George Lucas Educational Foundation
The Research Is In

Bias Starts as Early as Preschool, but Can Be Unlearned

A new study finds that children show bias at a surprisingly young age. But teachers have ways to address this and create a welcoming classroom.

June 4, 2019
Kids dancing in a circle
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We know that teens and adults can demonstrate social bias toward people from cultures different from their own. But what about young children? Do they show bias toward peers based on identity groups? Researchers at Northwestern University sought to provide more insight into this issue in a new study with 4- and 5-year-olds.

Using an implicit bias test commonly given to adults, researchers found that the children rated images of black boys less favorably than images of white boys and girls, with images of black girls falling in the middle.

Young children are “astute observers of the social world,” and this can have pernicious effects on how they perceive race and gender, according to Danielle Perszyk, a psychologist at Northwestern University, and her colleagues. The majority of children in the study—both black and white—had a “strong and consistent pro-white bias.”

To explore how young children may show racial and gender bias, the researchers conducted two experiments to examine whether preschool children are aware of and demonstrate bias toward other children based on both race and gender. The researchers looked at young children’s implicit and explicit biases toward four groups: black males, black females, white males, and white females.

In the first experiment, the children were divided into two groups, and each group was shown the same order of four images: a prime image—one that might cause them to have a positive or negative reaction to a subsequent image; a blank screen; a neutral image (a Chinese character); and a gray screen.

Each group had different prime images. One group saw positive and negative images (e.g., a cute puppy and a snarling puppy). The other group was shown smiling faces of black and white girls and boys. In both groups, after the gray screen appeared, the children were asked to indicate if the Chinese character they had seen was “nice looking” or “not nice looking.”

In the second experiment, a different group of children completed the same procedure, but the prime images of black and white boys and girls had neutral expressions rather than smiles. Participants were asked to rate how much they liked each boy’s and girl’s face on a 6-point scale, with 1 being “really don’t like” and 6 being “really like.”

Results from the first experiment showed that children responded more positively to the Chinese character when it followed white faces rather than black faces. They also responded more positively when it followed female faces as opposed to male ones. The Chinese character had the least positive responses when it followed images of black boys.

The second experiment found a similar impact of race on children’s feelings toward the neutral image, but there was no difference in response based on the gender of the face in the images. Results from the children’s responses in both experiments revealed that black boys were rated less positively than black girls, white girls, and white boys.

These findings show that children begin to show bias from an early age. Not only do they absorb the stereotypes they see, but they also become “increasingly attuned to social category labels, social status, and the biases exhibited by family members,” explain Perszyk and her colleagues.

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Addressing Social Bias in the Classroom

In recognition of this research, it’s valuable for educators to be mindful and to implement strategies in their classrooms that recognize young children’s social biases. Here are four relatively simple strategies they can start with.

1. Be aware that children—possibly at an earlier age than expected—may demonstrate bias and preference in their interactions: Preschoolers are not immune to bias and may treat each other differently based on race, ethnicity, or gender.

2. Determine how you want to address situations when bias is occurring: Rather than ignore situations in which children demonstrate bias, educators can use these situations as inspirations for story selection, activities, and projects. For instance, a child may project hierarchies of power in their play by attempting to dominate materials or controlling how play occurs. In response, an educator can work with them to resolve the issue, which could involve listening to the children’s experiences and offering suggestions for sharing.

If children feel uncomfortable discussing a situation in which they felt rejected by their peers, educators can have them show what happened or how they’re feeling through the use of persona dolls. These dolls have a name, a background, and other traits, and they can help children become more comfortable discussing feelings—they sharing their experiences through the dolls.

Educators can invite parents or community members to the classroom to share their experiences in antiracist activities, or use books as a way of introducing the history of racial and ethnic relations. Resources such as EmbraceRace and Lee & Low Books’ blog can used to generate dialogue with children.

3. Be mindful of the social environment you’re nurturing: Children use adults—including educators—as reference points for how to react to others. Understanding one’s own preferences and biases is helpful in determining whether social bias toward certain groups is being perpetuated in classrooms. These biases and preferences may be influencing children’s interactions with peers in their classroom as well as educators’ selection of the activities, projects, books, and images they present in the classroom.

Educators can become more aware of their own biases by dialoguing with other educators and sharing their stories related to their own cultural identity. These conversations can be kicked off by having educators share a family cultural artifact or family ritual and explain the reasons for its significance.

4. Understand that addressing bias is a process: Even if an educator would like to immediately change the circumstances in their classrooms, progress may be gradual. Just as it may take educators time to realize their biases and work through them, young children will not change their patterns of thinking immediately.

Educators are in a unique position to potentially see children’s social biases unfold as they play and work with peers, so they have a valuable opportunity to help children work through their biases and explore historical and everyday experiences of people from a variety of cultural groups. These explorations may encourage the children to create a welcoming environment in which all students can learn.

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Filed Under

  • Culturally Responsive Teaching
  • Education Equity
  • Social and Emotional Learning