Brief exercises that address middle school students’ worries about belonging can help black and Latino boys develop better relationships with teachers and sharply reduce their risk of receiving discipline citations years into the future, Stanford psychologists find.
Their research, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that guided exercises in two or more 25-minute class sessions early in sixth or seventh grade reduced teacher reports of discipline issues – such as for disrespect, defiance or insubordination – among black and Latino boys by 57 percent over two years in one study. In a second study, the reduction for black boys was 65 percent from sixth grade through 12th grade.
The researchers include Geoffrey Cohen, the James G. March Professor in Organizational Studies in Education and Business and a professor of psychology; Gregory Walton, the Michael Forman University Fellow in Undergraduate Education and associate professor of psychology at Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences; and Stanford psychologist J. Parker Goyer, a postgraduate fellow. They hope that their findings can help address the discipline disparity between black and Latino students and other groups. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, in 2013-14, black boys represented 7.9 percent of public school students but 25.2 percent of students who were suspended.
Teacher reports of discipline issues, the researchers said, arise from a cycle of negative interactions that are influenced by negative social stereotypes between teachers and students.
“When students and teachers both begin school aware of negative stereotypes that label boys of color troublemakers, small initial differences can compound,” Walton said. “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.”
How could troubled relationships between teachers and students be improved? In a prior study, Walton found that a brief online exercise to help middle school teachers take an empathic rather than punitive mindset with misbehaving students cut the student suspension rate by 50 percent.
The latest research explores the flip side: whether middle schoolers who feel more secure in their belonging also have agency to build better relationships with teachers.
Intervening from the start
The psychologists conducted two studies with a diverse mix of boys and girls: one with 669 students starting seventh grade at two middle schools with large Latino populations in the western United States and a second with 137 students beginning sixth grade at a middle school with a large black population in New England.
To better understand interactions between students and classroom teachers, the psychologists focused on when their relationship begins: the start of the school year, which for many middle schoolers can feel daunting. Students may wonder if they will fit in to the new environment, whether they will make friends and if their new teachers will treat them well. Some might question whether they are prepared for a more challenging academic environment.
These concerns are particularly acute for students of color, Walton said. In addition to dealing with the changes and emotions that middle school brings, they must reckon with a growing awareness of racial stereotypes and the possibility that these stereotypes could affect how they are treated.
“This is a context ripe for worries about belonging,” Walton said. “And if you are already worried about belonging and mistreatment, bad early experiences can seem to confirm your fears.”
For both studies, the researchers developed a social-belonging intervention based on Walton and Cohen’s previous research on the transition to college. They found that sharing stories about normal worries about belonging and how belonging improves with time helped first-generation and minority students build a sense of belonging and supported their academic success.
Here, in two 25-minute class sessions, sixth and seventh grade students read stories from older pupils that emphasized normal challenges to belonging in middle school. In one story, a student said, “I didn’t like taking tests at the beginning of sixth grade … I thought I wasn’t prepared and that my teachers … would think I wasn’t smart. Sometimes … my stomach hurt. But the teachers were really nice. They helped me get better even if I didn’t do well at first.” Next, students reflected on why students in middle school might worry about “fitting in” at first and why they might feel more confident over time.
Some students in the first study also completed additional exercises, including one focused on a growth mindset. They learned that intelligence can grow with hard work, effective strategies and help from others – a message that can help students persevere through challenges, Walton said. Others had an opportunity to reflect on their core values – an exercise Walton also hoped could promote belonging and help students navigate potentially threatening experiences in school.
Improving student-teacher interactions
In the first study, black and Latino boys who received the three exercises together received 57 percent fewer reports of discipline issues in seventh and eighth grade compared with peers in the control group. The growth mindset exercise alone was also effective: reports were reduced by 75 percent compared with the control condition.
In addition, the exercises seemed to cut off negative cycles with teachers. In the second study, the researchers found that black boys in the control group experienced a rise in discipline citations that required the subjective judgment of teachers, such as insubordination in sixth grade and then again in seventh grade. Each year subjective citations started low but increased over the year. These experiences can both reflect and fuel a toxic relationship between students and teachers, Walton said.
By the end of seventh grade, these black boys also reported a lower sense of belonging and greater worries about being treated in accordance with negative stereotypes.
But as the researchers found, the belonging intervention prevented those exacerbating patterns where negative experiences can compound. Teacher reports of discipline issues among black boys started low in sixth and seventh grades and stayed low over each school year.
Altogether, 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 – a seven-year period – closing the disparity with white boys by 75 percent.
The researchers emphasized 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,” Goyer said. “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.”
In addition to lead authors J. Parker Goyer and Geoffrey Cohen and senior author Gregory Walton, Stanford co-authors include Wonhee Lee and Amelia Henderson. Other authors include Jonathan Cook from Pennsylvania State University, Allison Master from the University of Washington, Nancy Apfel from Yale University, Stephanie Reeves from Ohio State University, and Jason Okonofua from the University of California, Berkeley.
The research was supported by grants from the William T. Grant Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the Raikes Foundation and the Spencer Foundation.
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