Children can pick up gender stereotypes from parents, peers, and media consumption, but teachers also play an important role, in both positive and negative ways.
Researchers from Penn State found that preschool teachers can inadvertently teach gender stereotypes to their students when they highlight gender differences, such as having kids line up separately by gender. “The biggest impact of the study and the findings seems to be that classroom structure really matters,” co-author of the study Lynn Liben, distinguished professor of psychology, human development and family studies, and education at Penn State, said in a statement. “It shows that if teachers emphasize gender — in any way — it has amazingly profound effects on how children interact with each other.”
Another study, which looked at first- and second-grade female teachers and their students, found that female teachers’ own anxiety about math negatively affected girls’ achievements in the subject. In the study, the researchers found that over the course of the school year, teachers projected their math fears onto their female students. By the end of the school year, the more anxious teachers were about math, the lower girls’ math achievement scores were and the more likely girls (but not boys) were to buy into the common stereotype that “boys are good at math, and girls are good at reading.”
On the positive side, the study found that girls who didn’t buy into the stereotype that they aren’t good at math were protected from lower math scores. Parents can help boost children’s confidence in math, such as by talking about female role models in math and science and their achievements.
For teachers, one of the simplest fixes is to be mindful of the language they use. Teachers who adopt more gender-neutral language, such as addressing the class as “children” rather than “girls and boys,” are less likely to reinforce gender stereotypes, according to the New York Times.
“I find that incredibly compelling that labeling for boys or for girls will have an effect on reducing kids’ belief that everything is open to everybody,” Liben told the New York Times. “I don’t think we need to wipe out differences, but you don’t want to constrain kids’ choices and abilities.”
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