Implicit bias in early education: Is it as black and white?

Astonishing findings from a sophisticated two-part research study
Johnny Silvercloud - Don't judge me too fast now - flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
Johnny Silvercloud, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

The issue of race has become exceedingly hot in America – with surging media attention on police brutality toward Black men, with rhetoric emerging from the presidential campaign trail, and with recent statistics on racial disparities in preschool suspensions and expulsions.

Suspensions and expulsions in preschool seem unlikely to happen, but the reality is different. The issue was first investigated in 2005 by Walter Gilliam at the Yale Child Study Center with findings he reported from a nationally representative sample of state-funded preschool programs in the United States. In that report, preschoolers were found to be expelled at a rate three times that of school-aged students (elementary and high school combined). More striking are the racial disparities found: Black preschoolers were twice as likely as White preschoolers and five times as likely as Asian preschoolers to be expelled.

In a more recent report published by the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, Black preschoolers were found to be 3.6 times more likely to receive one or more suspensions relative to White preschoolers. Black preschoolers represented only 19% of enrollment but comprised 47% of out-of-school suspensions. This is in contrast to White preschoolers, who represented twice the enrollment of Black preschoolers but who comprised only half of such suspensions.

It appears that Black children, especially Black boys, are at higher risk of being suspended or expelled from preschool. The question is: are Black preschoolers statistically more likely to engage in disruptive behaviors that lead to their eventual expulsion, or is there implicit bias operating within the early education system? This is the main question my research team at the Yale Child Study Center ventured to answer.

Preschool teachers gazed longer at the Black boy

In a sophisticated two-part research study, we investigated the possibility of preschool teachers being implicitly biased toward Black boys. Implicit biases, in contrast to explicit biases, are unconscious attitudes and beliefs we hold about groups of people that drive our thinking and decision-making processes and behaviors and actions toward them. Everyone holds implicit biases as they are an innate human trait and are triggered automatically.

To elicit implicit biases, we had to devise subtle triggers. In the first part of our study, 132 teachers viewed videos of children of varying race (Black/White) and gender (boy/girl) playing together at a circular table. We told the teachers we were assessing how well they appraised disruptive behaviors before they happened. They were then instructed to press the space bar each time they felt a disruptive behavior was about to occur. In reality, however, no disruptive behaviors existed and the children in the videos were child actors. Teachers’ eye gazes were being recorded by state-of-the-art eye-tracking technology. We found that preschool teachers gazed longer at the Black boy than at other children, and that Black teachers gazed longer at the Black boy than did White teachers.

Effects of additional information

In the second part of our study, we presented teachers with paragraphs to read, detailing instances of severe behavioral challenges (such as pushing, hitting, name-calling, scratching). The behaviors were constant across paragraphs but we manipulated the child’s race and gender using stereotypical Black/White boy/girl names (i.e., DeShawn, Jake, Latoya, and Emily).

We also randomly assigned teachers to receive background information (or not) as a way to gauge if contextual information changes the way teachers view the child’s behavior. For example, we mentioned that the mother works three jobs, is suffering from depression, and the husband has been in and out of their lives. We then asked teachers to rate the severity of the behavior.

What we found was rather astonishing. Knowing background information reduced the perceived severity of the child’s behavior, but only if the teacher and child were of the same race (Black teacher rating a Black child, or White teacher rating a White child). When the teacher was of a different race than the child, knowing background information increased the severity rating of the behavior.

The apparent dehumanization of Black individuals begins in preschool

Our findings revealed that implicit biases among preschool teachers do exist. Preschool teachers expect more disruptive behaviors from Black children (even in the absence of evidence of such behaviors to even exist) and there seems to be an empathy deficit when the teacher is of a different race than the child.

Implicit biases are not harmful per se; they are inherent human attributes. They become detrimental when we make decisions about an individual child based on our unconscious attitudes and beliefs about certain groups of people. Our findings, as startling as they sound, are nothing new. The tendency to associate criminality with Black individuals has been documented.

Studies have demonstrated consistently that people tend to view Black individuals as less innocent and more culpable than White individuals. Children as young as seven years of age hold implicit biases as well, by rating Black children as feeling less pain than other children.

The apparent dehumanization of Black individuals, at any age, is a social justice issue. The fact that it begins in preschool is a wake-up call. Ongoing initiatives are underway to address the issue of implicit biases in preschool. Of course, the issue does not rest solely on preschool teachers but also on the systems that support them, as well as civil society. Researchers are also urged to continue building the knowledge base so that empirically-informed interventions are crafted to improve the quality of educational experiences of all children.