A new study finds that the differences in behavior between preschool boys and preschool girls — and harsher discipline for boys — is linked to better high school and college completion rates for women.
In the past several decades, women have not only caught up to men in earning college degrees, they have surpassed them.
Men made up 43 percent of the students enrolled in college in 2015, and were awarded 40 percent of bachelor’s degrees, according to federal data cited in a new study that traces the gender gap all the way back to preschool.
The study, done by the American Sociological Association, finds that boys start kindergarten with fewer of the behaviors that teachers want — such as paying attention, controlling emotions and playing nice with others, and that difference partly accounts for higher high school and college completion rates for women.
The study also finds that schools respond more harshly to boy’s transgressions and that difference also contributed to men not getting as far in their educations.
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Even when girls and boys had the same behavior problems, girls are more likely to finish high school and college.
Jayanti Owens, a sociologist at Brown University, analyzed a national sample of children born in the 1980s who have been followed into adulthood to see if behavior problems linked to lower test scores also predicted how far the students went in school.
She found that the completion rate for high school was 6.5 percentage points lower for men in the study and their enrollment rate in college was about 11 percentage points lower.
How mothers rated their children’s behavior at age 4 and 5 accounted for up to 16 percent of those later gender gaps, relative to other factors such as birth weight, income, presence of a father in the home and education of the mother.
The author notes that the results might not hold for all children, since she chose a sample that was heavy on children born to women in their early to mid-20s, many from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Girls, on average, started out with better social and emotional skills than boys, but that only explained part of the gap. How schools disciplined boys and girls mattered more.
Owens found, to her surprise, that boys were more likely to be suspended, expelled, or held back a year than girls, even when they had the same behavior problems.
A groundbreaking 2005 study on preschool expulsions, showed that preschool boys were expelled more than girls, African Americans were expelled more than any other race, and African-American boys had the greatest chance of being booted from their preschool classrooms.
Federal data released earlier this month also shows racial disparities in discipline from preschool through high school.
“That is entirely consistent with the findings here,” Owens said. “I don’t report the race differences in this particular paper, but it’s consistent with my broader research in this area.”
Owens said she has reason to think she’ll find the same thing when she examines racial differences in upcoming research.
“Generally, African American boys tend to get worse ratings on these behaviors, and it’s also in the African-American community that we see the biggest gender gaps in educational attainment,” Owens said.