Gender Differences in Learning Disabilities

More boys than girls are identified with learning disabilities.

Boys often are thought of as being more likely to have learning disabilities (LDs) or problems such as attention hyperactivity attention disorder (ADHD) than girls are, but is this really the case?

It's a question worth considering given that since the Individuals With Disabilities Act (IDEA) was established in 1975, the number of students identified as needing special education has tripled. The function of IDEA is to make sure children in public schools with any type of illness, disorder or condition that can affect learning receive support; this includes kids on the autism spectrum, those who have hearing, speech, or language impairment, orthopedic problems, and learning disorders.

In 2015, the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) found that of the 5.9 million school-age kids in the U.S. who received special education services under IDEA, 39 percent (around 2.3 million) qualified with a specific learning disability.

Here's a look at what science tells us about this gender gap when it comes to learning disabilities and related problems, why this gap exists, and what you should know if you suspect your child has an LD or attention issues.

What Are Learning Disabilities?

When we talk about the problems kids have with learning and attention, it's important to understand exactly what they are.

According to Understood.org, a non-profit devoted to providing information and support to parents of children ages 3 through 20 with learning and attention issues, a learning disability is a disorder that results in "learning challenges that are not caused by low intelligence, problems with hearing or vision or lack of educational opportunity."

Learning disabilities often affect a particular skill such as math or reading, and also may cause a child to have trouble getting along with other kids.

Many times LDs go hand-in-hand with attention issues as well, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which the American Psychiatric Association says is one of the most common mental disorders among kids. Symptoms of ADHD, according to the APA, may include:

  • problems staying focused on tasks such as schoolwork and classroom lectures
  • hyperactivity, or excessive movement that doesn't fit the situation
  • impulsivity, or a tendency to act hastily and without thinking through the consequences

Boys, Girls, LDs, and ADHD

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, during the 2015 to 2016 school year, 17 percent of male students ages 6 to 21 received special services under IDEA, compared to 9 percent of female students benefiting from these services.

Is this discrepancy warranted? Do more boys get special education support than girls because more boys actually have more LDs? Or is that they're perceived by teachers and other education professionals to have more LDs? There's research to suggest the latter. According to Understood.org, studies have found that based on scientific criteria, there is no gender gap when it comes to learning problems. It's just that teachers recommend twice as many boys as girls for LD support.

The same applies to attention problems—notably attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In fact, research has found that boys and girls are equally likely to have learning disabilities and ADHD. Understood.org states that boys are also more than twice as likely to be identified as having ADHD.

Why the Gender Gap?

Many theories have been proposed to explain why more boys than girls are identified as having learning disabilities. Some experts propose that the difference has to do with biological vulnerability, meaning that boys really are more often born with or acquire a tendency for a learning disability early in life.

Another theory is the discrepancy in identification may be due to referral bias. Boys are more likely to be referred for special education when they have problems with their grades or other apparent issues. Boys who are frustrated and struggle academically are more likely to act out. They may be hyperactive, impulsive, or disruptive in class, while girls typically show less obvious signs of their academic frustrations. For instance, girls who show only inattention are more likely to be viewed by teachers as simply not interested in the subject matter.

Also, in general, boys tend to draw more negative attention in school. And boys with ADHD tend to show more hyperactivityimpulsivity and physical aggression than girls with ADHD, which causes them to stand out, even among other boys.

Meanwhile, girls with ADHD often have different symptoms, including anxiety, depression, daydreaming, and low self-esteem. Hyperactivity in girls tends to show up as constant chattiness. All of these behaviors are typical of girls who don't have ADHD as well, so a teacher isn't as likely to flag a girl who has them as having ADHD or a learning problem.

In other words, boys with ADHD are more noticeable than girls with ADHD. And that may explain why more than twice as many of them are identified with the disorder.

It really isn't known if boys have learning and attention issues more often than girls do. But what is clear is that when kids are identified with either, they’re likely to get the best support. If girls are under-identified it means that many aren’t getting the help they need. So parents of girls who are struggling might have to be even stronger advocates for their child.

And finally, the true differences between girls and boys when it comes to learning disabilities and attention disorders may have to do with a lack of a universal definition of “learning disability” and the absence of accurate, objective testing criteria to identify them. In fact, many of the tests used to diagnose learning disabilities were designed and standardized for boys.

A Word From Verywell

Whether you're the parent of a boy or a girl, if you think that your child may have a learning disability or ADHD or other attention problem, speak to the teacher. Find out what behaviors they've noticed in your child and any concerns they may have.

If you have a daughter, be aware that if she has an attention disorder it may not look that way in the classroom. Rather than being disruptive or moving around the room at inappropriate times, she may seem disinterested in what the teacher is saying or prone to talking out of turn or constantly chatting with kids sitting nearby when she shouldn't be.

Together, you and the teacher should be able to home in whether your child is struggling with an LD or ADHD so that you can move forward to have him or her tested.

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