US News and World Report‘s Lauren Camera reported this week on a new study from the American Sociological Association about gender-based disparities in school discipline.

The report found that behavioral problems for boys in early childhood have a larger negative effect on high school and college graduation rates and that boys are more likely to be held back in school.

The study compared 4- and 5-year-old boys and girls who had the same levels of behavioral problems, including difficulty sustaining attention, regulating emotions, delaying gratification, and forming positive relationships with teachers and peers. The national sample of children were born to women in their early to mid 20s in the 1980s and followed into adulthood.

 

What Owens found was that boys’ higher average levels of early behavior problems help explain the current gender gap in schooling by age 26 to 29.

Not exactly sure what she means by “help explain” here, but let’s keep going.

Owens didn’t originally set out to study the impact of early behavior on the academic achievement of men. She stumbled on the phenomenon upon the beginning stages of research about the reversal in the college completion gender gap over the last few decades.

 

The idea was to explain why college completion rates have surged among women, but she soon came to realize that the flip side of the coin was perhaps even more revealing – that education achievement levels have actually decline for men.

 

“One of the big things that jumped out in the study was the fact that the same behavior problems in boys and girls were penalized a lot more in boys than girls,” Owens says. “So in addition to the fact that boys come to school on average having more problems, they also get penalized more for having these behaviors.”

This is unfortunately probably not all that surprising for those of us who work in schools. I would conjecture that this is part of a self-sustaining negative feedback loop, that works like this: Teachers intuitively or subconsciously know that boys are more likely to get in trouble in school. Teachers are thus primed to notice boys’ unproductive behaviors at a greater rate. And because teachers often find what they think they are supposed to be looking for, boys get into trouble at a greater rate for what is essentially the same behavior (or if not the same behavior, equally unproductive behavior).

Essentially, what I’m saying is boys get in trouble in school more because people who work in schools assume boys are supposed to get in trouble more. It’s a theory, and I obviously don’t have any data to back it up. But I do know that how a teacher is primed to think about a certain class influences how that teacher disciplines that class.

I’ve done my own bit of mini-research on this over the years: when leaving instructions for a substitute, I have tried two different approaches: [Approach A] I leave the sub a note telling her to be especially vigilant with my most challenging class–Class 3 (for example) [Approach B] I leave the sub a note telling her that Class 3 (in reality, my most challenging class) is my best-behaved class and she shouldn’t expect any issues.

Without fail, Approach A almost always yields negative notes and Approach B almost always yields positive notes. (This is one of the reasons I am against the idea of grade 7 teachers “warning” grade 8 teachers about which kids on their roster to “look out for” the coming year.)

So the question becomes, if the reason boys get in trouble more often is because schools expect boys to get in trouble more often, how do you eradicate this ingrained expectation?

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