Highlighting gender promotes stereotyped views in preschoolers

November 16, 2010

Preschool teachers can inadvertently pass on lessons in stereotypes to their students when they highlight gender differences, according to Penn State psychologists.

A study has found that when teachers call attention to gender, children are more likely to express stereotyped views of what activities are appropriate for boys and girls and which gender they prefer to play with, said Lynn Liben, Distinguished Professor of psychology, human development and family studies, and education, Penn State.

By highlighting the powerful effect of classroom environments on preschool children's gender-related beliefs and behaviors, the findings have implications for how teachers structure classrooms and interact with children, according to Liben, who worked with Lacey Hilliard, a Penn State graduate student, on the experiment.

"The biggest impact of the study and the findings seems to be that classroom structure really matters," said Liben. "It shows that if teachers emphasize gender--in any way-- it has amazingly profound effects on how children interact with each other."

The researchers, who published their results in the current issue of Child Development, evaluated 57, 3- to 5-year-olds at two preschools over a two-week period. The two schools were similar in class size, teacher-child ratio and populations served. In one set of classrooms, teachers were asked to avoid making divisions by sex, which was the policy of the preschool. In the other, teachers were asked to use gendered language and divisions, such as lining children up by gender and asking boys and girls to post their work on separate bulletin boards, but still avoid making statements comparing boys and girls or fostering competition between them. For example, they were asked to avoid saying, "Who can be quieter: boys or girls?"

At the end of two weeks, the researchers tested the degree to which the children endorsed cultural gender stereotypes, such as "only girls" should play with baby dolls, and asked them about their interest in playing with children of their own and the other sex. The researchers observed the children to see who they played with during play time.

Children in the classrooms in which teachers avoided characterizations by sex showed no change in responses or behaviors over the two weeks. However, children in the other classrooms showed increases in stereotyped attitudes and decreases in their interest in playing with children of the other sex. They also were observed to play less with children of the other sex.

The findings extend earlier research showing that classroom environments that make divisions by gender lead to increased stereotypes among elementary-school-aged children.
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Penn State

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