Implicit Bias Is Everyone’s Problem


Photo by Heather Locke, Fort Campbell Courier, FMWRC, U.S. Army 100820

“Hidden Figures”—the Oscar-nominated film about three Black women mathematicians working at NASA in 1961 (that is, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964)—contains plenty of examples of explicit bias and discrimination.

But it also has a splendid illustration of implicit bias, which is far more subtle.

Toward the end of the movie, Mrs. Michael, a White manager (played by Kirsten Dunst), semi-apologizes to Dorothy Vaughan, an African American woman in NASA’s computing pool (played by Octavia Spencer), by saying, “I didn’t mean you any harm.”

Vaughan’s response outs her supervisor’s unseen prejudice: “I know. And I’m sure you believe that.”

What exactly are implicit biases, and who has them?

According to Walter S. Gilliam, the Yale psychologist who’s been studying them for years, implicit biases are automatic, unconscious stereotypes that form as a result of our upbringing, daily experiences, and media exposure and drive the way we take in information, judge situations and people, and make decisions. All of us have them—they are natural and pervasive.

Despite the fact that they shape our expectations and behavior and influence us at least as much as our explicit biases, these biases are called “implicit” because most of the time we don’t even know they’re there—just like Mrs. Michael.

Is there implicit bias in schools and child care centers?

Gilliam’s interest in implicit biases dates from his discovery in 2005 that African American children—especially boys—were being suspended and expelled from state-funded prekindergarten classes at an alarming rate, much higher than White children and children in K-12 schools.

Why are Black boys at such high risk?

These statistics made Gilliam ask, why are Black boys suspended and expelled so often? From his 2005 study, he knew some of the risk factors:

  • Children of color often live with more stressors than White children.
  • They frequently attend poor-quality child care programs.
  • Because of their difficult lives, their families probably need more child care than most families, and as a result their children’s daycare day is very long.
  • Four-year-olds are more likely to be expelled than three-year-olds, perhaps because they’re bigger and teachers fear they’ll harm the other children.
  • Teachers who are depressed or experiencing job stress are more apt to suspend and expel the children in their care.

But Gilliam also suspected that an implicit bias lay at the root of these findings, and he set up an experiment to find out.

Gilliam’s study

Gilliam recruited 135 early childhood educators and told them he was studying how teachers detect challenging behavior, sometimes even before it appears. Then, using sophisticated eye-tracking equipment, he showed them a video of four preschoolers—an African American boy, an African American girl, a White boy, and a White girl.

The result? Even though the children were actors and the video contained no challenging behavior, the teachers spent more time watching the African American boy, who they said required the most attention. That is, they expected him to misbehave because of his race.

In the second part of the experiment, Gilliam asked the teachers to rate the behavior of a child in a written vignette. He manipulated the child’s race and sex by using different names—DeShawn or Jake; Latoya or Emily. The ratings suggested that both Black and White teachers had a stereotyped belief—that is, an implicit bias—that Black children are more liable to misbehave.

Some participants also received a description of the child’s family life, and their own race seemed to guide their reaction to it: If teacher and child were of the same race, the teacher could empathize with the child and the behavior seemed less severe. On the other hand, when they were of different races, the teacher considered the child’s behavior harder to deal with.

Researchers hypothesize that Black teachers are better able to understand Black children’s lives and culture and use that knowledge to respond to their needs.

What can we do about this?

Children with challenging behavior who are harshly disciplined and suspended and expelled from prekindergarten, preschools, and child care centers are missing out on a vital opportunity to prepare for—and succeed in—school. Luckily there is now some evidence that reducing our implicit biases and increasing our empathy can give them a much better start.

Of course this is easier if we have the support and guidance of early childhood mental health consultants, professional development, or crisis counselling, but too few teachers have access to such help.

So most of us are largely on our own. We have to hold ourselves accountable and rely on what we and our colleagues can do together. As Carol Brunson Day put it at the last NAEYC conference, “We must all work continuously to insure unintended consequences don’t come from our behavior.”

Here are some suggestions

  • The key is to know yourself, and self-reflection is our number one tool. There is no shame in having biases—everyone has them—but before we can change them we have to admit that they exist. This takes courage, but if we stick with it and fight the urge to run away or hide, we will make progress.  We could help one another by pointing out an action or a response that seems due to bias—or by observing a colleague who has a particularly easy relationship with an African American boy.
  • How else can you discover your own implicit biases? Take the Implicit Bias Test.
  • It’s extremely important to build strong relationships with all the children we teach and use every interaction to show how much we care about them and believe in their ability to succeed. Little things mean a lot, for example, saying their names correctly. Mispronouncing or changing a child’s name insults the child, the family, and their culture and can have a lasting effect on a child’s self-image and world view.
  • Get to know the children’s families and learn about their lives and culture, paying special attention to those whose beliefs and experiences are different from yours. Head Start has shown us that family involvement and home-school collaboration improve children’s behavior at school. Home visits open doors, both literally and figuratively.
  • Make a point of connecting with people who are different from you. This can be hard because many of our neighborhoods are segregated, so use your ingenuity. Invite guest speakers into your classroom, attend a service at an unfamiliar church, or follow the example of Justin Minkel, 2007 Arkansas Teacher of the Year, and arrange a meet-up for families in a park or playground.

All of this enables us to challenge our stereotypes. Arizona teacher Cheryl A. Redfield put it this way: “We tend to characterize a whole people group from a few encounters. We don’t challenge our conclusions. So rethink, reflect, and resolve not to succumb to the convenience of overgeneralization, especially when it comes to people. They can surprise you.”

Whenever they do surprise you, your horizons expand, your empathy and compassion grow, and your biases lose some of their power.

Over to you

Have you had any experience dealing with implicit biases, either your own or others’? How did you become aware of them, and did you have any success in changing them?


Bullying–Who Are the Players?

Photo by Karin Vlietstra

Note: This is the third in a series on bullying.

After years of believing that children who bully suffer from low self-esteem, lack social skills, and are rejected by their peers, we now know that the reality is far more complex.

Children who use bullying behavior come in a variety of flavors.

Who Are the Children Who Bully?

About half seem so much like ourselves that we often don’t recognize them. They have high self-esteem; they are socially competent and popular with their teachers and peers (even if they aren’t always well liked); and they’re influential leaders who hang out with kids who aren’t involved in bullying. From early childhood on they are on a pathway to success.

However, they also use bullying behavior—both prosocial and aggressive—to gain status and control. As bullying expert Faye Mishna  points out, they continually challenge the official message that aggression is undesirable.

Many other children who bully do fit the classical description, and some other familiar adjectives as well—aggressive, impulsive, hot-tempered, easily frustrated, and rule-breaking.

And at the very opposite end of the bullying spectrum lie bully-victims (sometimes called provocative victims). As the name implies, they not only bully others but are targeted by them. Researchers describe them as “socially marginalized,” “fighting the system that keeps them on the periphery.”

As the most rejected and isolated children, with the lowest social status and deepest psychological problems, bully-victims may not have any friends, which makes them more vulnerable and puts them on a pathway to more and more abuse.

Their irritating and provocative behavior also alienates their teachers, who find it hard to summon up empathy for them—a critical ingredient in responding to bullying appropriately. More than any other children, bully-victims need empathy from adults and help with social skills and relating to peers.

Who Are the Targets of Bullying Behavior?

Children who are the targets of bullying usually lack social status or are “different” in some way and reward their attacker by crying, running away, or handing over their possessions instead of standing up for themselves. These reactions signal that they’re easy marks for harassment, and by the age of 8 or 9 years they may be locked into this role.

Experts agree that most students on the receiving end of bullying share certain characteristics, though no one knows for sure whether they are the cause or the effect of bullying. Children who are targeted:

  • Have low self-confidence and self-esteem
  • Are prone to depression and sadness
  • Easily become fearful and anxious
  • Have poor social skills
  • Have few or no friends and are lonely and isolated
  • Are passive and submissive and have a sense of helplessness
  • Are physically weak and dislike fighting
  • Don’t perform well in school

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered students top the list, along with students who “just don’t fit in”—those who are different because of their appearance, behavior, race, religion, disability, aboriginal origin, or social and economic class.

On the other hand, the socially competent leaders who bully may pick on peers  whose status is similar to their own in order to climb the social ladder, and the targets may be as difficult to see as the aggressors.

Who Are the Bystanders?

Peers witness 85 percent of bullying incidents, and their presence and actions can increase—or decrease or stop—bullying.

  • Their silence and inaction send the message that bullying is okay.
  • Their laughter, comments, and assistance reinforce the power and status of students who bully.
  • Bullying lasts longer when more bystanders are present.
  • Bullying is highest in classrooms where the bystanders seem to support it—everyone believes the rest of the group accepts it.
  • The social climate becomes harsher and less empathetic as bullying becomes more acceptable.


  • When bystanders intervene, more than half of the time bullying stops within 10 seconds.
  • Students who stick up for the target are held in high esteem by their peers.
  • Watching bullying makes most bystanders uncomfortable, and many feel they should try to stop it.

But in reality only a few intervene.

Why Don’t Bystanders Report or Intervene When They See Bullying?  

They are afraid of retaliation, and they don’t want to be excluded from the group. It is easier to create rationalizations for not following moral standards, such as, “He was just joking,” “Everybody does it,” and “She deserves it,” or to assume someone else will take responsibility.

In addition, bystanders may not know what to do, may not have a trusted adult to confide in, or believe that telling will change nothing or make things worse.

Or they think: If bullying is so wrong, why don’t adults act?

One of the most important factors is the bystanders’ relationship to the other children involved. Most of the time they will loyally support their friends and follow the rules of their peer group.

Personal power matters, too. Kids who feel unsafe, disconnected, and disempowered probably won’t stand up for a targeted child—or even reach out to help after the fact—unless the peer group demands it.

Researchers are currently trying to figure out how to change peer group thinking. It is a vital clue to solving the bullying puzzle.

What Can Adults Do?

Research shows that bullying is a relationship problem that involves an entire ecology: home, school, community, and society. All of the pieces are important, and you are a primary role model: Your words, attitudes, and behavior always influence what goes on, even when you aren’t present.

When you see or suspect bullying, intervene consistently. We know we’ve said this before, and we’re going to say it again.  We’ll tell you how in our next post.

When a child tells you he or she is being bullied, the rule that you need to see it to believe it doesn’t apply. Listen carefully, try to understand, and validate his or her experience. Focus consciously on empathy, especially for children you don’t like. As Faye Mishna puts it, when this doesn’t happen, the child doubts him or herself and loses trust in all adults, with damaging effects on adjustment and functioning.

Be aware of the distinct peer groups in your classroom and understand which kids have power. Use this information to create groupings and opportunities that will help students to recognize each other’s strengths and contributions.

Make the climate of your classroom a high priority. Foster support for acceptance of diversity, moral engagement, kindness, and helpfulness through stories you read, books you assign, discussions about how people feel, role-playing, and using a prosocial curriculum such as Second Step.

Prevention is the best intervention. Bullying begins in early childhood, and it’s easier and more effective to catch it and turn it around in those years than it is later on.

What do you think? Have you seen different types of children bully—or being targeted—in your own classroom or school? How aware are you of your own reactions to the children involved? What strategies have you found to be effective?