How learning difficulties differ in boys and girls with ADHD

We all know boys and girls are different in many, many ways. One very big difference between boys and girls is the way they learn. But what happens when they have ADHD, and how does that affect their ability to learn?

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is prevalent in about one in 20 children in the U.S., and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that 3 to 5 percent of children have ADHD. For approximately 80 percent of these children, those will continue to have symptoms into their teen years, and some will continue into adulthood. While ADHD does has a set of defined diagnostic indicators, such as inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity, the condition can present very differently in boys and girls.

In fact, The American Psychiatric Association states boys are more likely to experience ADHD, which creates challenges in learning, than girls, and that three times as many boys are diagnosed with ADHD. However, is this because boys are more susceptible to ADHD, or because ADHD symptoms aren’t as easily recognized in girls? It’s imperative to understand the different ways ADHD affects a boy versus a girl.  Otherwise, some very important signs can be overlooked.


Tests have shown that boys tend to focus more on spatial and mechanical functioning, meaning action and movement. Because of this, symptoms of ADHD in boys tend to be more vocal and behavioral. Boys with ADHD frequently stand out more in the crowd than their female peers. In addition to having trouble paying attention and being easily distracted, boys with attention-deficit issues are often more likely to act out in school. Their hyperactivity can include many of the stereotypical behaviors associated with ADHD, such as constant fidgeting, shifting or moving, difficulty staying seated in school, and the inability to stay focused on one task.

Overt behaviors such as these make it very easy for a teacher or parent to recognize that there is a problem. The following is a list of possible ADHD symptoms to look for in boys:

  • Forgetfulness
  • Becoming easily distracted
  • Poor concentration skills
  • Losing or misplacing things
  • Poor attention to detail
  • Academic underachievement
  • Consistent hyperactivity
  • Mimicking an action within a game while playing video games
  • Extreme focus on physical activity during boredom
  • Lack of understanding and focus while playing sports
  • Inability to follow multiple steps
  • Extreme risk taker
  • Impulsive behavior

One reason ADHD affects boys this way is because the male brain compartmentalizes activity while the female version spreads out neural function. This allows different areas of the female brain to work simultaneously while the male brain focuses on one region.


Tests have shown that girls utilize more of the brain for thought process, in comparison to boys focusing on action and movement. When it comes to ADHD, although there are certainly exceptions, girls generally tend to be less rebellious, less defiant, and less difficult than boys. Girls also seem to compensate better for learning barriers they encounter in school. A teacher might notice that girls are more “itchy” or overly chatty, but they are less likely than boys to blurt things out in class or push or shove a peer next to them. This is because girls are socialized to please teachers and parents.

While a boy might be yelling or running around, a girl with ADHD is more likely to be withdrawn, “daydreamy”, and even a little “spacey.”

The following is a list of possible ADHD symptoms to look for in girls:

  • Reoccurring inattention
  • Fidgeting- not being able to sit still for extended periods
  • Talking excessively
  • Combination of fidgeting and talking excessively
  • Strongly emotional during learning processes
  • Easily upset or over-reactive
  • Delayed skills development
  • Clumsiness or poor balance
  • Inability to follow through or stay with something
  • Easily distracted
  • Unorganized and messy
  • Forgetfulness
  • Poor time management

Another major difference between boys and girls when it comes to ADHD is the age at which symptoms start occurring at a level that negatively impacts daily functioning. On average, girls are diagnosed with ADHD five years later than boys; boys typically at age 7 and girls typically at age 12. Girls’ symptoms might increase during the middle and high school years as demands and responsibilities at school, and social issues become more complicated.

In addition, while the symptoms of a young girl with ADHD may seem less “intense” in comparison to a young boy, which could allow her to still get through school and other milestones in life like everyone else without ADHD, this could also mean she is less likely to reach her full potential. When a girl’s ADHD is left undiagnosed, there is a chance she will spend her youth frustrated with herself, struggling with self-esteem, and perhaps even experiencing anxiety and depression. On the other hand, boys with ADHD are more likely to suffer from depression, substance abuse, and eating disorders than girls who don’t have ADHD.

The attention span of boys and girls with learning challenges is unique as well. The male brain shuts itself off more times during the day. Girls tend to feel emotions and apply that to the learning process, while boys get bored and want to move around. Overall, a boy’s energy tends to focus more on the physical, while the girl’s is more thoughtful and emotional.

People tend to think of ADHD in terms of hyperactivity and impulsivity. What they don’t realize is these are symptoms more often exhibited in boys, and that ADHD can also take other forms in girls. Because there is a clear difference in the way boys and girls process data, gender needs to be a big part of the formula when it comes to education and even treatment. Comprehensive intervention that includes medical, behavioral, and educational components allows professionals to construct a learning solution to enhance social, verbal and motor skills, while taking all factors, including gender, into consideration.

Dr. Grisolano is a Pennsylvania-based pediatric neuropsychologist who specializes in helping children and their families conquer problems with learning, attention, behavior and emotions. She is also a certified school psychologist who understands the many ways in which neurodevelopmental disorders can create challenges that are barriers to a child’s learning and development. She earned her Ph.D. in School/Pediatric Psychology from the University of Iowa, and completed Post Doctoral Fellowships in Adolescent Health Psychology and in Pediatric/Clinical Child Psychology at the University of Minnesota and Michigan State University, respectively. In addition to her education, Dr. Grisolano has extensive clinical practice in school psychology, neuropsychological evaluation and behavioral assessment. She is an experienced college professor, published researcher and accomplished presenter. All of these credentials and experiences enable Dr. Grisolano understand how the many aspects of cognitive and emotional functioning affect a child’s ability to progress in school, build social and emotional skills, and develop quality relationships with peers and adults.