Do disruptive classes really get better if they include more girls?

Girls just wanna have a classroom conducive to learning. Barry Batchelor/PA

Classrooms are highly complex environments. Maintaining a positive classroom environment, especially in classrooms that include potentially disruptive children with emotional or social problems, is very difficult, and the processes that teachers can use to achieve this are poorly understood.

But a new study has concluded that in mixed gender classrooms, the presence of more girls can apparently minimise the potentially negative effects of a difficult to manage pupil on classroom culture and attainment.

Conducted by Michael Gottfried and Aletha Harven at the University of California, this study touches on two significant and sometimes emotive topics in education: differences between boys and girls and the inclusion in schools of children with social, emotional and behaviour difficulties.

Keeping the classroom happy

Despite evidence that most behaviour in schools is good, debates around the inclusion of pupils with social and emotional needs still too often centre on the affects their inclusion has on peers and staff.

In their paper, Gottfried and Harven speculate that pupils who show aggression, immaturity, hyperactivity or more internalised behaviours such as anxiety or withdrawal absorb the teacher’s attention, leaving less time for teachers to focus on other pupils’ social, emotional and academic development.

Their research is based on the premise that pupils’ poor behaviour can disrupt teaching and academic achievement. But the effect can also run the other way: poor teaching can lead to poor pupil behaviour and attainment. Gottfried and Harven actually did find that teacher characteristics also had an influence; there were better outcomes in those classrooms with a greater proportion of girls and with more experienced teachers who had attended more special education training.

The common sense logic of the argument in either direction conceals a more intricate situation, where the amount of teacher time focused on any particular pupil is just one aspect of a complex social environment.

The research refers to girls’ protective effect on classroom climate, and sees them providing their fellow pupils with models for positive behaviour, helping to form supportive classroom relationships.

However, the expectations and attitudes of teachers are also important, as are the children’s views of their peers, of the teacher, and the quality of child-teacher relationships. Teachers’ perceptions of children’s behaviour, and teachers’ behaviour toward those children are therefore also likely to provide protective influence.

The delicate balance of these multiple components shapes the ethos of the classroom, and in turn has a major effect on academic achievement. Interactionist thinking like this now underpins the approach to pupils with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, which sees inclusion as effective and to the benefit all members of the school community.

Reading children’s behaviour

But gender is not as easy an explanation as it might seem for the effects Gottfried and Harven observed. The similarities between girls and boys outweigh the differences – but how we perceive and respond to them and their experiences and their own and others’ expectations for them, are more different than is usually assumed.

Research conducted as long ago as the 1970s demonstrated that adults interpret and respond differently to boys’ and girls’ behaviour. In one experiment, for instance, researchers dressed toddlers in unisex snow suits and observed adults responding differently to the same behaviour depending on whether the children were given male or female names.

Other research has shown how children and teachers tend to associate prosocial behaviour more with girls than boys, while studies which observe young children’s actual behaviour paint a much more mixed picture.

This means that in the complex social interactions in the classrooms Gottfried and Harven studied, the girls’ behaviour was probably more likely to be interpreted as prosocial. The explanations we use for others’ behaviour (known as “attributions”) influence our feelings about and behaviour towards that person, so more positive attributions for others’ behaviour produce more positive feelings and generate positive behavioural responses – and so a positive cycle of prosocial behaviour emerges.

So the number of girls in the classroom is not likely to be the key factor in Gottfried and Harven’s study in itself.

What next?

One suggestion Gottfried and Harven have for teachers is to vary the proportion of girls and boys in classrooms to create a protective environment for children with social and emotional difficulties, as well as for their peers.

But given the practical and ethical difficulties of putting that into practice, it’s probably much more expedient to focus on teachers as the key variable in classrooms. We need to enable them to create positive relationships with all their pupils, and to facilitate classrooms with compassionate and accepting classmates, irrespective of gender balance.

Above all, research like this is an important contribution to our still limited understanding of how teacher-pupil and pupil-pupil interactions actually work. These findings do not prove that classrooms whose pupils with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties are simply in need of more female pupils; instead, they challenge us to avoid focusing excessively on the differences between boys and girls, and to pay closer attention to the nuances of the highly intricate arena of classroom dynamics.