Class Clown Bias: Teachers Discourage Playfulness In Boys More Than Girls

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Gender bias is often noted to point out the differences in the treatment of men and women, but how are young children affected? A new study finds that elementary school teachers generally view playful boys as more disruptive and rebellious than girls exhibiting some of the same behavior.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that the way teachers respond to boys playing around in the classroom affects their classmates, who often change their attitude of these “class clowns” from positive to negative. The boys were also found to internalize these negative attitudes as well, possibly leading to self-esteem and behavioral issues later in their scholastic careers.

Children having pillow fight
A new study finds that elementary school teachers generally view playful boys as more disruptive and rebellious than girls exhibiting some of the same behavior.

“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 1st and 2nd grades to being seen as boys who should be avoided or spurned in 3rd grade,” says lead study author Dr. Lynn A. Barnett in a media release.

Yet when young girls act out at school, teachers often see them in less bothersome light.

Dr. Barnett and her team followed 278 kindergarten-aged children to class for three school years to examine teachers’, classmates’, as well as their own attitudes about playfulness. Following each academic year, the children were evaluated on their levels of playfulness, disruptive behavior, social competence, social status, and “class clown” status.

The results confirmed gender differences in these attitudes that had been recorded by previous studies. Teachers appeared to differentiate playful boys, or those they labeled “class clowns,” from the other boys, yet they didn’t make the distinction with girls. The playful boys were viewed as disruptive, rebellious, and intrusive, but playfulness in girls wasn’t a consideration in teachers’ assessments of them.

“Teachers view class clowns as problematic and strive to stifle or extinguish their playfulness,” says Dr. Barnett.

While teachers had a negative view of playful boys in class, their classmates initially had the opposite view. Playful boys were seen as desirable playmates and were well-liked by their peers. They also viewed themselves in a positive light. But as teachers stigmatized playful boys more throughout the school year with verbal and non-verbal reprimands, their classmates began to sour on them.

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Dr. Barnett wants to see more research into playtime for children, along with a deeper look into the interactions between teachers and students. The findings could provide more insight into why instructors hold different perceptions about children based on their behavior.

“Over many years of studying children at play, I have witnessed an alarming increase in play being structured and directed by adults — and what was once free play out-of-school time being usurped for extracurricular activities and lessons, tutoring, homework, and the like,” she says. “The decreases in individual expression and creativity, and social and emotional skills, and the increases in bullying, childhood obesity, and mental health issues such as stress, depression, anxiety are all cogent signals that we need to restore and extend children’s free play time. All the projections are for this negative trajectory to continue if we don’t change its course and effect major changes.”

The full study was published March 1, 2018 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

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