Do Students Recognize Bias In The Classroom?

A new study published in Child Development looked at how children and adolescents rectify unequal allocations of leadership duties in the classroom.

“This study is about whether children and adolescents recognize when biases occur in the classroom and what they think about it,” study author Melanie Killen told us. “One context where this happens is when teachers assign students to take on highly valued leadership duties (e.g., assigning only boys to become crossing guards). We decided to fill this gap in the literature by closely examining whether children from 8 – 14 years of age noticed teacher-generated biases about who gets to have a leadership role and whether they would desire to rectify this inequality by picking someone else if they had a chance to do so.”

The researchers were expecting to find that adolescents, more than children, would recognize biases in the classroom. Children are often less aware of biases even when they experience them and feel sad or anxious when they are not provided opportunities. Adolescents recognize that biases are often implicit, meaning that people are unaware when they display biases. It’s helpful to be able to recognize biases, Killen explained,  because this provides a way to change it, and also to create agency and work to create fair treatment for all. 

“We have a theory about how children and adolescents understand prejudice and biases,” Killen told us. “On the one hand, they begin to notice when other peers have biases (« girls are not good at science » or ‘kids from other countries are slow learners’), and they view biases as unfair. On the other hand, it’s very hard to challenge unfair treatment because your peers might reject you, or think you are being disloyal. Children have to balance different competing motivations as they navigate childhood.”

We know a lot about how children evaluate explicit prejudice and stereotypes. They view it as unfair.  However, many forms of biases are indirect or implicit, such as when peers pick only boys to be leaders of sports teams. What is less known is what happens in the classroom, Killen explained. If children view a teacher picking only certain students to be leaders or have their work recognized, are they aware that this might be unfair?

Researchers surveyed children and adolescents 8 – 14 years of age about whether they thought it was all right for teachers to pick specific groups of kids to do leadership duties. They did this by showing participants in the study pictures of a teacher selecting only girls, only boys, only White students, or only Latine students to do different leadership duties such as being the crossing guard, passing out papers, picking up messages from the office or helping to take attendance. They also showed them pictures of a teacher picking equal numbers of girls and boys or White and Latine students as a comparison.  In the survey, the researchers asked children to rate whether it was okay or not okay for the teacher to pick these students as leaders. They also asked them who they would pick to be a leader if they had an opportunity, and how they thought that a member of the disadvantaged group member would feel. Students were also asked their reasons for their ratings. 

“Students viewed unequal allocations favoring White students as more wrong than unequal allocations favoring Latine students,” Killen told us. “Interestingly, they viewed unequal allocations favoring boys the same as unequal allocations favoring girls. The participants also expected peers who shared the identity of a group disadvantaged by the teacher’s allocation to view it more negatively than others. When given an opportunity to select a new student for the leadership duty, both children and adolescents chose a student who has been disadvantaged before, which we term a strategy to rectify inequalities.” 

In summary, adolescents were more likely to view unequal allocations as more wrong than children, but both age groups expected someone who shared the membership (by gender or ethnicity) to feel bad if someone from their group did not get a chance to be a leader. The majority of children desired to rectify the inequality. Thus, children as young as 8 years of age become aware of situations in which not everyone gets a chance to have a special role in the classroom.

“We found out that children are much more aware of biases in the classroom than we expected and more willing to rectify inequalities.” Killen told us. “This was a hopeful sign. These findings are important for alerting educators to the fact that children as young as 8 years old in third grade are noticing inequalities in the classroom. We know that children who experience exclusion, and unfair treatment are at risk for low motivation, anxiety, and social withdrawal.” 

While this is particularly true for girls and marginalized students, all children are vulnerable in classrooms where inequalities occur and interactions are not equitable, fair, or just. Inequalities create anxiety and insecurity which hinder the opportunity for classrooms to be a safe space where children can grow and develop.  

“In our study, children wanted to rectify the inequality and expected their peer who was a member of a group not selected to be a leader to feel bad,”m Killen told us.  “Understanding perceptions of teacher-based bias provides an opportunity for interventions designed to create fair and just classrooms that motivate all students to achieve.”

Based on these findings and other findings from their lab, the research team created a school-based program called Developing Inclusive Youth, which provides students the opportunity to respond to an interactive online peer exclusion scenario each week followed by a teacher-led group discussion to discuss actual incidents of social exclusion that students experience. The goal is to enable children to change group norms and reject unfair treatment based on group identity.  The program aims to help create inclusive classrooms for all children to succeed.

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