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Where Does Implicit Bias Begin? With Pre-School Teachers, According to New Study


It’s a given that children of color may experience brushes with racial bias — both implicit and explicit — while navigating their way through the K-12 school system. But a recent study out of the Yale Child Study Center within the Yale School of Medicine revealed that implicit bias starts with teachers — pre-school teachers to be exact — and plays a major role in how they view their young students.

According to the study, pre-school teachers have a tendency to observe Blacks, specifically Black boys, more closely “when challenging behaviors are expected.” That bias is apparent in the disproportionate expulsion rates between Black and white pre-schoolers.

But the race of the teacher plays a critical role in classroom discipline as well. The study found that Black teachers hold Black students to a higher standard than do their white peers. This behavior could be based on the belief that “black children require harsh assessment and discipline to prepare them for a harsh world,” the study stated. Researchers also suggested white teachers may apply a more lenient standard to Black children because they expect them to misbehave in the first place.

“The tendency to base classroom observation on the gender and race of the child may explain in part why those children are more frequently identified as misbehaving and hence why there is a racial disparity in discipline,” said Dr. Walter S. Gilliam, Associate Professor of Child Psychiatry and Psychology at the Yale Child Study Center.

Gilliam is one of five researchers who contributed to the report, which is the first of its kind to examine whether implicit bias in early education contributes to the rising suspension rates of Black and Latino students in America’s public schools.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the researchers’ methodology included the eye-tracking of 132 early childhood staff and classroom teachers. The two-part study featured a session in which educators watched a total of 12 30-second video clips depicting classroom behavior. The videos featured a Black girl, a Black boy, a white girl and a white boy. As the clips played, eye-tracking equipment was used to determine which children the teachers were paying the most attention to.

The study states that teachers were told the researchers were only interested in examining how quickly and accurately they could identify challenging behavior. However, no misbehavior was actually shown in the videos.

Detailed readings of scenarios depicting challenging behaviors in the classroom followed the video-watching session, after which educators were asked to rate the severity of the misbehavior using a five-point scale. According to the study, teachers were also asked to rate the likelihood they would recommend the suspension or expulsion of a student.

The results revealed that teachers spent much more time observing Black children than they did white children when expecting challenging behavior. Black teachers specifically paid more attention to Black boys. As for the vignette responses, “white early education staff rated the severity of behavior more leniently for black children while black staff rated the severity of behavior more harshly for black children,” the study states.

It was also noted that teachers who share the same race with their students exhibited more empathetic behavior and rated misbehavior less severely. The results were the opposite for teachers and students of differing races.

“We think it’s pretty clear that stereotype biases may account for the differences we observed in where early educators place their attention inside the classroom,” Gilliam said. “Implicit bias is like the wind. You can’t see it but you can sure see its effect.

“It does not begin with Black men and police; it begins with preschool,” he added.

Lastly, Gilliam noted that implicit bias may be reduced through proper training and should be a key component of early childhood teacher education.

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