In recent years, through collaborations between Atlantic Philanthropies and the Irish Government, there has been ever-increasing attention on early intervention and prevention programmes in Ireland, which are targeted at geographic areas that have been designated as socio-economically disadvantaged (McAvoy, Purdy, Sneddon and Mac Evilly, 2013). These programmes aim to reduce the negative effects of childhood adversities. In understanding developmental trajectories in early childhood, one factor that requires careful consideration is gender and whether differences exist between boys and girls in early childhood development (Ertem et al., 2018). This is of particular importance in light of recent findings by Garcia, Heckman and Ziff (2017), who argued that boys have greater vulnerability to lower quality environments than girls. While an extensive review of the research literature on gender differences in early childhood development is beyond the scope of this short research article, evidence of gender differences across the domains of cognitive development and school readiness during early childhood is briefly discussed below.

With regards to their cognitive development, which includes building skills such as comprehending the world, thinking logically, problem solving and analysing and interpreting information (Doyle and PFL Evaluation Team, 2016), girls have been found to demonstrate an advantage over boys in their cognitive function as measured by intelligence tests. For instance, Palejwala and Fine (2015) utilised the Wechsler Primary and Preschool Scale of Intelligence with a sample of children between the ages of two and seven years and found evidence of girls outperforming boys in this early childhood stage. Similarly, von Stumm and Plomin (2015) found significant gender differences in intelligence favouring girls in early childhood (between two and four years of age). However, this difference mostly disappeared in later childhood and adolescence and was no longer evidenced by the age of sixteen.

Indeed, this early cognitive advantage of girls has been found in more recent studies, for example, a 2017 study by Toivainen, Papageorgiou, Tosto and Kovas of children aged two to four years found that girls had significantly stronger verbal and non-verbal abilities than boys; however, by later childhood (between ten and twelve years of age) boys outperformed girls in non-verbal abilities. Hence, a possible advantage for girls in cognitive development during early childhood appears to  reduce over time. Further research is necessary to understand the mechanisms underlying this effect and whether any long-term effects result from this early discrepancy.

Furthermore, while girls appear to score higher in overall measures of early cognitive abilities, findings referring to the different elements of cognition have been mixed. An advantage favouring girls has been evident in specific domains of cognitive abilities, such as processing speeds (Palejwala and Fine, 2015) and verbal memory (Merrill, Yang, Roskos and Steele, 2016). On the contrary, boys have been found to have stronger visual processing (Palejwala and Fine, 2015) and spatial ability skills (Merrill et al., 2016). It is of vital importance to explore such discrepancies, given the growing body of research literature suggesting that early abilities in the cognitive domain are associated with academic and vocational outcomes and overall health and well-being in later life (Batty, Deary and Gottfredson, 2007; Bornstein, Hahn, and Wolke, 2013; Hofer and Clouston, 2014; Koenen et al., 2009).

‘School readiness’ is a term often used to describe how socially, physically, and intellectually ready children are to start formal schooling. Even though it is considered an outcome of the early years, it has been found to have a determining influence on a child’s development, forming the foundation upon which further learning and development is based (Doyle, Finnegan and McNamara, 2010; Janus and Offord, 2007). During early childhood, girls have been found to have an advantage in the domain of school readiness. For example, Isaacs (2012) found that the typical five-year-old girl in the US is, on average, sixteen points ahead of the typical five-year-old boy in the area of school readiness. In Ireland, it was reported that the majority of early years educators and teachers rated girls as more school ready than boys on their emotional readiness, independence, maturity and organisational skills (Ring et al., 2016). Studies have found that girls also have an advantage in their emotional expression (Chaplin and Aldao, 2013), emotional development (Maguire, Neins, McCann and Connolly, 2016), socioemotional development (Masnjak, 2017) and social competence (Barbu, Cabanes and le Maner-Idrissi, 2011). However, recent research has found that boys have an advantage in their physical activity levels, indicating that they may be more physically ready to start formal schooling (Masnjak, 2017). 

With the aforementioned evidence suggesting gender disparities in early childhood development, the necessity of early intervention and prevention programmes that attempt to reduce such gaps is magnified. If these gender gaps are not addressed early, they may continue to exist across the lifespan. Indeed, previous research has highlighted the effectiveness of enriched early childhood programmes for children living in areas of disadvantage in reducing gender inequalities (Garcia et al., 2017). Given the growing interest in early childhood education within the Irish context, the following research questions were addressed in the current study:

  1. At four years of age do boys and girls differ in their cognitive development?
  2. At five years of age do boys and girls differ in their school readiness?
  3. Does a high-intensity, early intervention programme reduce gender discrepancies in cognitive abilities at four years of age and school readiness at five years of age?

Method

The current study involved a secondary analysis of the Preparing for Life (PFL) data (Northside Partnership, Doyle and UCD Geary Institute PFL Evaluation Team, 2018) and Children’s Profile at School Entry (CPSE) data (Northside Partnership, Doyle and UCD Geary Institute PFL Evaluation Team, 2017). This research was supported by the Children’s Research Network Prevention and Early Intervention Research Initiative Research Grant Scheme 2017-18.

Participants came from communities within the expanded PFL catchment area. All communities were deemed as being demographically similar based on analyses. Of the mothers recruited into the PFL programme, ninety-nine per cent were of Irish ethnicity, of whom five per cent were members of the Irish Travelling community. Participants were randomly allocated to either a low or high treatment group for the duration of the programme (from pregnancy through to when children started school). Between 2008 and 2010, a total of 233 women were recruited with 118 being assigned to the low treatment group and 115 being assigned to the high treatment group. While both groups received developmental toys, access to preschool, public health workshops and a support worker, the main difference between the two groups was that families in the high treatment group received more supports and home visits from a trained mentor and they also attended group based, parent training during the programme (for further information on the low and high treatment groups see Doyle et al., 2016). By providing additional supports and resources to both treatment groups, the PFL programme accounted for any ethical issues that may have arisen.

Child cognitive development at four years of age was assessed using the British Ability Scales II (BAS II; Elliott, Smith and McCulloch, 1997). The scores in each cognitive development domain ranged from 49 to 137 with higher scores indicating higher levels of behaviours associated with each domain (Doyle and PFL Evaluation Team, 2016). Data on cognitive development were available for 128 children in total. Child school readiness was assessed at school entry using a teacher completed, 48-item version of the Early Development Instrument (SEDI; Janus, Duku and Stat, 2005). The scores in each school readiness domain ranged from zero to ten with higher scores indicating higher levels of behaviours associated with each domain (Doyle and PFL Evaluation Team, 2013). Data on school readiness were available for 134 children in total.

Results

Gender differences in cognitive development: Figure 1 presents the gender differences in cognitive development domains across the two treatment groups, as measured by the BAS II. Girls demonstrated higher scores compared to boys in all cognitive development domains in a consistent manner within both treatment groups. In the low treatment group, the largest gender difference was noted in spatial ability, whereas the smallest difference was noted in verbal ability. Gender differences in pictorial reasoning and spatial ability were statistically significant. In the high treatment group, gender differences in pictorial reasoning and spatial ability were of similar magnitude, whereas boys and girls differed to a lesser extent in the verbal ability domain. Gender difference in pictorial reasoning was statistically significant. It is noteworthy that, while gender differences in verbal ability and spatial ability were larger in the low treatment group compared to the high treatment group, for pictorial reasoning the gender difference was larger in the high treatment group. Overall, both boys and girls from the high treatment group had higher scores compared to children from the low treatment group across all domains.

Gender differences in school readiness: Figure 2 presents the gender differences within the two treatment groups across the school readiness domains, as measured by the SEDI. Girls demonstrated higher scores compared to boys in all school readiness domains in both treatment groups. In the low treatment group, the largest gender difference was noted in the communications skills and general knowledge domain, whereas the smallest gender difference was noted in the language and cognitive development domain. Differences in the domains of social competence, emotional maturity and communications skills and general knowledge were statistically significant. In the high treatment group, the largest gender difference was, again, noted in communications skills and general knowledge, whereas the smallest gender difference was noted in the language and cognitive development domain. Gender differences in emotional maturity and communication skills and general knowledge were statistically significant. Gender differences in all domains of school readiness were smaller within the high treatment group than the low treatment group and children from the high treatment group had higher scores across all school readiness domains (with the exception of girls’ emotional maturity). 

In general, both boys and girls in the high treatment group performed better in the cognitive development and school readiness measures compared to their counterparts in the low treatment group, but none of the differences reached statistical significance. In addition, in most of the cognitive development and school readiness domains, gender differences were larger in the low treatment group compared to the high treatment group.

Discussion

Overall, the current study found evidence of gender disparities across both cognitive outcomes and school readiness behaviours, with girls demonstrating higher scores than boys. This pattern was evident across all domains of cognitive development and school readiness behaviours and contradicts previous research that has suggested an advantage for boys in the cognitive domain of spatial ability (Merrill et al., 2016) and the school readiness domain of physical development (Masnjak, 2017). However, the findings corroborated other previous research, which suggests that gender differences favour girls in cognitive and school readiness outcomes during early childhood (for example, Isaacs, 2012; Palejwala and Fine, 2015; von Stumm and Plomin, 2015). Given the focus of the current study on a sample of children from an area of socio-economic disadvantage, it may be that boys have less opportunities to develop in these domains. Additionally, this gender disparity across both treatment groups possibly indicates that the interventions being delivered in early childhood may not adequately address gender gaps in these areas.

Even though gender differences continued to exist in both the low and the high treatment groups, findings indicated that gender gaps were less pronounced in the high treatment compared to the low treatment group. Thereby, differential intensity-dependent intervention effects are highlighted, given that both groups received interventions that only varied in intensity. This finding suggests that the high treatment intervention may have reduced gender gaps, supporting previous research that has found similar results (Garcia et al., 2017). More specifically, additional supports and home visits by a trained mentor, group-based parent training and access to infant massage during the course of the programme were the intervention components that differentiated the high from the low treatment group. Hence, smaller differences among boys and girls in cognitive development and school readiness behaviours during early childhood in the high treatment group may be attributed to these intervention elements. It is possible that these intervention elements favour boys’ development in particular. However, it should be taken into account that this finding is reflective of the overall findings from the PFL evaluation, where children from the high treatment group were found to be more advanced in terms of their cognitive development and school readiness than children in the low treatment group (Doyle et al., 2016). Therefore, more in-depth research is required to delineate the effect of early intervention and prevention programmes on gender discrepancies.

A number of limitations should be considered in the interpretation of the above findings. The relatively small sample, the narrow age range of the participants and the fact that the sample was derived from areas classified as socio-economically disadvantaged may limit the generalisation of the findings beyond similar samples. Nevertheless, insights from this study are valuable and may well inform further research in the area. In fact, future research may benefit from exploring these effects across a nationally representative sample.

Overall, the current research has the potential to make a valuable contribution to the field of early intervention and prevention in Ireland through the novel insights into gender differences in children’s developmental trajectories during early childhood. Previous research has shown that boys from areas designated as socioeconomically disadvantaged are likely to face higher risk in their cognitive development and school readiness during early childhood. The current research demonstrates that high intensity, early intervention and prevention programmes have potential to address particular areas that boys struggle with. These findings can contribute to the design and delivery of more focused programmes within Irish and other similar contexts. Findings from the current study require careful consideration by policy makers in the design and implementation of interventions which target children living in socio-economically disadvantaged areas.