so comfortably.”
This is what it’s like for a lot of girls who had ADHD, ODD, CD, or specified learning disabilities. They don’t make people uncomfortable so they never get the help they really, really need.
While I don’t understand all of the biological, chemical, or physical ways that boys are different from girls–which means I can’t be sure of how great an impact they have on behavioral differences–I do feel confident in saying that something is different between them, whether it be something internal or external. And those differences are massively affecting the lopsided numbers in our special education classrooms.
I don’t wish for a culture that requires girls to create more chaos in order for their needs to be met, but I do wish for our perspective to shift so we’ll finally start looking for ways to help kids even when they’re not disrupting our balance.