Good Morning, Boys and Girls!

It’s common to walk into an elementary school classroom and hear a teacher say, “Good morning, boys and girls!”  Is there any harm in this approach? Let's take a look at the research. 

By Momentous Institute | Mar 19, 2018

It’s common to walk into an elementary school classroom and hear a teacher say, “Good morning, boys and girls!” Of course, it would be completely inappropriate for a teacher to use race as a category, such as, “Good morning, White children and Black children!” What makes it acceptable to categorize children by gender? Is there any harm in this approach?

Research conducted by Hilliard and Liben explored this concept by looking at two classrooms. In one classroom, teachers were encouraged to use gender through physical separation such as lining up students by boys and girls, classroom organization such as posting separate bulletin boards for boys and girls, and gender-specific language such as, “I need a girl to help pass out the markers” and “Good morning, boys and girls”. (As a note, they were encouraged not to use gender to set up competition between boys and girls and to avoid phrases such as, “Let’s see who can clean up faster, boys or girls.”) In the other classroom, teachers continued with their school policy to avoid using gendered language and organization in the classroom.

The researchers tested students’ stereotypes on gender as well as their desire or lack of desire to play and interact with children of the same or opposite gender.

Here’s what they found: students in the classrooms in which gender was used as a method for classification and organization had significantly more stereotypes about gender than students in the other classroom. Additionally, children in the gender-heavy classroom were more likely to reject students of the opposite gender when given the opportunity.

In this research study, children who experienced classrooms where gender was used as a classification system increased their rejection of children in the “other” group – children of the opposite gender. They were less likely to play with children of the opposite gender in their own classroom, and when shown pictures of unfamiliar peers (groups of all boys, all girls, or mixed gender), they were less likely to say that they would prefer to play with the groups that had children of the opposite gender.

One teacher in the study even mentioned that on the second day of using gender language in her classroom, the students established separate boys and girls snack tables, with no prompting by the teacher.

This research aligns with what we know to be true about how children make sense of different categories. Starting at a very young age, children attempt to categorize their environment. They classify people based on what they see or understand about others, such as gender, race or hair color. They then try to make sense of these categories and attach meaning to them. They tend to view their own group as superior and the other group as inferior.

When children develop these early classifications of gender, it can have long-term effects. Children who are less likely to play with children of the opposite gender are less likely to be exposed to the traditionally masculine or traditionally feminine stereotypes, and thus less likely to overcome these stereotypes. For example, girls who choose to play only with other girls may not be exposed to traditionally “boy” toys, behaviors, preferences or play styles. Then as a result of this lack of exposure, they may be less likely to pursue traditionally “boy” paths.

It may not seem like such a big deal to say something as simple as, “Good morning, boys and girls.” But what the research tells us is that a teacher’s use of gender-specific language can cause students themselves to create a gendered environment. If we want children to learn to interact successfully with all of the students in the room, to defy stereotypes and achieve their biggest dreams, it might be time to shift our language and  practices.


Read the original research article here