Teachers treat boys and girls differently in one way that can be especially bad for boys

One thing that’s becoming overwhelmingly clear is that the way we historically have socialized boys and girls has to change. Gender roles are modeled for kids in all aspects of their lives, but the whole “boys will be boys” thing might start in the classroom, just by the way teachers treat “playful” kids or the “class clowns.” A new study published in the Frontiers in Psychology found that in elementary school classrooms (or at least from first to third grade), playful boys are treated more negatively by teachers than playful girls and are seen as disruptive or rude. But there’s one catch. 

Although teachers treat them negatively and reprimand male class clowns, their self-perceptions and the way they’re treated by their classmates remains positive. So they might be getting in trouble for not sitting still and joking around in the back of class, but on the playground, they’re probably considered pretty cool.

If you’ve been to school, this sounds pretty familiar, right? The class clowns can be annoying sometimes if you’re trying to concentrate on your work, but they also tend to be pretty popular. For a little bit, at least. These perceptions change over time when it comes to male class clowns. The older the boys get and the more they are treated negatively by teachers, the more their classmates tend to view them as a disruption and generally not socially acceptable. There was no similar distinction of female class clowns or “playful” girls.

Dr. Lynn A. Barnett, Associate Professor at the Department of Recreation, Sport & Tourism University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign said in a statement accompanying the study:

"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."

In this case, then, boys aren’t really getting away with bad behavior. Treating a playful boy as disruptive and someone to be avoided and a playful girl as just a playful girl can have negative effects on a boy’s self-esteem and his own self-perception later in life. Like, if you’re declared The Bad Kid in kindergarten and over time your classmates start to treat you like that, too, you might as well just roll with it, right?

Treating boys who are playful as disruptive while encouraging girls to do the same kinds of behaviors might be one way we teach boys that they’re jerks, even when they aren’t. It happens with other labels, according to Psychology Today. A classic study, called “What You Expect Is What You Get,”  found that when researchers told teachers that a kid wasn’t very smart (or was) or came from a “rich” or “poor” household, they were treated differently by that teacher.

Labels help us distinguish people, but often it’s the very same labels that make the character trait. So a kid who has been labeled “disruptive” will seem more disruptive than he might actually be to teachers and classmates. People seem smarter, funnier, louder, or any number of things just because we’ve given them the label.

When they grow up, men tend to get away with a lot more when they’re out in public than women do, especially when it comes to asserting themselves. But self-esteem matters at all ages, and if playful boys are being treated more negatively than girls, that will affect them eventually. Not being able to sit still and wanting to be playful is a natural part of childhood development, according to Barnett, and totally necessary. Shutting it down along gender lines is an issue. Barnett added in a statement:

"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."

While we should be empowering young girls to do their thing, too, shutting boys down when they’re getting rowdy, and not shutting girls down for doing the same thing, is a good way to teach boys not to express themselves at all. And we need to start teaching boys that there are healthy and constructive ways to express their feelings. Stanford professor Judy Chu writes in her book When Boys Becomes Boys that our culture emotionally incapacitates boys around the ages of 4 and 5 years old, even though they’re actually good at clocking other peoples’ feelings and empathizing with peers at that age.

It seems like teachers might play just as big a role in fostering a kid’s toxic masculinity as parents and media do, which means dismantling traditional gender roles isn’t going to be simple. But it might mean that kids, both boys and girls, just need more recess and time to blow off steam. That way, they won’t have to be singled out later in class.