Early behavior problems influence long-term educational attainment more for boys than girls

Photo: Tim Parkinson. Creative Commons.

A new study at Brown University in the US has found that among boys and girls who have the same behavior problems, boys tend to complete fewer years of schooling than girls. This offers a partial explanation for the US gender gap in educational attainment – according to 2014 data, although equal numbers of boys and girls enroll in ninth grade, only 40 percent of bachelor’s degrees are achieved by young men.

Jayanti Owens 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. She found that boys were less likely to learn and more likely to be held back in school. Moreover, boys are more likely than girls to be badly behaved at school.

Owens drew on a national sample of children born to women in their early to mid-20s in the 1980s and followed into adulthood.

She also found that schools respond differently to boys’ behaviors and that this also accounts for part of the gender gap in completing schooling. She calculated that students’ behavior and educators’ responses to behavior problems explained 59 percent of the gender gap in schooling completed among adults.

Owens found 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.

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.”

Owens J, Early Childhood Behavior Problems and the Gender Gap in Educational Attainment in the United States, Sociology of Education, July 2016