Girls are more likely than boys to get away with misbehaving in the classroom, according to a new study which found that behavioural problems in early childhood have a larger negative effect on high school and college completion rates for males than females.
"When I compared 4- and 5-year-old boys and girls who had the same levels of behaviour problems - including difficulty sustaining attention, regulating emotions, delaying gratification, and forming positive relationships with teachers and peers - I found that boys were less likely to learn and more likely to be held back in school," said Jayanti Owens from Brown University in the US.
"My study also showed that the way schools respond to boys' behaviours plays a significant role in shaping their educational outcomes years later," said Owens.
Researchers found that relative to other early childhood family and health factors, gender differences in both students' behaviour and educators' responses to behaviour problems explained more than half (59.4 per cent) of the gender gap in schooling completed among adults.
The study examined how systematic responses to children's behaviour at school vary by gender and help determine overall educational attainment, which is closely linked to success in adulthood.
Researchers drew on a national sample of children born to women in their early to mid-20s in the 1980s and followed into adulthood.
"Although the same behaviours have a worse impact on boys' education, it is also the case that on average boys start school with higher levels of behavioural problems than girls," said Owens.
"That boys typically have worse behaviours when they start school may help explain why their behaviours are more detrimental to achievement - stereotypes about boys' bad behaviour may cause educators to take more and harsher actions against male students," Owens said.
"This process may lead to a compounding and cyclical relationship between boys' behaviour problems and lower achievement," she added.
According to Owens, typically boys and girls have divergent experiences at school.
"It is partly because boys come to school with higher levels of behaviour problems, and partly because of the ways boys' behaviours tend to be treated by teachers, peers and administrators," she said.
Researchers found that in elementary school, boys on average report significantly greater exposure to negative school environments and peer pressure compared to girls.
In high school, boys report significantly higher rates of grade repetition (by 4.5 percentage points) and lower educational expectations, researchers said.
"My findings are broadly consistent with the notion that many school environments are not conducive to boys' success," said Owens.
The findings were published in the journal Sociology of Education.