Gender stereotypes and norms can influence both student behaviour and our responses to it. As an educator you not only have a great opportunity to encourage students to question gender stereotypes (read our Challenging gender stereotypes in the classroom and Discussing gender and stereotypes with students articles for more), but also to reinforce these messages when managing student behaviour.
We know that behaviour is not just affected by an individual, but also by the culture and environment in which it occurs. Young people have a strong desire to be accepted, recognised and valued so the culture of a group or place, and the social norms promoted within it, can have a significant influence on their behaviour. School is no exception.
Gender stereotypes and norms contribute to setting the agenda of what is cool and respected or admired behaviour among young people. As such, some students may display particular behaviours as a means of asserting or aligning with ideas of masculinity or femininity, as the environment around them tells this is the best path to being accepted and rewarded. For example:
- A male student being crude, disrespectful, boisterous or disruptive in order to look ‘cool’ in front of fellow students.
- A female student not engaging in discussion, debate or a particular role as she does not want to be perceived as un-fun, aggressive or domineering.
School leaders and teachers also play an important role in shaping the school culture and environment, so it is important to think about the various ways gender stereotypes and norms impact our perception of what is acceptable and expected behaviour for students.
These perceptions can result in differences in the way we respond to particular situations or students, even if we don’t realise or intend it. For example:
- Problem behaviours can be dismissed as normal or natural for either gender (e.g. ‘that's just girls being bitchy’ or ‘boys will be boys’) or trivialising boys’ harassment of kids that don‘t fit gender stereotypes as ‘normal teasing’.
- Students might be disciplined in distinct ways based on their gender (i.e. a female student being more harshly penalised than a male student for displaying typically masculine behaviours i.e. interrupting, yelling, making inappropriate jokes, being disruptively boisterous during activities.)
- The responsibility for behaviour change can be unintentionally placed on the target of harassment, rather than the perpetrator (i.e. counselling a female student to ignore or avoid a boy/ boys who are teasing her, rather than dealing with the behaviour of the boys)
As educators you need to trust your judgement and expertise in each individual situation, however, as these examples show, it is important to be conscious of potential unconscious bias and aware of how it might impact on the management of student behaviour. Some ways to avoid unconscious bias are:
- Reflect on your own practice: Pay attention to how you manage student behaviour and reflect on your practice by asking yourself things like:
- Do I have preconceived ideas about how boys or girls will or should behave?
- Do I have the same expectations of all of my students?
- Do I provide equal amounts of feedback, encouragement and praise to female and male students?
- Do I equally discipline both genders when problems and issues arise in the classroom?
- Encourage students to reflect on their unconscious biases: Take advantage of ‘teachable moments’ that present an opportunity to challenge gender stereotypes and biases among your students.
- Be proactive about defining and modelling acceptable behaviour: Showing students that respect, gender equity and critical thinking about power is valued and rewarded in the classroom and the school community is a great way to encourage positive behaviour.
- Unpack the hidden meaning Sometimes we assume that it is clear what we mean when we use terms like ‘inclusion’, ‘respect’ and ‘equality’ but they can all have different meanings for different people. Lead students in ‘unpacking’ what is meant by these terms and prompt them to think about gender as part of this discussion
For more information on the best-practice student behaviour management see: Diane McDonald & Brad Astbury with Dr Pamela St Leger, The University of Melbourne, Centre for Program Evaluation (2011) “Engage positively with kids – it works!” A Final Evaluation of the School-Wide Positive Behaviour Support for Engagement and Learning Pilot Project for the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development
Nola Alloway. Just kidding – Sex based harassment at school. New South Wales Department of Education and Training (2000) http://www.schools.nsw.edu.au/media/downloads/schoolsgender/learning/yrk12focusareas/gendered/justkidding.pdf
Columbiana Country Career and Technical Centre – Gender Bias in the Classroom