‘ IMPLICIT BIAS’ STARTS IN PRESCHOOL, STUDY SAYS
Teachers tend to monitor black children more closely for misbehavior
Are teachers implicitly biased against African- American students — and African-American boys in particular — as early as preschool?
A study, out Tuesday from the Yale Child Study Center, wades into this fraught question, looking at preschool teachers’ sometimes unconscious attitudes about student behaviors.
The findings suggest that teachers who care for very young children may judge those kids’ behaviors differently based on race: both black and white teachers judge students of the other race more harshly once they know a thing or two about the student’s family lives, for instance. But one thing seems clear: both black and white teachers are watching black students more closely for potential misbehavior.
“Implicit bias is like the wind — you can’t see it, but you can sure see its effects,” said Yale’s Walter Gilliam, an associate professor of child psychiatry and psychology and the lead researcher on the study.
Gilliam said the findings show that implicit biases “do not begin with black men and police. They begin with young black boys and their preschool teachers — if not earlier.”
For the study, Gilliam’s team set up two experiments with teachers. In one, teachers were asked to watch videos of preschoolers after being told they’d be witnessing “challenging” student behaviors— edu- jargon for misbehavior. Then researchers tracked, among other measures, where teachers’ eyes went.
“We told the teachers that we were interested in learning how quickly and accurately they could detect challenging behaviors in preschoolers,” Gilliam told reporters earlier this week. “What we did not tell the teachers was that the preschoolers in the videos were all actors assisting us in the study, and that no challenging behaviors were depicted in the videos.”
Teachers watched a total of 12 clips, each 30 seconds long, featuring a black boy, a black girl, a white boy and a white girl. When primed to detect bad behavior, Gilliam said, teachers gazed longer at the black children, especially boys.
In a second experiment, teachers read descriptions of fictional misbehaving preschoolers, to which researchers had attached fictitious names based on 2011 U. S. Census data of the most popular boys’ and girls’ names for both black children ( DeShawn and Latoya) and white children ( Jake and Emily).
When asked to rate the severity of each child’s misbehavior, teachers rated children with white- sounding names more severely.
Yet the findings suggest that expectations cut both ways. For instance, most teachers didn’t suggest suspension or expulsion at higher rates for the misbehaving black students — the only teachers who suggested firmer discipline were themselves black. These teachers believed more strongly than their white coworkers that black students should be suspended for more days for misbehavior.
Previous research going back a decade or more— some of it by Gilliam and other Yale researchers — has found that preschool discipline can be harsh. A study from 2005 found that preschool boys were expelled 4.5 times more often than girls. Black students in state- funded prekindergarten programs were about twice as likely to be expelled as white or Latino classmates.
In the new study, researchers also randomly asked half of the teachers to read a brief paragraph detailing each fictional child’s home environment, including descriptions such as “a largely absent father, a mother who works three lowpaying jobs and struggles with depression and doesn’t have the resources to seek help,” Gilliam said.
Those brief descriptions had the opposite effect on teachers based on their own race, Gilliam said. When family background information was withheld, white teachers rated white students’ behavior as “more severe” than black students’. But when presented with the background information, white teachers rated black and white students’ behavior as equally severe.
In other words, knowing more about a student’s home life tended to equalize attitudes about how he or she should behave.
A Yale study says teachers show bias as early as preschool.