Teachers are less tolerant of playful boys than playful girls, according to a new study, and this may result in boys ending up with lower self esteem. The findings suggest that male class clowns are set up to be sad clowns by adolescence, whereas girls who just want to have fun are more or less tolerated.
“Children regularly observe playful boys, or ‘class clowns’, being treated negatively by their teachers, and over time come to change their view of them as desirable playmates in first and second grades to being seen as boys who should be avoided or spurned in third grade,” said study coauthor Lynn A. Barnett of tktk in a statement.
Researchers have wondered for some time why boys underperform in grade school. Some experts suspect it’s because the classroom environment rewards those who can sit patiently and express themselves efficiently—two areas in which the average young girl puts the average young boy to shame. Other studies indicate that boys weather a disproportionate amount of discipline and blame in the classroom, perhaps exacerbated by the fact that elementary school teachers are predominantly women.
To get more information about potential biases against boys, Barnett and her team followed 278 kindergarten-aged children for three years. At the end of each academic year, the kids were assessed by their teachers, peers, and themselves about how playful, disruptive, and socially competent they were. Their social status was ranked and, if they were considered class clowns, this was noted. The results suggest that teachers draw sharp distinctions between playful and studious boys, but did not isolate playful girls in the same way. And this impacted the social standing of the more playful boys. First grade teachers considered male class clowns “rebellious, intrusive, and socially inept”, but their peers loved them. By the time kids got to the third grade, however, teachers’ verbal reprimands had struck home—their peers now considered them undesirable playmates. No similar effect existed among girls.
“Teachers view class clowns as problematic and strive to stifle or extinguish their playfulness,” Barnett added. And it works. Barnett also found that male class clowns had lower self-perceptions by third grade.
The findings are not meant to imply that young girls don’t face unique challenges related to gender and cultural perceptions but, when it comes to having fun in the classroom, the deck appears to be stacked against boys. This may explain why boys struggle more than girls in school, but Barnett says it could also explain why boys often have more serious behavioral problems even as they mature into men.
“All the projections are for this negative trajectory to continue if we don’t change its course,” she says.