Implicit Racial Bias Appears as Early as Preschool, Study Finds

Preschool teachers and staff often display implicit bias when administering discipline, with the race of the teacher playing a significant role in the outcome, a report from the Yale Child Study Center finds.

Funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and others, the report, Implicit Bias in Preschool: A Research Study Brief (18 pages PDF), found that African-American preschoolers were more than three times as likely to be suspended as their white classmates. For the study, more than a hundred and thirty preschool teachers were instructed to watch video clips of children in classrooms and to look for signs of "challenging behavior." Although the videos did not actually display such behavior, eye-tracking technology showed that teachers had a tendency to more closely observe African-American students, especially boys, than students of other races.

The study also found that African-American teachers seemed to hold African-American students to a higher standard of behavior than their white counterparts. While the study did not explore the reasons for the difference in attitude, researchers speculated that black educators may be demonstrating "a belief that black children require harsh assessment and discipline to prepare them for a harsh world."

In addition, the report found that when the teacher and child were of the same race, knowing about family stressors led to increased teacher empathy for the student and softened his or her perception of the severity of the challenging behavior. In contrast, when the teacher and child were of a different race, the same family information seemed to overwhelm teachers and challenging behaviors were perceived as being more severe.

"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 Walter S. Gilliam, director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy and associate professor of child psychiatry and psychology at the Yale Child Study Center. "These findings suggest that teachers need support in understanding family struggles, as they may relate to child behaviors, especially when the teacher and child are of different races."