Study Finds Elementary School Teachers More Likely to Discipline Black Boys than White Peers

A new study, led by Calvin Zimmerman, the O’Shaughnessy Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, has found that elementary school teachers, regardless of their own race, are more likely to engage in disciplinary behaviors with their Black male students compared to White male students.

Dr. Zimmerman conducted this study to investigate the disproportionately high rate of disciplinary outcomes of Black male students compared to other racial and gender subgroups. His research was carried out through a two-year observational study of a group of male students from kindergarten through first grade.

“It is important to understand how race and racism shape children’s earliest school experiences,” wrote Dr. Zimmerman. “Even for students as young as 6 years old, schools perpetuate existing social and educational inequalities.”

During his observations, Dr. Zimmerman found three distinct differences between the way teachers carried out discipline to Black boys versus White boys. Teachers were more likely to use what Dr. Zimmerman describes as an “authoritarian approach” with their Black male students, monitoring them more closely than White students. Teachers were also more likely to reprimand their Black students for misbehaving while ignoring White students exhibiting the same behavior. Additionally, when students disobeyed or challenged their authority, teachers were more likely to show leniency with White boys and harshness with Black boys, such as physically removing them from the classroom entirely.

“Authoritarian disciplinary practices may socialize Black boys into a broader sense of racial inferiority and contribute to a negative self-image,” says Dr. Zimmerman, “while permissive discipline may socialize White boys into a sense of racial superiority, entitlement and privilege.”

Dr. Zimmerman graduated from Southern Illinois University where he majored in sociology. He received a master’s degree and Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania.

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