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Diversity in Schools Helps Eliminate Bias

White children who attend schools with little ethnic diversity are more likely to blame a Black child than a White child when they are asked to identify the source of potential misbehavior, concludes a new study.

The study, “Intergroup Attitudes of European American Children Attending Ethnically Homogenous Schools,” was conducted by University of Maryland researchers Drs. Heidi McGlothlin and Melanie Killen and published in the journal Child Development last month.

Killen, a developmental psychologist and professor of human development, says other bias tests used on adults tend to use measures such as the Implicit Association Test, which involve responses to computer screens. In their study, the researchers used ambiguous pictures depicting everyday peer situations, which they say are more “ecologically valid.” First-graders and fourth-graders at a rural Mid-Atlantic school were asked what was happening in a set of pictures displaying kids in school and playground settings.

One set of pictures, for example, showed a child sitting on the ground with a pained expression, while another child stood behind a swing — suggesting that the child on the ground might have been pushed or the child on the ground had fallen off. In one version of the pictures, a White child stood behind the swing and a Black child was on the ground. Another picture reversed the roles. The children were asked: “What happened here?” and were asked to rate how good or bad it was on a scale from 1 to 9.

The research showed that a school’s ethnic diversity made a difference in how the children interpreted the scenes. While 71 percent of the children in the homogenous schools said the Black child had pushed the White child, only 60 percent judged that the White child had pushed the Black child when the roles were reversed. The balance of children in both cases assumed that the child on the ground had simply fallen off.

“The effect of school composition matters,” Killen says. “In homogenous schools, children have very little contact with people of other races … and this can create an ingroup bias.”

The study, which found that girls were less likely to attribute negative intentions than were boys, also shows how girls are more sensitive to the fading of inter-racial friendships over time because of their own exclusion from certain sports, math and science activities. “[Girls] have already experienced exclusion,” Killen says. “When kids have inter-racial friendships it’s good to reduce bias.”

She says that although young children are not aware of historical patterns of exclusion, they pick up subtle messages from adults and see it in a larger context.

“Children make different judgments, and stereotypes enter into their judgments, even when they also understand fairness,” Killen says.

By Shilpa Banerji


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