Parents often wonder whether their child would be better off in a single-sex school. Social scientists do, too. Plenty of studies of children in elementary through high school have looked at performance and behavior in single-sex vs. mixed-sex schools. The verdict is still out, but there is some evidence that girls in single-sex schools may perform better and have different attitudes toward science, math, and related subjects than their peers in mixed-sex schools.
So what about little kids? Do young children develop more or less quickly in single-sex classes? That’s the basic question Arlen Moller and colleagues set out to answer for children 3.5 to 6 years old, but they added a bit more nuance. They looked at the effects on learning of the presence of the opposite sex and of the ratio of girls to boys. That is, does it matter if a preschool class is made up of seven boys and three girls or vice versa?
The researchers followed more than 800 children in 70 classes over 7 months. They found that girls performed pretty much the same regardless of class composition. It really didn’t matter to girls how many boys were around.
On the other hand, boys performed significantly better in classes that were predominantly girls. In fact, even though boys generally develop more slowly than girls, in classes with disproportionately more girls, the boys developed at the same rate as their female classmates.
So where does this leave us? From a practical standpoint, we can’t put all boys in girl-dominated classrooms. We don’t have enough girls to go around. The authors do suggest, though, that schools may wish to move boys who are falling behind a bit to classrooms with more girls.
This study might also help explain why it is not yet clear if class sex composition matters for older kids. Perhaps reanalyzing the data, taking the precise sex composition of the classes into account rather than just whether or not there were any students of the opposite sex around, would clarify the picture.
Moller, A.C., Forbes-Jones, E., Hightower, A.D., and Friedman, R. 2008. The developmental influence of sex composition in preschool classrooms: Boys fare worse in preschool classrooms with more boys. Early Childhood Research Quarterly 23(3):409–418.