Suspensions and expulsions at American preschools are doled out disproportionately to black students, boys, and especially black boys – a phenomenon that could be due, in part, to implicit racial biases on the part of their teachers, according to a Yale University study released this week.
Researchers used eye-tracking technology to observe preschool teachers look for "challenging behaviors" in a series of videos portraying four children in typical classroom settings. While none of the children were misbehaving, participants spent significantly longer looking at the black children, especially boys.
"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," Walter Gilliam, one of five researchers on the project said in a written statement.
The latest US Department of Education report shows that black preschoolers are 3.6-times as likely as their white peers to receive school suspensions, Stacy Teicher Khadaroo reported for The Christian Science Monitor earlier this month, highlighting teachers' need for additional support.
While black children accounted for 19 percent of all preschool children in the 2013-2014 academic year, they made up 47 percent of those who received suspensions, as The Washington Post reported.
In addition to the eye-tracking portion of the study, researchers presented participants with a short written scenario with one of four names to imply the race and gender of a hypothetical child: Latoya, Emily, DeShawn, or Jake. The scenario described challenging classroom behavior, then summarized the child's "turbulent" home life.
The findings suggest white educators tended to expect problematic behavior from black preschoolers, according to the report. "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," the researchers wrote. Black educators, meanwhile, tended to have higher expectations for black children and rate challenging behavior as more severe.
Furthermore, participants showed greater empathy for the child's difficulty at home when the child's race matched their own.
"These findings suggest that teachers need support in understanding family struggles, as they may [be] related to child behaviors, especially when the teacher and child are of different races,” Dr. Gilliam, an associate professor of child psychiatry and psychology at the Yale Child Study Center, added.
Linda K. Smith, deputy assistant secretary for early childhood development at the US Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families, said the study is important, given its social implications.
"It's something probably we all didn't want to hear, but we needed to know," Ms. Smith said, as The Washington Post reported.
Solutions, according to the researchers, could include additional teacher training and guidance on implicit racial biases.
Jason Okonofua, who completed a Stanford University study last year that predicts black students will be punished more harshly due to implicit biases, said teachers must see themselves as capable of growing.
"Try not to think of yourself as a fixed character in the same way that you should not try to think of your students as fixed characters," Dr. Okonofua said, as the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley reported. "Rather, think of yourself as a growing person who needs to put in effort and practice to contend with influences of stereotypes."