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Awareness of racial stereotypes happens at an early age, has consequences

– Most people believe that children are insulated from the prejudice and stereotyping that too often characterize adult life. But according to two University of California, Berkeley, researchers, even elementary school-aged children are aware of and affected by others' stereotypes.

"The Development and Consequences of Stereotype-Consciousness in Middle Childhood," an article by UC Berkeley psychology faculty members Clark McKown and Rhona Weinstein that appears in the most recent issue of the journal Child Development, examines exactly when children become aware enough of others' stereotypes to be harmed by them.

"Research has shown that, among adults, wondering whether someone is judging another on the basis of a stereotype can negatively affect a range of outcomes, including academic performance," McKown said.

According to McKown and Weinstein, it's between the ages of six and 10 that children become aware of each others' stereotypes.

"They go from not knowing anything to being able to infer that an individual has a stereotype to being able to talk about the stereotypes that lots of people hold," said McKown.

Moreover, he said, becoming aware of others' stereotypes matters.

African American and Latino children who are aware of broadly held stereotypes about academic ability perform more poorly on a cognitive task when that task is described as a measure of ability than when the same task is described as a problem-solving task. In contrast, white and Asian children perform the same on the task regardless of how it is characterized.

McKown and Weinstein concluded that when children become aware of broadly held stereotypes, under conditions resembling standardized testing conditions, children from academically stereotyped ethnic groups may become concerned that their test performance will be judged on the basis of a stereotype. This concern has a negative impact on performance.

Weinstein and McKown arrived at these conclusions after interviewing a diverse group of 202 children, ages 6 to 10, to learn how they think about stereotypes. They then had the same children do a challenging cognitive task. Half were told that the task was diagnostic of their ability; the other half were told it was not diagnostic.

The researchers found that by age 8, half of the African American and Latino children were aware of broadly held stereotypes. According to McKown and Weinstein, these findings suggest that high-stakes testing, such as statewide standardized testing, may be harmful to a large number of children by the second grade.

"The conditions of testing," McKown said, "not ability, effort, motivation, cultural deficits, or personal failings, cause ethnic differences in performance."

"Children actively make sense of their social world," he continued. "They are remarkably aware of race and racial dynamics." Unfortunately, these dynamics often play out in schools, contributing to the gap in achievement between children from different ethnic groups.

While the study did not examine remedies to these problems, the authors are planning to study a range of potential solutions.

"We don't have good evidence yet about what the best strategies are to minimize these corrosive social dynamics," McKown said, "however, the research to date suggests that context matters. This gives me hope, because contexts can be shaped."

McKown summarized three strategies that appear to be particularly good candidates:

  • Change the way tests are described. The best case scenario would be to de-emphasize high-stakes testing. If not that, the stakes should be lowered from the student's perspective by characterizing tests and evaluations as not diagnostic of ability.

  • Eliminate stereotypes and prejudice. Classroom practices that reduce prejudice can easily and inexpensively be adopted. By reducing prejudice, the effects of pervasive stereotypes will likely also be reduced.

  • Adopt classroom practices to reduce competition and cues about children's ability.

McKown and Weinstein have suggestions about this third recommendation. "Classroom practices that are competitive and in which it is really clear who are the winners and losers are likely to widen the achievement gap," McKown said. "In contrast, classroom practices that minimize ability salience may reduce the gap."

McKown also stressed that it is important for teachers and students to have good relationships, no matter into what level of achievement the student falls.

"Standardized testing, with all of its good and bad points, is likely here to stay," McKown said. "While these tests can be valuable tools, we should keep in mind that the context of testing may inadvertently hinder a large number of children from demonstrating what they know."