Labelling playful boys as 'class clowns' is harmful

Playful boys are seen more negatively, finds a new study.
Playful boys are seen more negatively, finds a new study. Photo: Shutterstock

Playful boys are viewed more negatively by teachers than girls with playful dispositions, finds new research, which also highlighted some of the detrimental - and far reaching - impacts of boys being labelled "class clowns". 

"Children regularly observe playful boys, or 'class clowns', being treated negatively by their teachers, and over time come to change their view of them as desirable playmates in 1st and 2nd grades to being seen as boys who should be avoided or spurned in 3rd grade," says lead author Dr Lynn A Barnett.

As part of the study, published in Frontiers in PsychologyDr Barnett followed 278 kindergarten children across their first three years of school to examine both teachers classmates and students' own views on playfulness. What characteristics are associated with "playful" children? According to previous research, playful littlies have the propensity to be more physically active, verbal, impulsive, aggressive and mischievous.

At the end of each school year, students were rated by their teachers and their classmates around their level of playfulness, disruptive behaviour, social competence, social status and "class clown status."

And, according to Dr Barnett, the results were "disquieting".

"Beginning in first grade, teachers showed their distaste for playful boys, consistently viewing them as disruptive in the classroom and as least socially skilled, and assigning them the label of class clown," she wrote.

"Teachers view class clowns as problematic and strive to stifle or extinguish their playfulness."

Dr Barnett explained one of the most significant discoveries of the study was the antipathy held by teachers for playful boys - right from Kindy.

"In all grades, teachers viewed playful boys as the most disruptive in the classroom, consistently more so than less playful boys, and all girls," she said.

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Furthermore, playful boys were "stigmatised" by their teachers, something that was communicated through verbal and non-verbal reprimands in the classroom.

But that's not what Dr Barnett considers the most shocking result.

"The most startling (and alarming) finding was that the children themselves - most notably the playful boys - shifted to hold increasingly negative perceptions of themselves as well by third grade," she writes. "Like their peers, they came to view themselves as unpopular, and less socially skilled, compared to their classmates."

Dr Barnett believes the research has important - and long term - implications for playful little boys.

"Classmates may treat the playful boy differently, or hold inaccurate expectations of him, which could lead to him experiencing social anxiety or isolation," Dr Barnett says. "In this way, the characterisation of being 'playful' or the designation as a 'class clown' has the potential to alter the life course of a child."