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The Gender Gap in Learning Disabilities Diagnosis

By Judith Greenberg, Ph.D., director of School Finders in Rockville, MD

Are girls and boys really different when it comes to learning styles and needs? After more than two decades of helping families as an advocate and in school selection, I would answer with a loud, YES! If a special education teacher or advisor in a school, counted the number of boys that are identified by first grade with a learning disability, and specifically ADHD (attention disability with hyperactivity and/or impulsivity), and compared that number to those of girls diagnosed, the former would be greater than the latter. Are girls less likely to have ADHD? Are they less likely to have a learning issue? The answer to both questions is: no they are not. In fact there is a very real gender gap in the diagnosis of girls.

It seems that young girls have less of a diagnosis rate due to several factors. Girls learn to be more controlled about their emotions in public. Our daughters hold in their anger and wait until they get home to “vent”. Girls are also more mature at each level of development until boys catch up in college. So girls tend to find ways of coping with not understanding directions or getting help with homework, or letting mom help them with assignments. Boys revolt earlier and say they want to do the work by themselves; no help from mom is needed. Yet, the homework is not turned in to the teacher the next day. Boys are also, more vocal and physical in the classroom when struggling to comprehend the directions, multi step activities, and writing assignments that seem impossible to start let alone complete. Thus, boys are seen and heard and either punished or helped by a teacher who thinks boys need psychological-educational testing to find out what is the issue that is causing these problems.

By being quiet, trying harder, and not getting noticed until they fall apart in middle school, girls are causing themselves to loose self-esteem, miss educational building blocks, and risk their futures. They do not know this, however their parents need to watch for signs that will help to determine if their little girls should be tested and get help from the school to get a handle on a learning issue.

Both public and private schools are now better able to work with students who do have learning issues as more students have been identified and teachers and administrators recognize that all students learn in an individualized manner. Learning uniquely doesn’t make a student different or difficult to teach. Usually, the methods needed to help that student also help many others in the class learn better as well. There is no extra cost involved to teach an ADHD student as extra time, step by step directions, patience, highlighting the most important words, grouping information, and helping to map out writing assignments and long term homework assignments are usually the most effective ways to help these students. The teacher and school must be consistent or all the effort is wasted and parents must also make this same effort to help the student progress.

If your daughter is: falling behind on assignments, causing the teacher to call you, or your daughter has difficulty following simple multi-step directions at home; call for a parent and teacher meeting to discuss your daughter in depth and to get a clear picture of her work samples and school day. Ask the tough questions about whether she is distracted in class, is she "antsy", does she have impulsive behaviors? Her teacher will have noticed or will now know to watch for such activities and then let you know the conclusions. Working together will help parents to find out if their little girls are indeed in need of help and to get going to be certain these girls do not spend too much longer trying to figure out the mystery of school all alone. There is no shame in getting help, only in getting it late or never getting it and feeling ashamed of your own lack of ability. Girls need parents to be aware and help their daughters even when daughters cope and cover up the need.

Dr. Judith Greenberg, is the director of and helps students with Learning Disabilities find the right schools and college program for their needs. You can reach her at:(301) 230-9010 or by email
Click to see Dr. Judith Greenberg on ISER.

Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.
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