Interest in single-sex education is on the rise in the United States. For the past decade or so, more and more schools—public and private—have experimented with what was once considered an outmoded idea: that boys and girls are hardwired to learn differently, and therefore, ought to be taught differently, with curriculum and classrooms designed for their distinct needs.
But can it really make a difference as early as kindergarten? It makes sense that teenage boys would be more focused without girls to distract them, but surely this isn’t an issue in the kindergarten classroom.
As it turns out, many experts believe kindergarten (and even earlier) is the perfect time to capitalize on the developmental differences between boys and girls.
“With boys you have to start right away,” Dr. Leonard Sax, a research psychologist and single-sex education advocate, told a British newspaper. “If you wait until secondary school, you have waited too long. From the age of five, there are clear advantages in all-boys’ education when teachers know how to take advantage of it.”
Virginia Adair, a kindergarten teacher here at The Fessenden School, is one of those teachers who, in Dr. Sax’s words, knows “how to take advantage” of the developmental differences between young boys and girls to help her students build a solid academic foundation that will sustain them throughout elementary school.
Virginia shared three of the reasons, in her experience, single-sex kindergartens help boys thrive.
1. In an all-boys kindergarten, everything is a boys’ thing.
“In an all-boys kindergarten, the world for boys becomes incredibly broad,” Virginia says. “They automatically fill in the roles that a girl would naturally take, like being the smart one. It’s cool to be smart.”
In an all-boys kindergarten, Virginia says, boys feel free to choose who they want to be. They’re not constrained by traditional roles; they may not even realize the traditional roles exist.
“It’s cool to be an athlete, and it’s also cool to be a singer,” she says. “We really applaud boys for everything they do. They don’t feel like they are put into a corner.”
When boys don’t feel the need to differentiate between “boy things” and “girl things,” their interests expand. Even when it comes to literature, they’re open to anything — including books featuring a pink-adoring little girl.
“We read Pinkalicious and the boys think it is one of the best books out there, simply because it’s funny,” Virginia says. “Whereas, if they were in a coed environment, they’d probably shut themselves off to that, because it could be perceived as a ‘girly book’.”
2. In an all-boys kindergarten, boys learn empathy.
One of the many rotating roles boys get to assume in Virginia’s kindergarten classroom is what’s known as a “class comforter.”
If one of the students is hurt or feeling down, it’s the class comforter’s job to go to him, cheer him up, ask if he is OK, and even rub his back.
“Usually in a coed environment, that’s not a boy thing to do,” Virginia attests. “We really make it a boy’s role. We have lots of class jobs that foster a caring nature.”
Even at young age, Virginia says, boys feel pressure from society to be the “tough guy.” In her class, boys are celebrated for being the “empathetic guy.”
“Just because you’re a boy, doesn’t mean that you can’t be kind and empathetic and a really good citizen,” she says. “Girls usually take on that role in a coed classroom. Boys get to take it on here.”
3. In an all-boys kindergarten, boys’ natural energy is put to good use.
Watch any coed kindergarten for a few minutes, at any time of the day, and it will be obvious; most of the squirmers are boys.
“In a coed environment, you see the boys getting labeled “wiggly” just because they’re compared to the girls, who can sit there,” Virginia says. But in her classroom, “That’s okay. It’s in their nature to want movement. We’re not going to get upset with you for wanting to move.”
Boys, especially 5-year-olds, are naturally active and high-energy. They prefer moving around to sitting still, and handling things to looking at them. In a well-taught, all-boys kindergarten class, movement is not only encouraged and understood, it’s worked into every lesson plan.
“We talk about shapes and we don’t just write them on the board. We’ll have them collaborate to make a shape together with their bodies, so they’re moving,” Virginia says.
But sometimes, to learn, boys need to sit still. Virginia explains that she and her fellow kindergarten teachers at Fessenden prepare for that, as well, making sure boys have time to burn off their pent-up energy throughout the day. This enables them to focus when they need to.
“If you don’t make it a priority to give them time for movement in the beginning of the day, they’re going to get really antsy,” Virginia says.
Kindergarten students at Fessenden also sit in special Zuma Rocker chairs. These chairs allow boys to move while they work.
“They’re doing writing workshops, or they’re doing math at their desk, and their seats rock,” Virginia notes. “Just because they’re moving doesn’t mean that they are not focused.”
Could your son benefit from an all-boys kindergarten?
You’ve heard and read a lot about the benefits of single-sex education—and probably just as many counterpoints, as well. What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.