Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

Preschool expulsions are a troubling reality for too many young children, particularly African-American boys.

To learn more about the possible role of teachers’ bias in these expulsions, Yale University researchers recruited 135 study participants from “the exhibit hall at a large annual conference of early care and education professionals…”

The study looked at implicit bias, which “refers to the automatic and unconscious stereotypes that drive people to behave and make decisions in certain ways,” according to the study’s research brief.

Children’s behavior also matters, however, “implicit biases about sex and race may influence how those behaviors are perceived and how they are addressed, creating a vicious cycle over time exacerbating inequalities.”

Among the findings: “Preschool teachers and staff show signs of implicit bias in administering discipline, but the race of the teacher plays a big role in the outcome,” a Yale news release explains



“Lead researcher Walter Gilliam knew that to get an accurate measure of implicit bias among preschool teachers, he couldn’t be fully transparent with his subjects about what, exactly, he was trying to study,” NPR reports.

“Even the most well-meaning teacher can harbor deep-seated biases, whether she knows it or not. So Gilliam and his team devised a remarkable — and remarkably deceptive — experiment.”

The 135 teachers in the study watched a short video. They were told that Gilliam wanted to learn “about how teachers detect challenging behavior in the classroom.”

The specifics were: “The video segments you are about to view are of preschoolers engaging in various activities. Some clips may or may not contain challenging behaviors. Your job is to press the enter key on the external keypad every time you see a behavior that could become a potential challenge.”

The videos all had one white girl, one white boy, one black girl, and one black boy. Researchers used eye-tracking technology to see where teachers were looking.

What the teachers weren’t told was that the videos didn’t actually show any challenging behavior.

“Gilliam wanted to know: When teachers expected bad behavior, who did they watch?”

In this part of the study, teachers watched black students more, and, in particular, the watched black boys more.

In another part of the study, NPR reports, Gilliam “gave teachers a one-paragraph vignette to read, describing a child disrupting a class; there’s hitting, scratching, even toy-throwing. The child in the vignette was randomly assigned what researchers considered a stereotypical name (DeShawn, Latoya, Jake, Emily), and subjects were asked to rate the severity of the behavior on a scale of one to five.

“White teachers consistently held black students to a lower standard, rating their behavior as less severe than the same behavior of white students.

“Gilliam says this tracks with previous research around how people may shift standards and expectations of others based on stereotypes and implicit bias. In other words, if white teachers believe that black boys are more likely to behave badly, they may be less surprised by that behavior and rate it less severely.

“Black teachers, on the other hand, did the opposite, holding black students to a higher standard and rating their behavior as consistently more severe than that of white students.”

There are factors that limit the impact of bias. It can help, for example, if teachers know more about students’ lives — but only if both have the same racial background.

“Findings suggested that when the preschool teacher and child were of the same race, knowing about family stressors led to increased teacher empathy for the preschooler and decreased how severe the behaviors appeared to the teacher,” Yale’s news release says. “But, when the teacher and child were of a different race, the same family information seemed to overwhelm the teachers and the behaviors were perceived as being more severe.”


Addressing Biases

What can be done to address implicit biases?

“Fortunately,” the research brief says, “recent research suggests that implicit biases may be reduced through interventions designed to either address biases directly or increase teachers’ empathy for children.”

Teachers may also benefit from “increased training and ongoing guidance, perhaps through services such as early childhood mental health consultation, to understand how best to use this information, increase their empathic understanding of the child, and avoid feelings of hopelessness, especially when teacher and child race do not match.”

The brief adds: “Given the significance of this issue, serious consideration should be given to a potential role for evidence-based bias-reducing interventions as a core component of preservice and ongoing in-service early childhood teacher training.”

As the NPR report concludes:

“It’s impossible to separate these findings from today’s broader, cultural context — of disproportionately high suspension rates for black boys and young men throughout the school years, of America’s school-to-prison pipeline, and, most immediately, of the drumbeat of stories about black men being killed by police.

“If implicit bias can play a role on our preschool reading rugs and in our classrooms’ cozy corners, it no doubt haunts every corner of our society.

“Biases are natural, as Gilliam says, but they must also be reckoned with.”