Gender in special education
Do boys have more incidences of disability than girls? The numbers suggest that they do, but the matter is complicated. This article addresses some of the issues behind the statistics.
Boys have more incidences of disability than girls do.
This is a tricky subject. The fact is, more male students are identified as having disabilities than girl students. The numbers are nothing short of astounding; look at the statistics gathered by the Office of Special Education Programs reported in 2003:1
|Disability||Age 6–12||Age 13–17|
|Intellectual and developmental delays||56%||44%||56%||44%|
Roughly two-thirds of students served under IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) are boys! However, there are some considerations we need to think over before jumping to the conclusion that boys in general have more disabilities than girls. Let us look at the charts more carefully and consider the following:
- These are children identified with disabilities.
- The emphasis here is on the word identified. In order for a student to be identified with a disability, someone, usually a teacher or specialist, must recognize that disability in the student’s behavior. Research has shown that boys who are frustrated academically trend towards acting out negatively in class,2 while girls tend to internalize their frustrations and work harder to please. A student acting out in class is likely to gain more attention and thus be referred for special education services. In addition, boys are likely to be more physical in class and express emotions in verbal outbursts,3 while girls who are experiencing depression or other emotional issues keep silent. Researchers argue that these qualities may skew the numbers and imply that boys have more incidence of emotional and behavior disorders than girls. However, teachers are becoming more perceptive in identifying disabilities in girls. In 1990, only 26.6 percent of children identified with learning disabilities were female; that number had grown by over a third a decade later.
- Boys may be more susceptible to biological factors.
- While the research on why boys present symptoms of, for example, ADD/ADHD more than girls is still developing, we do know that boys mature more slowly than girls and thus have a more difficult time adapting to the educational environment. This difficulty in adaptation may cause a higher rate of referral for special education services. Additionally, as we discussed previously in an article on social skills, there is a direct link between behavior and academic success. Male students who are having difficulty adjusting to a classroom setting behaviorally will often show difficulty in learning as well.
- The autism question.
- If you analyze the numbers in the charts, you will note that while there are large representation differences in disabilities that require subjective identification (e.g., learning disabilities, intellectual and developmental delays), the gaps are much smaller for medical conditions such as deaf-blindness and visual impairments (only a 6 percent difference for both in 13-17 year olds). The exception is with autism. Boys are nearly five times as likely than girls to have autism, as both the numbers above and other research has shown. There is no definitive answer as to why boys have autism more than girls, although the latest research has identified a possible genetic answer.4 The total number of children with autism is on the rise, however, with some studies showing as many as 1 in 110 children having the disorder. When the autism population is added into the total number of children with disabilities, the gap between males and females with disabilities widens.
The bottom line
While it is a fact that males are more likely than females to be identified for special education services, the jury is still out as to whether that means that they have innately more disabilities (except in the case of autism). Current research is turning away from whether males are represented more than females towards why this is the case and how we can better serve boys in our classrooms. (A well-known book on the topic is Raising Cain by Kindlon, Thompson, and Barker.5) It is important to study such matters to assure that we are giving the best and most equal education opportunities to students of both genders, and just as we continue to work on reducing over-representation of minorities, we must address the over-representation of boys.