Early Childhood

Yale Study Probes the Complexity of Bias in Preschool

By Christina A. Samuels — September 28, 2016 3 min read
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Black children make up only 19 percent of the children enrolled in public preschool, but account for 47 percent of those suspended from preschool one or more times.

Researchers at Yale University released a new study this week that suggests implicit bias—negative or positive feelings people are unaware that they hold—could be behind that disparity.

But bias manifests itself in complex ways, according to the study results—with white teachers overlooking misbehavior in black students, perhaps because they may not have been expecting much better, and black teachers watching black boys particularly closely when expecting problems.

Researchers shared vignettes with 135 preschool teachers that described a child who was acting out on the playground, ignoring the teacher, pushing classmates, and otherwise showing challenging behavior. The vignettes differed only by the student names given: Jake and Emily were chosen as names connoting white children, and DeShawn or Latoya were offered as black names.

The research found that the black teachers tended to hold “black” preschoolers to a higher standard than white teachers did. In general, black teachers recommended more harsh exclusionary discipline, such as suspension or expulsion, for all children.

For some of the teachers in the study, the experimenters added something extra to the vignettes: that the misbehaving children had a difficult home life, including a mother working several low-paying jobs and a sometimes-violent father. When given that information, teachers showed more empathy to the child—but only when the teacher and the child were of the same race. When the teacher and child were of different races, the same family background information prompted teachers to rate the behavior as more severe and harder to fix.

Using Eye-Gaze Technology to Track Bias

A second element of the same study tracked teachers’ eye gazes as they watched several
short vignettes of a black boy and black girl, and a white boy and white girl, playing together.

The videos showed normal interaction, but the teachers were primed to believe that they should be looking for signs of friction.

Both the white and black teachers tended to observe the black boy more closely than the other children, but black teachers watched the black boy for a longer time than white teachers did. And when asked directly, 42 percent of the teachers also said that the black boy required most of their attention, followed by 34 percent saying the white boy. That choice was not significantly linked to the teacher’s race.

Reducing Bias Among Preschool Teachers

“Implicit bias is like the wind. You can’t see it, but you sure can feel its effects,” said Walter Gilliam, the study’s lead author and the director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University. Edward Zigler was one of the founders of Head Start.

The results were sobering, said Linda Smith, the deputy assistant secretary for early-childhood development for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in a press call.

“The findings present us with a challenge that all of us know is not new, but one that we’ve haven’t been addressing with the same rigor as some of the challenges we’ve taken up in the past,” Smith said. “It’s something that we all didn’t want to hear, but needed to know.”

The results raise several questions, the paper noted: for example, more needs to be known about black teachers and their contribution to discipline disparities. This study demonstrated that black teachers tended to watch black boys closely, rate their behaviors more severely in the absence of background information, and recommend more exclusionary discipline in general.

Gilliam said that the findings also suggest that preschool teachers need bias-reducing training, or interventions that build empathy between teachers and their students.

“Implicit bias does not begin with black men and the police. It begins with young black boys and their preschool teachers, if not earlier,” he said.

But, he added, “early educators represent perhaps our nation’s best first-line defense against the negative impact of implicit biases, simply because they are eager to examine them within themselves.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.