Students who don’t trust teachers more likely to act out
(Texas) Children of color rapidly lose trust in teachers when they perceive educators as unfair in handing out punishment–something associated with lower college enrolment later among the same students, according to new research.
In a study published last week in the journal Child Development, researchers found that even among children in middle school with good grades and few behavioral issues, many African American youth considered teachers biased against them in enforcing disciplinary policies–an opinion that authors of the study were able to substantiate with school disciplinary records.
Researchers noted, however, that even small gestures such as leaving feedback on an essay conveying that the teacher believed in the student’s potential aided in building trust.
“When adolescents see that school rules aren’t fair to people who look like them, they lose trust and then disengage,” David Yeager, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Texas Austin and lead author of the study, said in a statement. “But it doesn’t have to be this way; teachers have an opportunity to earn minority students’ trust, and this helps students do better in middle school and beyond.”
Separate research from the Yale Child Study Center shows that even preschool teachers often rely on implicit racial biases in doling out punishment. This tendency often leads to minority students being punished more harshly than white children for the same offence, studies show
Indeed, data released last year from the U.S. Education Department showed black students are almost four times more likely to be suspended from public school than white students, even in pre-K.
In an effort to combat the issue, many schools around the country have adopted restorative justice practices and mandated professional development aimed at helping teachers identify and address their own implicit biases.
But according to authors of the study on student trust in teachers, minority students’ academic outcomes are likely contingent on everyday experiences of respect—which may often occur too rarely.
Data were drawn from a two-part, eight-year study. Part one tracked 277 white and African American students in the northeast of the U.S. from sixth grade until college entry, with students surveyed twice yearly through eighth grade. The second part surveyed 206 white and Latino students from Colorado in the same grades, also twice yearly.
The surveys featured topics such as “I am treated fairly by teachers and other adults at my school” and “Students in my racial group are treated fairly by teachers and other adults at [my] middle school.”
Additionally, students’ perceptions of how minority students were treated were partly determined using questions based on examples, such as “If a Black or White student is alone in the hallway during class time, which one would a teacher ask for a hall pass?”
Researchers found some basis for students’ attitudes using school records of disciplinary incidents. In the first part of the study, minorities were disciplined for instances of defiance and disobedience compared to their peers at a rate of 3-1. While the outcomes were relatively equal when measuring punishment for objective infractions–such as fighting or bringing a weapon to school–students of color are more likely to be disciplined than their white peers when teachers have to make a judgment call.
Authors of the report found that children picked up on the discrepancies, with fewer than 55 percent of black students expecting equal treatment in each survey except the first when entering sixth grade. Those perceptions, researchers suggest, have a hand in why students of color may become more defiant.
“Perceived bias and mistrust reinforce each other, and like a stone rolling down a hill that triggers an avalanche, the loss of trust could accumulate behavioral consequences over time,” Yeager said. “Seeing and expecting injustice and disrespect, negatively stereotyped ethnic minority adolescents may disengage, defy authorities, underperform and act out.”
Using a small sub-sample of 88 white and African American seventh-graders in the first part of the study, researchers tested the efficacy of a “wise feedback” intervention to build trust. Half of the students received a hand-written note from their teacher on a critique of a first-draft essay, stating: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations, and I know that you can reach them.”
The following year, African American students had fewer disciplinary incidents and were 30 percentage points more likely to attend college than those in the control group. The intervention did not influence white students, likely because they are already used to being positively stereotyped, authors of the report suggested.
Researchers noted what while more thorough studies must be conducted to determine the wide-scale influence of wise feedback on building trust, this experiment “highlights that teachers can work more systematically to create a classroom climate that boosts the trust of students who may have to contend with discrimination.”