Good Girl Syndrome in Coeducational Classes

One of the recurring comments made to me from parents after their daughter has been at the School for a few weeks is that she has come out of her shell, is more confident and is loving the work. The common sources of these comments come from parents whose daughters have been in coeducational classes prior to starting at St Catherine’s, a girls’ only school.

Having worked in a number of schools across both private and government sectors, including both single sex and coeducational settings, I have come to the belief that good girls in coeducational settings suffer from what I call the ‘Good Girl Syndrome’.

The syndrome affects good girls who are well behaved, are diligent with their work, can work without support, and work well independently. While it doesn’t look like this is a problem, it most certainly is.

In the classroom, these girls are often overlooked by the demands of other students with behavioural issues, boisterous personalities or learning difficulties. In the course of a lesson, very little time is provided to these girls. They are doing the work, not making a fuss, and receiving mostly correct work; they are not indicative of needing the teacher’s time or support. In fact, the time and attention they do get is from the teacher rewarding their positive qualities. Good girls are compliant, want to please and work hard for teacher praise, thus perpetuating and repeating the cycle. In essence, good girls reinforce the syndrome themselves.

In addition to the fact that good girls would not be rewarded for wanting more attention, Sadker, Sadker and Zittleman (2009) in their book, Still Failing at Fairness: How Gender Bias Cheats Girls and boys in School and What We Can Do About It, statethat starting in grade school, teachers engaged less frequently with female students, asking them fewer questions, while at the same time providing males with more feedback.” This results in girls not obtaining an equal share of attention and, because of their nature and the need for acceptance and reward for good behaviour, good girls have minimal opportunities for changing the dynamics to gain the attention they need in a coeducational class.

The level of attention girls receive in coeducational classes is further exacerbated when disruptive behaviour is a factor within the classroom. The Grattan Institute Report, Engaging Students: Creating classrooms that improve learning, states “there appears to be a tipping point at which the level of disruptive behaviour starts to seriously reduce teaching time. In Australian classes with less than 10 per cent of students with behaviour problems, teachers spend about 10 per cent of class time keeping order. This is on par with the average rate across other countries. However, Australian teachers with more than 10 per cent of students misbehaving spend nearly a quarter of the lesson keeping order (Goss and Stonnemann, 2017).” In classes where behaviour issues are evident, girls are even more disadvantaged, both by reduced teacher attention due to gender bias and by reduced teaching time due to disruptive behaviour.

It is challenging for a girl to compete with boys for attention and even harder to shed the good girl behaviour to demand more attention, want more time from the teacher, ask to be challenged, request others to behave or to demand to have a voice in the classroom. The nature of good girls is to be compliant and seek praise from the teacher, not to rock the boat. When there is an imbalance between the number of boys and the number of girls in the class, the syndrome increases in severity; the more boys, the less attention they receive and, if behaviour issues are present, the less teaching time there is.

To explore further, the question is really about, what could happen if good girls received the same time and support as the rest of the class? Could their learning make greater progress? Could they achieve more? Could they become more confident when not competing for time with the teacher or voice within the classroom? Could they learn more if there was more teaching time in a lesson?

When girls attend an all girls’ school, they find themselves in a learning environment “that empowers students to learn” stated Robert Kennedy, an Education Expert, in his article ‘The Benefits of Attending Girls’ Schools’.

“Fitzsimmons, Yates & Callan (2018, p. 54) found that girls educated in single-sex schools are equally as self-confident as boys educated at single-sex schools.” (Alliance of Girls’ School Australasia). This demonstrates that when girls transfer to a girl’s school they confidently discover their voice, at least equal to the level of boys, against which they competed in coeducational classes.

Given their voice, in an all girls’ learning environment where there is a ‘culture of achievement’ (NCGS Blog April, 2016), self-belief and confidence thrives. They engage more with their learning, they accept challenges, they become excited about the possibilities learning brings and they emerge out of their shell, like so many parents have said ‘I’ve found my daughter again!”




Ms Karen McArdle

Head of Junior School

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