Early behavior problems impact boys more than girls

Behavioral problems in early childhood have a larger negative effect on high school and college completion rates for boys than girls. 

There has been a significant focus on gender equity in schools since Title IX reshaped the educational landscape, forcing schools to dismantle inequitable systems that preferenced male students to retain federal funding. Women now earn more than half of all associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees and they make up more than half of all college students, overall. While they are still underrepresented in top positions in the corporate world and significantly underrepresented in many science, engineering, technology and math fields, it is worth recognizing that educational attainment between the genders now finds male students at a disadvantage.

A new study found boys more likely to see their education suffer as a result of behavior problems in early childhood, according to a new study. The effect is compounded by teachers taking a harsher view of behavioral issues in boys than in girls, making school a less positive experience for boys.

"When I compared 4- and 5-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 sociologist 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."

The study followed 1,661 children born in the U.S. in the 1980s into adulthood, shedding light on the long-term effects of behavioral problems in early childhood.

“The way schools respond to boys’ behaviors plays a significant role in shaping their educational outcomes years later,” said Professor Owens. “Stereotypes about boys’ bad behavior may cause educators to take more and harsher actions against male students,” she added. “This process may lead to a compounding and cyclical relationship between boys’ behavior problems and lower achievement.”

Boys are significantly more likely to report exposure to negative environments and peer pressure at elementary school, the study found. In high school, they are significantly more likely to have to repeat grades and have lower educational expectations that girls.

However, Owens' 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."

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