Boys tend to overestimate their school performance compared to how their teachers rate them, but girls tend to underestimate their own performance, new research shows.
The gap emerges around fourth grade and increases with each grade level. By seventh grade, symptoms of depression and anxiety begin to appear among those who underestimate themselves, mainly girls.
But boys and girls have one thing in common, according to a team of psychologists from the University of Notre Dame: those who have similar levels of depression and anxiety also have the same tendency to underestimate their school performance.
These are the overall findings of a study of 803 third and sixth graders who were followed for three years. The research results are reported in the March issue of the journal, Child Development, by lead scientist David A. Cole, Ph.D., and his colleagues.
"Believing that one is competent or capable of handling a particular task can be highly motivating, even when it is not true," they conclude. "Conversely, believing that one is incompetent can undermine motivation to tackle new tasks and erode efforts to complete ongoing tasks, even when one's underlying ability is high."
First and second grade children tend to have highly positive views of their school abilities, often in excess of their actual skill levels, the researchers say. As early as third grade, however, these optimistic estimates begin to fade. By seventh grade, gender differences in depression emerge, often preceded by symptoms of anxiety, and girls' self-estimations tend to decline.
Girls may be more likely than boys to attribute their failures to their own low ability, the scientists noted, and this type of attribution has been related to depression in both children and adults. Boys are more likely to attribute their failures to bad luck, the difficulty of the task, or not trying hard enough. These attributions have been associated with resistance to depression.
While the scientists found strong support for the idea that children's underestimation of their school competence is a consequence and symptom of emotional problems, such as depression and anxiety, they emphasize that their data do not provide nearly as strong support for the idea that underestimating predisposes a child to problems of depression or anxiety.
The research was supported in part by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.
Child Development is the bimonthly peer-reviewed journal of the Society for Research in Child Development. For information about the journal, please contact Jonathan J. Aiken, 734-998-7310.