Short Boys Get the Short Straw in School

From the WebMD Archives

April 13, 2000 (Atlanta) -- Elementary school boys on the fence academically stand a better chance of getting promoted to the next grade -- if they're taller.

That's what Australian researchers found after studying the progression through school of more than 2,800 children aged 5 to 12 years. Of this group, 133 -- two-thirds of them boys -- repeated a grade. The researchers concluded that although poor scholastic performance may have gotten them all into trouble in the first place, in the end, stature seemed to be a key factor in deciding which boys advanced to the next grade.

However, the pattern didn't hold true for girls.

The study results are no surprise to Frederick Medway, PhD, professor of psychiatry at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. He says even in the U.S., size is a consideration in determining whether a poorly performing child should advance. In fact, it's one of the variables listed on "Light's Retention Scale" -- used by school systems to make such calls.

Medway says the theory is that placing an immature-looking child with similar looking kids will lead to acceptance and therefore, better learning. But he says that's never been proven. "They're not asking the important question. If you take two children and they're basically equivalent in their scholastic achievement, and you decide to hold one back because he's smaller, which child does better?

"I would never [hold back a child] based on size, because it becomes a prejudicial factor, because genetically speaking, a kid's size is determined by their parents' size," Medway says. "It really should be based on their academics, primarily, and on some prognosis whether holding the child back will help with the areas of [academic] concern."

Other psychologists suggest it's just another symptom -- albeit an extraordinarily early one -- of a society hung up on looks. "That is consistent with all the other research with teens and adults, which shows tall men have a significant advantage in their personal and professional lives," says Debbie Then, PhD, a California-based social psychologist and author of an upcoming book on the impact of appearance. "Part of how we look at attractiveness in men is tallness. So it's no surprise to me they're starting to see this in elementary school."


"People buy books by the cover and they buy people by the cover," says Judith Waters, PhD, a consultant and professor of psychiatry at Farleigh-Dickinson University in northern New Jersey. "I saw a lawyer once having his hair made grey because the judges kept calling him 'Sonny.' It is funny, but when it comes down to discrimination by height, it's not funny" because you can't make yourself taller.

In the case of the boys in this study, Waters says it's possible the shorter ones may also have been the youngest among their age group -- and therefore not only physically less mature, but emotionally, as well. That could have set them up for learning problems and distracting conflict with classmates."The bigger boys will pick on the little ones, so some of this may be due to behavioral problems," she says. "Children and adults pick on fat children, so why not short children? Physical appearance is a factor for a lot of these incidents."

Short boys do not necessarily become short men, of course. But if they do, Waters says it's likely they'll encounter some discrimination in the workplace and in competition for a mate. She points to studies that show officers in the military tend to be taller than enlisted men, and the same pattern holds for the top jobs in industry. But, she adds, height isn't always a good predictor of success.

"It's a good thing Napoleon didn't read this study. There are lots of short men who have achieved a great deal," she says.

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