As a parent, I often wonder why my children behave the way that they do. I am particularly curious about why boys and girls behave differently. This blog post lifts the covers on child behaviour and gives some insight into the world of childhood and for educators, when working with the different sexes.
Defining clear differences between girls and boys is a complex exercise, since each child is an individual. Recent studies have shown that there are some differences between the way the brains of boys and girls are wired, which might explain the differences in behaviour often noted by educators and parents.
New findings on gender differences
As recently as the 1980s, gender differences were often chalked down to artificial constructs of society, with many psychologists stating that changing the way we raised children (i.e. by eliminating established stereotypes) would lead to more uniform behaviour between the two sexes.
More recent research, however, debunks this theory A report published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that gender differences in behaviour and personality (in university-age and adult subjects) could be observed across a plethora of cultures, including the USA, European and Asian cultures (some 26 different cultures were analysed in the study).
According to the study, women reported themselves to be higher in agreeableness and openness to feelings, while men rated themselves higher in qualities such as assertiveness. Interestingly (and fervently opposed to the ‘social construct’ theory), gender differences were most strongly observed in the American and European cultures, in which traditional sex roles are minimised.
In younger populations, science is also pointing to clearly defined differences. In the report, Gender differences in personality: a meta-analysis, Alan Feingold notes some of these differences: girls put higher demands on themselves, for instance, and they are more critical with their own work.
They also obtain better marks across the spectrum of subjects, in all age groups. Despite this fact, girls are less confident about their abilities and boys have higher self-esteem.
In an interesting report published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, Eva Pomerantz notes: “girls are more vulnerable to internal distress than boys… girls doing poorly in school were the most vulnerable to internal distress. However, even girls doing well in school were more vulnerable than boys were.” Boys, on the contrary, often overestimated their achievements. The report also noted that while girls tend to take failure more seriously (i.e. poor marks mean that they have disappointed parents), boys often see the problem as being limited to the particular topic/subject they have failed. Girl also tend to generalise failure, relating a poor result to their general academic abilities.
The need for differentiated approaches
The report is a wake-up call to parents and educators, who may benefit from varying their strategy to boost a child’s grades. Girls may benefit from greater support and acceptance. They need to be taught that failure at one attempt is no reflection on their general ability.
Boys, on the other hand, may benefit from having strict goals set; in essence, they need to learn that so much confidence can have little value if their grades do not reflect their ability. In other words, they also need to make a greater effort and pursue more efficient study skills.
Additional differences which have been observed between boys and girls include boys’ penchant for physically active activities; psychologists at the Cambridge University have noted that boys actually prefer to view mechanical (rather than human) motion; they also work out the laws of motions at a faster rate than girls.
Boys are also said to be more likely to indulge in risk-taking behaviour, and less likely to be fearful of loud noises or stimuli. Scientists have also observed that in adolescence, the connections between the emotional and language centres of the brain in girls result in more developed language, reasoning and reflection. This process occurs later in boys, which is one of the reasons for their greater physicality.
Gender differences can explain behaviour
This difference can manifest itself in more ways than the academic one – i.e. boys may get into physical fights more often, but they also tend to resolve conflicts quicker. Girls, on the other hand, have keen emotional, language and reasoning abilities and they can take longer to let go, or need to talk through the issue before it is resolved.
In this sense, teachers can help girls solve a conflict by taking a positive, restorative approach to conflict resolution. Boys are also said to talk more in class and answer questions (even if they are not certain of the answer) while girls tend to put more effort into planning and organising their work; they also tend to be more honest about their ambitions than boys.
The need to be wary of discrimination
It is important to note that gender disparities are strongest in primary school. Over the past few decades, gender differences have intensified. An interesting article in TIME magazine noted that boys are graded lower than girls (even in subjects such as maths and science, where their test scores are actually equal to or higher than those of girls). This means that to some extent, some discrimination has been thrown into the equation, since some teachers are taking attitude and behaviour into account when doling out what many see as unfair grades.
Various studies indicate that more boys than girls have learning disabilities and problem behaviour. They also generally obtain lower grades than girls in all subjects. Therefore, it is vital for educators to avoid discriminatory behaviour in grading, since this will only exacerbate the situation.
In the same article, another crucial point is made: differences within the same sex are far more pronounced that differences across genders; therefore, educators should focus less on gender and more on individual children (i.e. well-behaved boys should not be treated as an anomaly, nor should bad behaviour from girls be ignored). Moreover, there are many more important considerations educators need to take into account when teaching a group of children. These include learning styles, different home environments, physical maturity, etc.
A report by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) analysed the results of students from a number of English Universities. There was a noticeable difference by gender: some 79 per cent of female students who commenced their course with AAB in their A-Levels obtained an upper second or higher, compared to 70 per cent of male students. On a more positive note, 20 per cent of both women and men who obtained those A-Level scores, achieved first class honours.
Some interesting findings I think. Do these insights resonate with you? If so, please feel free to tell us what you think via the comments box below.