Worth the cooties

When there are enough girls in the preschool classroom, boys get a developmental boost

Here’s some news that preschool boys don’t want to hear: Those who attend preschool classes with a majority of girls receive an intellectual boost by the end of the school year. Conversely, preschool boys who attend majority-boy classes fall increasingly behind girls on measures of learning skills and other developmental feats.

GIRL POWER A first study of its kind examines how the ratio of boys to girls in preschool classes affects children’s development. It finds that boys do well in majority-girl classes but not in majority-boy classes. Maiolo/Children’s Institute

Yet the proportion of boys and girls in preschool classes has no effect on girls’ development.

These provocative but still preliminary findings come from the first large-scale investigation of how the sex ratio in preschool classes influences girls’ and boys’ mental, social and motor development.

“At the very least, the findings from this study suggest that educators should exercise caution if considering a move toward greater sex segregation in early childhood education,” says psychologist and study director Arlen Moller of GettysburgCollege in Pennsylvania.

Because so little is known about the influence of classroom sex ratios on preschool development, education researchers approach the new study cautiously.

“This is an exciting topic, but it is too early to draw any conclusions because this area is so underexplored,” remarks psychologist Lena Malofeeva of High/Scope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti, Mich. She and her colleagues have also studied how preschool affects development by tracking into adulthood 119 poor, black children who attended either a high-quality preschool program or who did not attend preschool. The researchers found that preschool girls graduated from high school more often and were treated for fewer mental problems than non-preschool girls. Former preschool boys showed relatively low levels of criminal arrests and drug abuse.

But that study did not address classroom sex ratios. Moller and his colleagues analyzed data collected as part of an effort to assess classroom needs in the Rochester, N.Y., public schools from fall 2003 to spring 2004. They studied 70 preschool classes hosting a total of 806 children, ages 3 ½ to 6. The student population was 57 percent black, 17 percent white, 15 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Asian and 9 percent of unreported race or ethnicity. Nearly 9 of 10 children came from families with poverty-level incomes. Class sizes ranged from eight to 21 students. Trained observers rated the quality of all classes as high in areas that included space, facilities, program structure and activities.

The team found that girls displayed generally good progress over the 6 ½-month school year on teacher-rated measures of thinking skills, social abilities and motor proficiency. Girls did just as well in classes with a preponderance of boys as they did in majority-girl classes, the researchers say in a paper published online June 4 and slated to appear in Early Childhood Research Quarterly.

Boys developed more slowly than girls did on the same three measures, and especially on thinking skills, if they attended classes with a surplus of boys. In majority-girl classes, boys developed at the same rate as girls.

Moller plans to examine whether boys in majority-girl preschool classes interact with female peers more often than other boys do, perhaps aiding their developmental progress. It’s also possible that teachers in classes with more boys than girls select less intellectually challenging activities for students, with especially harsh developmental consequences for boys, he notes.

Earlier investigations found that girls assist each other in learning new skills more than boys do in preschool classes. Strategies to foster greater cooperation among preschool boys, especially in majority-boy classes, are also worth exploring, Moller says.

The lack of negative effects on girls in majority-boy classes may partly stem from an already reported tendency for black and Latino girls to argue with peers of both sexes as aggressively as boys do, he suggests. These girls may feel at ease and resist intimidation in classes dominated by boys.

Evidence for same-sex education’s benefits has been mixed for grade school students and stronger for high school students, especially for girls. But any advantages of same-sex classes at later ages may not apply to preschoolers, in Moller’s view. The new study primarily examines variations in classroom sex composition rather than all-boy and all-girl classes. The proportion of boys in each class ranged from 25 percent to 100 percent.

Further research needs to examine whether behavior and inattention problems, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, get magnified in majority-boy preschool classrooms, causing teachers to spend relatively little time on learning activities, adds psychologist Jeanne Brooks-Gunn of ColumbiaUniversity.

Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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