According to a new study led by researchers at Stanford University, brief exercises that address middle school students’ worries about belonging can help young Black and Latino males develop better relationships with teachers and sharply reduce their risk of being disciplined years into the future.
“When students and teachers both begin school aware of negative stereotypes that label boys of color troublemakers, small initial differences can compound,” said Gregory Walton, an associate professor of psychology at Stanford. “A small initial misbehavior can be seen as more severe by teachers. And children already worried about fairness and disrespect can react strongly to early negative experiences. Then small misbehaviors and initial mistrust can grow.”
For their research, the researchers conducted two studies with a diverse group of students: one with students starting seventh grade at two middle schools with large Latino populations in the western United States and a second with students beginning sixth grade at a middle school with a large Black population in New England. In both experiments, the students were asked to read stories from older pupils that emphasized normal challenges to belonging in middle school. Next, the students, reflected on why students in middle school might worry about “fitting in” at first and why they might feel more confident over time.
In the first experiment, Black and Latino boys who received the three exercises together received 57 percent fewer reports of discipline issues in seventh and eight grade compared with peers in a control group. In the second study, the Black students who received the belonging intervention were much less likely to experience disciplinary actions that year, and every other following school year, than students in the control group. Across both studies, the belonging intervention delivered in two classes early in sixth grade reduced discipline citations for Black boys by 65 percent through the end of high school year, closing the disparity with White boys by 75 percent.
The researchers stress that there are many causes of racial disparities in school discipline citations that can also be addressed, such as changing policies around discipline and teacher behavior.
“But it is also important to consider the psychological experience of children,” said lead author J. Parker Goyer, a postgraduate fellow at Stanford. “This experience can interact with social contexts to create and maintain differences between groups. Yet when this experience is addressed early enough, it is possible to forestall a negative cycle and make it positive.”
The full study, “Targeted Identity-Safety Interventions Causes Lasting Reductions in Discipline Citations Among Negatively Stereotyped Boys,” was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It may be accessed here.