STUDY: Preschool Teachers Harbor Implicit Racial Bias

By Kenrya Rankin Sep 29, 2016

At Monday’s (September 26) debate, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton told moderator Lester Holt that she thinks “implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police.” A new study from the Yale Child Study Center shows that preschool teachers are not exempt, and that their bias is likely one of the reasons that Black preschool children are 3.6 times more likely to be suspended than their White counterparts.

The study, released yesterday (September 28), found that preschool teachers and other staffers exhibit signs of implicit racial bias, which the study’s authors define as “the automatic and unconscious stereotypes that drive people to behave and make decisions in certain ways.” The bias was observed both when the educators anticipated that children will misbehave and when they disciplined them.

In the study, 132 people were recruited during a conference for early childcare and education professionals. Fully 93.9 percent of them were women, 66.7 percent identified as White, 22 percent identified as Black and 23 percent identified as Latinx (this measure was not exclusive of race). The average participant had been working with young children for 11 years.

The study consisted of two parts. For the first, researchers played a series of 30-second clips of children in a classroom and told the participants to look for misbehavior, which actually did not occur in any of the clips. They then used eye tracking technology to determine which of the children the participants spent the most time watching. The Black boys were overwhelmingly watched most closely, by both Black and White teachers. And when participants were explicitly asked which of four featured children needed the most attention, 42 percent said the Black boy did, followed by 34 percent for the White boy, 13 percent for the White girl and 10 percent for the Black girl.

For part two, participants were given scenarios of that highlighted a student’s behavioral challenges, and researchers attached stereotypically Black and White names to identify the kids (Latoya, Emily, DeShawn and Jake). In some cases, they were also provided with information on the student’s family background. The teachers were then asked to rate the severity of the misbehavior, the degree to which they felt hopeless to help the child improve and the likelihood that they would recommend suspension or expulsion, and for how long. Black teachers rated the behavior of children with the “Black” names more harshly than the White teachers did, but when they learned they had difficult home lives, they felt more empathy, while White teachers wrote off the kids as hopeless. The reverse was true of the empathy-hopelessness dichotomy when the teachers rated the students with “White” names.

From the study:

These findings are important to consider given that no behavioral challenges were present in the videos, suggesting, in part, that preschool teachers may hold differential expectations of challenging behaviors based on the race of the child. This is consistent with the robust literature that evidences disproportionate rates of disciplinary referrals and exclusionary practices for Black boys that are not better accounted for by other factors….

Regardless of the nature of the underlying biases, the tendency to observe more closely classroom behaviors based on the sex and race of the child may contribute to greater levels of identification of challenging behaviors with Black preschoolers and especially Black boys, which perhaps contributes to the documented sex and race disparities in preschool expulsions and suspensions.

The nature of these implicit biases appears to differ based on the race of the early educator…. Perhaps White early education staff tend to hold an implicit bias that Black preschoolers are more likely to engage in challenging classroom behaviors, so a vignette about a Black child with challenging behaviors is not appraised as being unusual, severe, or out of the ordinary resulting in lower behavioral ratings. In the case of the present study, a vignette describing pronounced challenging classroom behaviors, in the absence of any potentially explanatory family background information, may not seem very severe at all for a Black child.

These potentially lower expectations held for children based on race can have detrimental consequences over time, with low expectations, particularly for minority children, being linked to less favorable outcomes…. In contrast, for Black early educators, these severity findings may represent higher expectations held by Black educators for Black students. These findings might suggest that more severe behavior ratings could reflect higher standards by Black educators for Black children.

Read the full study here.