New research shows that behavioral problems in early childhood have a larger negative impact on the education of boys than girls, with boys completing fewer years of school.
“When I compared four and five year-old boys and girls who had the same levels of behavior problems — including difficulty sustaining attention, regulating emotions, delaying gratification, and forming positive relationships with teachers and peers — I found that boys were less likely to learn and more likely to be held back in school,” said Dr. Jayanti Owens, a professor at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs and author of the study.
“My study also showed that the way schools respond to boys’ behaviors plays a significant role in shaping their educational outcomes years later.”
“Relative to the other early childhood family and health factors I considered, gender differences in both students’ behavior and educators’ responses to behavior problems explained more than half — 59.4 percent — of the gender gap in schooling completed among adults,” she explained.
For the study, Owens used a national sample of children born to women in their early to mid-20s in the 1980s and followed them into adulthood.
“Although the same behaviors have a worse impact on boys’ education, it is also the case that, on average, boys start school with higher levels of behavioral problems than girls,” Owens said.
“That boys typically have worse behaviors when they start school may help explain why their behaviors are more detrimental to achievement. Stereotypes about boys’ bad behavior may cause educators to take more and harsher actions against male students. This process may lead to a compounding and cyclical relationship between boys’ behavior problems and lower achievement.”
Boys and girls typically have divergent experiences at school, according to Owens.
“It’s partly because boys come to school with higher levels of behavior problems, and partly because of the ways boys’ behaviors tend to be treated by teachers, peers, and administrators,” she said.
She noted that in elementary school, boys on average report significantly greater exposure to negative school environments and peer pressure compared to girls. In high school, boys report significantly higher rates of grade repetition (by 4.5 percentage points) and lower educational expectations.
“My findings are broadly consistent with the notion that many school environments are not conducive to boys’ success,” Owens said.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2014, men comprised 50 percent of students enrolled in ninth grade, but they received 48 percent of high school diplomas. Men also comprised 43 percent of college enrollees in 2014, and were awarded 40 percent of bachelor’s degrees.
However, Owens said her research also offers hope for narrowing the education gap by increasing boys’ learning and, ultimately, educational attainment.
“While I found that early behavior problems persisted into adolescence for many, problems at school were less predictive of long-term educational attainment when they first emerged at older ages,” Owens said.
“Supportive home and school contexts that proactively encourage the early development of self-regulation and social skills and help make school more relevant to pre-existing interests can do a lot for boys’ long-term success. For example, NBA Math Hoops and Rhymes with Reason are just two curricular innovations for teaching math and vocabulary, respectively, by tapping into pre-existing sports and music interests.”
The study was published in Sociology of Education.