School & District Management

Scholars Say Pupils Gain Social Skills in Coed Classes

By Sarah D. Sparks — May 07, 2012 9 min read
Four-year-olds Elijah Reyes and his classmate Alyzandra Lopez work together on a “buddy” activity at Kenilworth Elementary School in Phoenix. The preschool classroom is taking part in the Sanford Harmony Program, an experimental curriculum aimed at reducing children’s gender biases.
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Preschool teacher Jacque Radke started the school year at Kenilworth Elementary in Phoenix with a pretty typical bunch of 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds. Some of the girls had started to form cliques and “no boys allowed” lunch tables, while Ms. Radke and her instructional assistant worried that one quiet little girl was getting shunted to the sidelines by the boys.

Generally, boys and girls become more polarized through their first years in school. Now, researchers have started to explore how to span that sex divide and are finding that more-equitable coed classrooms can have social and academic benefits for boys and girls alike.

While children of both sexes play together as toddlers, by the end of kindergarten, they spend only 9 percent of their playtime with children of the other sex, according to research by Lise S. Eliot, an associate professor of neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School.

“Separation is a fact of human childhood and is equally common among young monkeys and apes,” Ms. Eliot says in the 2009 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt book Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps and What We Can Do About It. That early separation, she says, creates “two separate cultures that persist throughout childhood.”

But researchers at the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference, held in Vancouver, British Columbia, last month, stressed that while all children naturally develop gender identity, classroom demographics and teacher practices can make a big difference in how and whether students develop sex-based stereotypes and prejudices.

Not ‘Hard-Wired’

In a meta-analysis of studies based on more than 7 million children in kindergarten through 11th grade, Janet S. Hyde, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found small average gender differences in such areas as activity level (favoring boys) and ability to focus (favoring girls), but no significant differences in mathematics or reading comprehension and “no solid evidence that boys and girls actually learn differently.”

“You never hear a good, modern neuroscientist say the brain is hard-wired,” Ms. Hyde said. “In fact, it is characterized by great neural plasticity, so ... any differences you see are at least as likely caused by differences in the experiences of males and females as to any kind of anatomical differences present from birth.”

Even if boys and girls don’t learn differently, classroom demographics can change how students learn, according to research by Erin E. Pahlke, an assistant research professor of social and family dynamics at Arizona State University in Tempe. Ms. Pahlke analyzed the achievement of more than 21,000 pupils in the federal Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort, and found that as the percentage of girls in a kindergarten or 1st grade classroom increased, the reading and math achievement of both boys and girls at the end of 1st grade rose, too.

Moreover, boys and girls in classes near sex parity had better self-control than those of either sex in a class in which they were the dominant majority, 80 percent or more.

Ms. Pahlke said she was still digging into the reasons why coed parity might be beneficial, but a few things jumped out at her. For one, teachers reported classes with more girls as better behaved, which could translate into better interpersonal skills and more time on task for learning, yet she cautioned that girls do not behave better when they are the overwhelming majority in the classroom.

Teacher Modeling

Teacher stereotypes about student abilities may also be tempered in a more balanced classroom, Ms. Pahlke said. Prior research has shown that teachers’ own beliefs about gender stereotypes—such as that girls perform worse in math, or boys in reading—can bring down their students’ performance.

“In a class where teachers see there are more boys in the classroom, and I would argue teachers are hyperaware of these issues, ... maybe in a math class where they have more boys they say: ‘Oh, boys are better in math. I can use more-advanced-math approaches in my classroom,’ ” Ms. Pahlke said, “and it could work the other way in reading.”

Seemingly benign and insignificant practices, such as greeting students with “Good morning, boys and girls,” or seating students boy-girl-boy-girl, can have big and unintended consequences, according to other, ongoing studies of social labeling and group identity.

Rebecca S. Bigler, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, has studied how children develop a sense of group differences and biases, especially related to gender and race.

Both Ms. Radke, the Phoenix preschool teacher, and her instructional assistant Erica K. Flynn, said they routinely referred to their preschool classes by gender.

“Growing up, I’d always seen, oh, boys are in this line and girls are in this line, and I’d not thought anything about it,” Ms. Flynn said.

Yet even casually organizing students by gender or mentioning it in a way that labels causes boys and girls to develop the idea that gender is fundamentally oppositional, in ways the teacher has not mentioned or discussed, Ms. Bigler’s and other research has shown.

“If you compare it to race, if you said to your 1st grade classrooms, ‘Good morning, whites and Latinos; let’s have the Latinos get your pencils,’ what would happen is you would go to federal prison,” Ms. Bigler said. “Labeling children routinely by race in your classroom is a violation of federal law, and, of course, you can do this routinely with gender.”

While infants as young as 6 months can differentiate people by gender, they can also differentiate by any number of other characteristics, from ethnicity to hat wearing, she said. They look to an adult’s behavior to decide which differences are important in a given context.

“Children can attend to any salient difference set out in their environment,” Ms. Bigler said. “Labeling is especially powerful,” she noted; using a noun description like calling someone a “hat wearer,” rather than saying “he likes to wear hats often,” makes the description seem more permanent and intrinsic in children’s minds.

In one series of experiments discussed at the research conference, elementary school students were separated into two random groups and given either red or blue shirts to wear for the duration of the summer session. In some classrooms, the teachers were asked to hand out the shirts and never mention them again. In others, teachers were asked to use them casually to group students—asking students to form a red line and a blue line, using separate red and blue cubbies or asking, “Let’s have the red students turn in their books now.”

In some versions, the blue- and red-shirted pupils were put in separate classrooms.

From left, Jordan Tamayo, 5, Alyzandra Lopez, 4, and Ernest Gonzales, 5, wait to go to lunch at Kenilworth Elementary School in Phoenix. Scholars say boys and girls can gain important social benefits from learning together in preschool.

At the end of the summer session, Ms. Bigler said, “what we find is when teachers use groups to label children in their classrooms, you get the formation of stereotyping and prejudice, and when teachers ignore the presence of those groups in their classrooms, you do not find stereotyping and prejudice.”

That sort of adult modeling may help explain why children in their first few years of school are far more rigidly oriented along gender lines than toddlers or even the adults they will become.

During that period of schooling, children begin to play and interact overwhelmingly with others of their own sex and become less comfortable interacting with those of the other sex, according to Laura D. Hanish, the co-director of the Lives of Girls and Boys: Initiatives on Gender Development and Relationships project at Arizona State.

Ms. Hanish’s research found that when boys and girls played mostly with same-sex classmates in preschool, they began to behave in more gender-stereotyped ways: Boys played farther from teachers, became more aggressive, and used more “rough and tumble” play over time; girls moved closer to teachers and included more gendered play.

“As girls play with other girls, they start to become more skilled in the interactional styles and patterns typical of girls and less skilled in the interactional styles and patterns associated with boys,” Ms. Hanish said. “You start to see increasing segregation. Children develop a fairly limited set of interaction skills: less understanding, appreciation, respect of one another.

“All of that can translate into a host of problems across classrooms,” she said. “It can translate to less effective interactions across academic tasks, harassment, bullying.”

Building Relationships

The Sanford Harmony Program at Arizona State is working with schools to ease the polarization of boys and girls in early grades without preventing normal gender identification. In Phoenix, Ms. Radke and Ms. Flynn are part of an experimental curriculum intended to re-engage boys and girls in two critical transition grades, preschool and 5th grade.

The educators received professional development on gender biases and child development, including research on teacher labeling.

“It was an eye-opening thing realizing how many times I was inadvertently categorizing the children in biases based on whether they were boys or girls,” Ms. Radke recalled. “There was personal self-awareness that came out.”

Throughout this school year, Ms. Radke and Ms. Flynn have not directly discussed gender with their students, but each week, every child is paired with a new “class buddy” of the other sex. Every day, buddies do a different activity together, from art projects and music to active physical games outside.

The program also includes regular activities to teach the children social skills, such as listening, sharing, and cooperation.

In a preliminary study of 94 preschool and 199 5th grade low-income students in matched classrooms, Ms. Hanish found students who participated in the buddy matching and social curriculum were more socially competent, less aggressive, less exclusionary, and showed better social skills toward both boys and girls.

Teachers of students in the program also reported that those children were better behaved and better at following directions than those from nonparticipating classrooms.

The Phoenix educators said the program has made a big difference in their students’ general behavior and their relationships with one another over the course of the year.

“Every Monday, they’re excited to come in and see who their new buddy is,” Ms. Radke said. “What we began to see was on their own, they would sit with their buddy for the sit-down, read-aloud activity. … Not every buddy partnership works well, but I resisted the temptation to change it, because there were a lot of odd couples that ended up working well.”

The cliquishness at the beginning of the year has dissipated, Ms. Flynn said, and across the board, students are now more likely to play together, cooperate, and help each other. Even the youngest girl has become accepted by her bigger classmates and speaks more often.

“Before, there was a lot more arguing,” Ms. Radke said. “Now, we’ll hear them say ‘good job’ or ‘it’s OK’—really supportive words. It’s like they’re kinder to each other.”

Moreover, she said, the small-scale bullying that was common earlier in the year, such as telling a child he was not a friend, or she couldn’t sit with a particular group at lunch, has vanished.

“I truly believe that as the children engage in structured buddy activities, they are learning to know each other, and this connection is reflected by growth in their patience and tolerance as they interact together throughout the day,” Ms. Radke said. “Not hearing that [bullying] language is a huge change in our class.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2012 edition of Education Week as Researchers Cite Social Benefits in Coed Classes


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