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.
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
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
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
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
Moller, A.C., et al. In press. The developmental influence of sex composition in preschool classrooms: Boys fare worse in preschool classrooms with more boys. Early Childhood Research Quarterly. doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2008.05.001