“Boys Will Be Boys” in the United States, But Not in Asia, Finds Study Led by Shannon Wanless

Issue Date: 
June 17, 2013

A new study led by a University of Pittsburgh researcher shows there is a gender gap when it comes to behavior and self-control in American children—one that does not appear to exist in children in Asia.

In the United States, according to the study, girls have higher levels of self-regulation than boys. In China, South Korea, and Taiwan, the study found no gender gap when researchers directly assessed the self-regulation of 3-to-6-year-olds. Self-regulation is defined as children’s ability to control their behavior and impulses, follow directions, and persist in completing a task. The results appear in the most recent issue of the journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly.

Shannon Wanless“These findings suggest that although we often expect girls to be more self-regulated than boys, this may not be the case for Asian children,” said Shannon Wanless, lead author of the study and assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in Education in Pitt’s School of Education.

Although there were no gender differences in self-regulation when the children were directly assessed using a variety of school-readiness tasks in a quiet space, teachers in Asia perceived girls as performing better on self-regulation even when they and boys actually performed equally when assessed overall.

“Teachers are rating children’s behavior in the classroom environment, which has a lot of distractions and is very stimulating,” Wanless said. “It is possible that boys in the Asian countries were able to self-regulate as well as girls when they were in a quiet space (the direct assessment), but were not able to regulate themselves as well in a bustling classroom environment (teacher ratings).”

Wanless and Megan McClelland, an associate professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University, along with coauthors at U.S. and Asian universities, conducted assessments of 814 children in the United States, China, South Korea, and Taiwan. Their study showed that U.S. girls had significantly higher self-regulation than boys, but there were no significant gender differences in any Asian societies. In addition, for both genders, directly assessed and teacher-rated self-regulation were related to many aspects of school readiness in all societies for girls and boys.

“We know from previous research that many Asian children outperform American children in academic achievement,” McClelland said. “Increasingly, we are seeing that there also is a gap when it comes to their ability to control their behavior and persist with tasks.”

Wanless said this study paves the way for future research to explore why there is such a large gender gap in the United States and what can be learned from Asian schools.

“What can we learn from Asian cultural and teaching practices about how we can support girls and boys to be successful in school?” she said. “When we see differences in developmental patterns across countries it suggests that we might want to look at teaching and parenting practices in those countries and think about how they might apply in the United States.”

The research builds on Wanless’ previous work, which has shown that teachers who are more emotionally supportive help students develop better self-regulation, and that self-regulation is related to readiness for school regardless of children’s socioeconomic status, gender, culture, or other potential risk factors in their lives.

Both researchers emphasized the importance of working with children, regardless of gender or culture, on their self-regulation skills. Practicing games such as “Simon Says” and “Red Light, Green Light” is one way that parents can work with their children to help them learn how to follow instructions, persist in completing tasks, and listen carefully. Wanless is currently working to help Pittsburgh preschool teachers support children’s social and self-regulatory skills and working with Pitt School of Education colleagues to facilitate preservice teachers’ awareness of these skills.

“In our study, self-regulation was good for academic achievement for boys and girls,” Wanless said. “That means this skill is important for both genders, and we should be supporting self-regulatory development for all children, especially boys. Low self-regulation in preschool has been linked to difficulties in adulthood, so increased focus on supporting young boys’ development can have long-term positive benefits.”

The paper, “Gender Differences in Behavioral Regulation in Four Societies: The U.S., Taiwan, South Korea, and China,” first appeared online April 21, 2013, in the third quarter 2013 issue of Early Childhood Research Quarterly.