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Social and Classroom Behavior

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  1. Don't boys and girls respond differently to competition?
  2. What do boys and girls gain by playing together?
  3. Does single-sex schooling better build girls' self-confidence and self-esteem?

Don't boys and girls respond differently to competition?

While adult men appear to enjoy competition more than women, this difference is smaller between boys and girls, both of whom can benefit from a certain amount of healthy competition.

On average, men appear more willing to engage in competition than women. They also appear to be more successful under competitive conditions than women. So, what does this means for education?

First, this sex difference is small, especially in young children.1 Second, individual children differ widely in whether they enjoy competition.2 Some girls, but not others, enjoy and thrive under competitive situations. As opportunities for competition have grown in recent decades (e.g., athletics), they have been enormously beneficial for girls and women. Similarly, some boys enjoy and thrive under competitive situations, but others do not. Thus, girls’ schools that are designed to avoid competition will be unappealing and unchallenging to many girls, and boys’ schools that are designed to enhance competition will be similarly unappealing and undermining for many boys.

The purpose of education is to teach children a broad range of skills necessary for success in life. Competition is a crucial in the working world. Accordingly, some have argued that females are handicapped by an avoidance of competitive situations. Girls who spend time with peers who enjoy competition – and attend schools that build their appreciation for the positive aspects of competition – will develop skills and comfort in this important area.

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1 Maccoby, E. E., & Jacklin, C. N. (1974). The psychology of sex differences. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

2 Strube, M. J. (1981). Meta-analysis and cross-cultural comparison: Sex differences in child competitiveness. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 12, 3-20.

What do boys and girls gain by playing together?  

Both boys and girls benefit from the different interaction styles and activities favored by each gender, and so should be encouraged to play and learn together.

There is no question that boys and girls differ in their preferred toys, games, and style of play. These differences are shaped by both innate and cultural factors 1 and tend to drive boys and girls apart in childhood, as they are drawn to playmates with similar interests.2,3  However, girls and boys also have many interests and play styles in common. These shared interests can, given the right opportunity, bring girls and boys together in ways that are highly valuable. Children who are able to play with both girls and boys tend to have good social skills that transfer to their play with either gender.4,5 Children are influenced by their playmates,2,3 so girls and boys should be encouraged to play and work together at school and at home.

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1 Berenbaum, S. A., Martin, C. L., Hanish, L. D., Brigs, P. T. & Fabes, R. A. (2008). Sex differences in children’s play. In J. Becker et al (Eds), Sex differences in the brain: From genes to behavior (pp. 275-290). Oxford, Oxford University Press.

2 Martin, C. L., Kornienko, O., Schaefer, D., Hanish, L., Fabes, R. A., & Goble, P. (2011). The role of peers and gender-typed activities in young children’s peer affiliative networks: A longitudinal analysis of selection and influence. Manuscript submitted for publication.

3 Fabes, R. A., C. L. Martin, & Hanish, L. D. (2003). Young children's play qualities in same-, other-, and mixed-sex peer groups. Child Development, 74, 921-932.

4 Howes, C. (1988). Same- and cross-sex friends: implications for interaction and social skills. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 3, 21-37.

5 Waldrop, M. F., & Halverson, C. (1975). Intensive and extensive peer behavior: Longitudinal and cross-sectional analyses. Child Development, 46, 19-26.

Does single-sex schooling better build girls' self-confidence and self-esteem?

Academically, boys and girls are equally confident. Girls are less confident than boys about their physical appearance, a problem that may be worse in single-sex schools.

Boys and girls do not differ in their levels of academic self-confidence and self-esteem;1 however, some boys and girls do view themselves as incapable of succeeding at challenging schoolwork. Research suggests that both boys and girls can overcome such negative self-views when they realize that academic success is the result of hard work, rather than innate or gender-linked talent. It is crucial for parents and teachers to encourage such views.

By contrast, school environments that are characterized by gender-biased views about boys’ and girls’ academic abilities can undermine children’s confidence. Such sexism occurs at both single-sex and co-educational schools,2 but the solution is not to remove the “sex” (e.g., to segregate boys and girls) but to remove the “ism” (i.e., bias) from schools. School cultures in which all students – regardless of gender – are viewed as capable of succeeding through hard work produce high confidence and achievement among all students.

When it comes to self-esteem, the bigger gender gap is in the realm of physical appearance, as opposed to academic identity.3 On average, girls feel worse about their bodies than boys do and there is some evidence that this negative body image is a greater problem at all-girls’ schools than in co-ed schools.4 Research also shows that the gender difference in physical self-esteem can be traced to media exposure.5 The good news is that interventions to combat cultural messages about women’s appearance are beneficial. Indeed, it is vital for both boys and girls to develop media criticism skills and to learn to judge others for their character rather than gender and appearance. Coeducational environments are ideal for learning such messages because of the opportunity for dialogue, perspective taking, and empathy between male and female students.

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1 Gentile, B., Grabe, S., Dolan-Pascoe, B., Twenge, J. M., & Wells, B. E. (2009). Gender differences in domain-specific self-esteem: A meta-analysis. Review of General Psychology, 13, 34-45.

2 Lee, V. E., Marks, H. M., & Byrd, T. (1994). Sexism in single-sex and coeducational independent secondary school classrooms. Sociology of Education, 67, 92-120.

3 Feingold, A., & Mazzella, R. (1998). Gender differences in body image are increasing. Psychological Science, 9, 190-195.

4 Mensinger, J. (2001). Conflicting gender role prescriptions and disordered eating in single-sex and coeducational school environments. Gender and Education, 13, 417-429.

5 Dohnt, H., & Tiggeman, M. (2006). The contribution of peer and media influences to the development of body satisfaction and self-esteem in young girls: A prospective study. Developmental Psychology, 42, 929-936.