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  • Pupils who reach puberty early do better at school

Research findings

Pupils who reach puberty early do better at school

Published

Whether you reach puberty earlier or later can affect the grades you get at secondary school, according to a new study. It may also explain the marked gender differences which show that girls generally do better at school than boys.

Four teenagers with cellphones in a stair.
Both girls and boys who reach puberty early do better at school. Illustration photo: Colourbox.com

Whether you reach puberty earlier or later can affect the grades you get at secondary school, according to a new study. It may also explain the marked gender differences which show that girls generally do better at school than boys.


Whether you reach puberty earlier or later can affect the grades you get at secondary school, according to a new study. It may also explain the marked gender differences which show that girls generally do better at school than boys.

Some pupils are thrilled with the grades they get when they complete secondary school. Others are disappointed with what they have achieved. The good grades have been a long time coming and perhaps puberty has been too?

It has long been known that boys do not do as well as girls at school. The Stoltenberg Committee, for example, referred to this in a report dating from 2019. Yet it was also pointed out that we do not know enough about why boys are getting left behind.

Evidence from a new study now suggests that reaching sexual maturity earlier has a positive impact on performance at school.

 “We have found that both girls and boys who reach puberty early do better at school. Late puberty appears to be a disadvantage,” says researcher Fartein Ask Torvik at the Centre for Fertility and Health at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.

He is leading a major study which is looking into the reasons why boys generally do not do as well as girls at school.

Early menstruation can have a negative impact on grades

 “The gender differences are present throughout all school years, but are most evident during puberty. Because girls reach puberty earlier than boys, we have investigated whether early puberty can explain why girls perform better at school," explains Torvik.

Previous studies that have linked puberty and school performance have used the timing of the first menstruation experienced by girls as the sole indicator of puberty. The results have often shown that girls who have their first menstruation early tend to have a lower education and are at greater risk of being socially disadvantaged compared with others.

However, girls who mature sexually early are not necessarily as mature in other areas. Thus, menstruation is not a suitable indicator on its own, nor does it make it possible to compare the development of girls with that of boys.

New method for timing puberty

However, a new research method could now turn these results on their head.

 "We have used a new method to measure puberty which enables us to compare this phase across the genders. The method is based on measuring the heights of pupils at different times. This method shows that those who reach puberty early do well at school,” says Torvik.

Puberty involves many changes, including increase in height, physical changes and sexual maturity. On average, boys reach puberty later than girls, and researchers have found that the differences in the onset of puberty could explain around half of the gender differences in grades.

 “Pupils who reach puberty earlier perform better. This applies to both boys and girls. We do not believe it is puberty itself which is the reason why the grades are better. It is more likely to be the fact that puberty is linked to psychological maturity that causes pupils to perform better at school,” says Torvik.

The results also showed that early menstruation in isolation is associated with poorer performance at school.

Genes affect puberty, and thus school grades

Genes are the dominant factor in determining the timing of puberty.

Pupils who get their leaving grades while they are still relatively immature may perhaps not have had a chance to show what they are actually capable of achieving. While pupils who develop early are assessed at a time which benefits them, pupils who reach puberty late will struggle to show their true potential.

 “Biological factors which determine the timing of puberty can have social consequences. Leaving grades can be a major factor in determining the educational path that pupils subsequently decide to follow. The opportunities open to pupils in society can therefore be affected by factors which should be of no importance," says Torvik.

Facts about the study

The study is a collaboration between researchers from Norway, England, Canada and Finland. It is based on data from 13,477 twins from England and Wales who participated in the Twins Early Development Study.

The researchers examined the growth curves of pupils and linked them to the scores in the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). The students are typically 16 years at this time, which corresponds to school leaving age in many countries.