Implicit Bias Is Everyone’s Problem

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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?

 


Following Up After You See Bullying: A Practical Guide, Continued

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

You’ve seen bullying and intervened to stop it. You’ve shown that you won’t allow it. But the case is not yet closed. What do you do next?

Should there be consequences for children who bully?

Many bullying experts believe that punishment doesn’t deter children from bullying and leads to harsher—and more subtle—attacks. Children who bully may blame the child they targeted, seek vengeance, and issue new threats. Zero tolerance, suspension, and expulsion discourage both targeted children and bystanders from reporting or intervening in a bullying situation and don’t help the child who bullied. Punishment also teaches that bullying is acceptable for people with power.

So what are the alternatives?

Dan Olweus, the father of bullying research, regards a serious talk with a child who’s bullying as a consequence; and Canadian researchers Debra Pepler and Wendy Craig favor formative consequences that teach empathy, awareness, and social skills, while holding children responsible for their behavior and underlining that bullying is unacceptable.

Because bullying is a group problem, other experts advocate a group solution like restorative practice or similar interventions designed to deescalate denial and defensiveness, focus on the impact of the bullying, and redirect children to more positive pursuits.

A word of warning: Peer mediation is not a solution. Research shows that it doesn’t work, and it increases victimization. The children involved in bullying aren’t equals, and the child who was targeted is bound to be intimidated and even retraumatized by the child who bullied.

Talking with the participants

Regardless of what you feel about consequences, it’s important to talk separately with the children involved in a bullying incident. These talks will help to build trust and gather information for planning individual and group interventions.

The children also need a chance to express their feelings and their point of view, and they will feel more comfortable talking with a teacher they have a relationship with. If your school’s protocol calls for a specialist in bullying to take on this task, you might ask to sit in on the meeting—or brief the specialist—because you are the one who really knows the child.

The experts disagree about the order of these meetings. Some favor starting with the child who’s been targeted so that you understand his or her feelings and can use them to evoke empathy in the children who bullied. Other experts prefer to begin with the children who bullied to avoid accusations of tattling. In the end, personal preference—and how well you know both the group and the children involved—may determine where you start.

Meeting with children who’ve bullied

It’s not easy to speak with children who bully. They are likely to deny all wrongdoing, justify their behavior, and push your emotional buttons. But one-on-one time with a child who bullied can provide insight into the reasons behind the bullying and allow you to focus on strengths, recognize and redirect leadership abilities, and think up positive replacement behaviors to meet needs.

If several children took part in the incident, arrange to see them individually, one right after the other, so that they can’t use the group as a power source.

  • Show respect. Don’t accuse or blame. Listen to what they have to say without judging them.
  • Remind them of the rules. Tell them that bullying is serious and it must stop.
  • Help them to take responsibility for their behavior, to understand why it was wrong, and to see how it affects others.
  • Encourage them to make amends by eliciting empathy for the child who was targeted, asking them to propose one concrete way they can make his or her life better, and using formative consequences, such as reading a story that describes what it feels like to be bullied.
  • Make plans to work with them on problem solving, emotional regulation, and positive ways to use their leadership abilities.

Meeting with children who’ve been targeted

Research suggests that children rebound best from bullying when they tell friends and adults. The goal here is to build resilience.

  • Listen well, using open-ended questions and active listening. Let them know you care and want to help.
  • Tell them that they aren’t to blame and don’t deserve this treatment. You can support them best by empathizing, whereas trivializing events will make things worse.
  • Together explore ideas for improving the situation. Pinpoint bullying hot spots to avoid, and work on ideas for dealing with recess and lunch.
  • Help them to find new friends. You can start by assigning partners and groups instead of allowing children to choose their own and by frequently changing the seating arrangements for the whole class.
  • Teach self-talk, and role-play and rehearse staying calm, being assertive, and walking away. It is better if they can manage not to give in, get upset, or fight back, which promote bullying behavior. Do not suggest saying, “Stop,” pretending they aren’t hurt, or saying how they feel, which don’t work.
  • Continue to offer support. Because bullying is a relationship problem and hurts so much, it’s important to stay in touch. Children who are targeted can too easily develop—and get stuck in—a victim mentality. Work to build a relationship, and make sure the child knows you’re there for him or her.

Meeting with bystanders

Because almost all children will be bystanders at some point in their lives, it is probably most effective to speak with the whole class.

Bystanders often think bullying is wrong, feel sorry for the child who’s been victimized, and would like to help, but they fail to act. Peer norms—widely shared practices, behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes—play a huge role, but children may not know what their peers actually believe. Anonymous surveys and posters showing the results can help make them aware that others disapprove of bullying and want to intervene. Younger children may share their feelings in a circle or class meeting if there is an open and trusting sense of community in the group. Even a single defender can reduce the painful fallout for a child who’s being harassed.

  • Explain that when they’re present, even if they’re only watching, they are supporting the child who bullies. Discuss and role-play what they can do instead—walk away, tell the teacher, and if they feel safe, help the child who was bullied to leave the scene (for example, by saying, “Come on, I’ll walk with you to class” or “We need you for the game”).
  • Help them understand that fighting back puts a defender in danger, escalates the aggression, and reinforces violence as a means to resolve problems.
  • Emphasize that one of the best ways to help is by including children who were bullied after (and before!) the incident—sitting with them at lunch or on the bus, phoning or texting them, and saying that it isn’t their fault.
  • Stress  that secrecy enables bullying to continue and that grown-ups can help. You can encourage children to report it by clarifying the difference between tattling to get someone into trouble and telling to get someone out of trouble.
  • Whenever possible, integrate issues related to bullying into the curriculum, and talk about them regularly. Power, empathy, peer pressure, courage, prosocial behavior, the difference between accidental and on purpose, the line between teasing and bullying, how it feels to be unwelcome—all of these topics kindle discussion. Reinforce the anti-bullying message with age-appropriate books, drawings, and puppets.

It takes time to stop bullying, but when you intervene consistently, meet with the parties involved, build relationships, and work with the whole class to create a community, you can lessen its impact and make it less likely to reoccur.

What do you think about using consequences for bullying? Have you used formative consequences, restorative practices, or other alternative methods? What works and what doesn’t? Tell us about your thoughts and experiences.

*  Sources for the information in this guide include the state of New Jersey, the federal government’s anti-bullying websites (www.stopbullying.gov and www.StopBullyingNow.hrsa.gov) and work by Dan Olweus, Michael Carpenter, Stan Davis and Charisse Nixon, and Nancy Willard.


Anxiety: A Signal of Challenging Behavior

Challenging and aggressive behavior often seems to come out of nowhere, but the truth is that if you look carefully you can see it on the horizon–in the guise of anxiety.

Anxiety in a child is a kind of early warning system that something is amiss, whether it’s the result of being left out of a group, stress at home, exposure to violence, even autistic spectrum disorder.

It’s hard to notice in a busy classroom because it’s internal; it doesn’t usually show much, and it doesn’t affect anyone but the child himself. But anxiety interferes with a child’s ability to learn and interact with his peers, and it can easily escalate to agitation and aggression if it isn’t addressed. We will certainly notice it then.

Become Sherlock Holmes

To see anxiety, you have to become a detective. To begin with, you must build a close relationship with every child and get to know all the children well–their temperaments, developmental levels, play skills, families, and cultures; what frustrates and frightens them; what makes them happy, mad, or sad.

You also have to learn to read the subtle physiological and behavioral clues the children display as they try to cope with their anxiety. For example:

  • Physiology. Tears, frequent urination, clenched teeth, blushing, pallor, rigidity, rapid breathing, sweating, fidgeting, vomiting, squeaky voice
  • Behavior. Downcast eyes, withdrawing, hair twirling, thumb-sucking, sucking hair or clothes, biting fingernails, hoarding, clinging, whining, being noisy or quiet, screaming, masturbating, smirking, giggling, crying

Figuring out what the child is thinking and feeling will help, too.

  • Thoughts. No one loves me; no one wants me; I’m no good; I don’t like it here; I don’t have any friends; no one will come to get me; I can’t do it; I’m bad; I want my mommy
  • Feelings. Distressed, troubled, afraid, nervous, excited, expectant, sad, irritable, grouchy, mad, insecure, frustrated, worried, confused, panicky

Reach Out

When a child’s characteristic clues appear, it’s time to connect–to smile, to sit nearby, to offer your help, to ask open-ended questions.

Pay special attention to your body language, facial expression, and tone of voice, which all convey far more than your words. You’ll want to do whatever works for a particular child.

This tiny intervention delivered at just the right moment will save you tons of time and trouble later, and protect the child from learning that challenging behavior is the best way to solve problems.

PS. Many of these ideas come from the WEVAS program created by Neil Butchard and Robert Spencler. For more information go to www.wevas.net


The More We Get Together: Thoughts on the NAEYC Annual Conference, 2012

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I must admit that I find the NAEYC conference daunting: so many people, so many choices, so many lines.

This year Judy and I both made the trip. Our hotel was just a few blocks away from the conference center, and it didn’t take us long to figure out where to get breakfast and lunch without standing in line for hours.

Judy was amazed that although thousands of people attended—spread out in a variety of hotels and all converging at the conference center—we ran into almost every person we were hoping to see, in some cases more than once. We connected with  friends and colleagues, old and new, while we were having coffee, while we were eating dinner, at our book signing in the exhibit hall, in workshops, in hallways, even in the bathroom. We felt like members of a gigantic family.

Nothing I Do Works

The conference kicked off for me at 8:30 on Wednesday morning with my pre-conference workshop, “Nothing I Do Works!”, designed to help educators understand both themselves and children with challenging behavior, build relationships, and prevent and respond to inappropriate behavior.

Although participants dribbled in slowly (those long coffee lines and a late night watching the election results didn’t help), by the time the technician figured out how to separate my speaker from the sound system in the room next door, almost every seat was taken.

Presenting to a large group always has its challenges, but this workshop went extremely well. Everyone seemed to be involved and interested, and there was a great deal of interaction among the participants. Clearly the people who showed up really wanted to be there (except perhaps for the person sitting right in front of me texting the entire time).

Goose Bumps

Despite the overwhelming number of options, Judy and I succeeded in choosing some terrific workshops. I had goose bumps for 90 minutes listening to Barbara Sorrels of the Institute for Childhood Education in Tulsa, OK, share her experiences working with children exposed to violence. We all need to think about how children’s behavior is often a reflection of the lives they live outside the classroom and how we can help them to feel safe and ready to learn.

I would also like to thank Dr. James Coplan, child psychiatrist and pediatric neurologist in Rosemont, PA,  for his insights regarding children on the autism spectrum. Held in a very large but half-empty room, his session should have been filled to the rafters with folks who have kids with ASD in their groups or work with them in other settings. Coplan presented a wealth of clear and useful information that will help us to understand the needs and behaviors of children with autism and permit these children to participate more fully in classroom life.

The Culture Door

My conference experience ended with my presentation of  “Opening the Culture Door” which examined the influence of culture—the child’s, the educator’s, and the school’s—on expectations and behavior.

Culture often holds the key to developing meaningful relationships: When we understand and appreciate the culture of the children and families we work with, they feel recognized and valued.

Once the workshop got started, it became a real opportunity for the participants to delve into their own culture and experience, which is crucial to understanding the culture of others. My job in facilitating these sessions is to create an environment where people feel comfortable enough to share their own stories. I think they did!

You can get the handout for “Nothing I Do Works!” here 

You can get the handout for “Opening the Culture Door” here

If you have trouble with these links, you can email me at barbarak@challengingbehavior.com


We’re Heading for the NAEYC Conference in Atlanta

I hope you’ll join me for “Nothing I do works!” The importance of understanding, preventing, and responding effectively to challenging behavior,” which will help you to understand yourself and the child, build relationships, and prevent and manage inappropriate behavior (Wednesday, November 7, 8:30 to 11:30 a.m., Georgia World Congress Center, Room A412).

In “Opening  the culture door: Creating a caring learning environment that respects and reflects the cultural values of all children,” we’ll examine the influence of culture—the child’s, the teacher’s, and the school’s—on behavior (Friday, November 9, 1:00 to 2:30 p.m., Georgia World Congress Center, Room A410).

Last but certainly not least, I’d love to meet you at Pearson Education’s “Meet the Author” event (Exhibit Hall booth #1320) on Thursday, November 8, 11:00 a.m. to noon.

We look forward to seeing you there!


Can We Stop a Shooter-in-Waiting?

Is it possible to predict who will commit a school shooting?

Are there warning signs that teachers, administrators, and threat-assessment teams can use to alert mental health professionals and law enforcement that a child may kill himself, his classmates, or his teachers?

The answer is almost certainly no. Psychology hasn’t yet developed this delicate art, and it probably never will. Multiple interacting factors push a shooter to act, and the vast majority of people who are mentally ill are not dangerous. By and large, school is a very safe place.

Not so long ago, when life became overwhelming youngsters who were marginalized and disaffected usually headed for the person responsible for their trouble—an abusive father or the kid who bullied them. But ever since Columbine, these boys (and they are always boys) follow a well-established cultural script—a template. Violent media help them along by equating masculinity with guns and power.

What Can Teachers Do?  

Sociologist Katherine S. Newman, who has studied school shootings in depth, suggests that eliminating even one of the risk factors underlying a school shooting will reduce the chances of a future shooting. Here are some of her recommendations:

1.  Identify and include kids who feel marginalized, isolated, friendless, under attack, or bullied, because they are most at risk, especially if they’re also depressed or dealing with other mental problems.

In other words, strong relationships with teachers are crucial. Although kids who don’t fit in won’t ask for help because it isn’t “manly,” they desperately need someone who cares, someone who can model an alternative set of values and give them room to be different, someone who can refer them for appropriate help. Chances are such kids are not easy to get close to, but trying to build some sort of positive relationship is crucial.

Marginalized students also need an inclusive classroom climate where they can develop ties and become part of a community. If they feel they belong, maybe they will be less likely to carry out an attack. And because they often advertise their intentions, in a community their peers may know about—and disclose—their plans, enabling experts to intervene in time to prevent violence.

2.  Make academic, counseling, and disciplinary records available from grade to grade and from school to school.Newman writes, “The commitment to second chances, and the desire to avoid labeling kids in ways that prejudice future teachers is socially worthy, but it exacts too high a cost.”

A more open system would make it possible to spot patterns of behavior and get help for students who need it. We must balance the right to confidentiality against individual and public health and safety.

 What Do You Think?

Is it a good idea for school counselors, administrators, or teachers to have access to a student’s records? Should access be confined to administrators and school counselors, or should teachers be able to see records, too? Would knowing a student’s history affect your attitude and behavior toward him? How would you balance your knowledge with the student’s right to privacy?


Fighting Violence with Early Childhood Education

This summer two horrific mass shootings shocked the country.

The first, in July, took place at the midnight opening of “The Dark Knight Rises”  in Aurora, CO, just down the road from Littleton, a town that’s still reeling from the Columbine massacre. The shooter, James Holmes, killed 12 and wounded 58.

The second attack, by an unrelated assailant, Wade M. Page, occurred in August at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, near Milwaukee. Six died and three were injured.

This fall, two school shooters joined this nefarious company. A 15-year-old was charged with assault and attempted murder in Perry Hall, MD; and a 14-year-old shot into the ceiling of a packed classroom in Normal, IL. Thankfully, no one was hurt.

Child with American flag and gun inTexas

A child with an American flag and a gun in Texas in the 1920s. Photo by Harry Walker, courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries. UH Digital Library

Risk Factors

We know very little about these shooters, and we certainly don’t know what caused these attacks. But we do know some of the factors that increase the risk of violent and aggressive behavior, and we also know that risk factors are cumulative—one plus one equals more than two. They can easily become overwhelming.

In young children, these risks work to produce challenging behavior, and when that behavior continues into kindergarten and beyond it becomes harder and harder to change.

Children with behavior problems are frequently rejected by their peers, and as a result they’re deprived of opportunities to develop and practice the social and emotional skills they need for self-esteem and success.

Their behavior also creates problems in school, where teachers all too often make the situation worse by teaching them less and punishing them more.

No wonder children with challenging behavior develop into teens who drop out of school and turn to delinquency, gangs, drugs, and mental illness. As adults they’re more likely to commit violent crimes.

White Power

Even knowing nothing about his childhood, we can guess about how risk factors led one of these shooters down a dangerous path. The Milwaukee gunman was immersed in the neo-Nazi culture of racial hatred and its white-power music, “hatecore.” The songs he played on his guitar and bass were intended to incite violence and strengthen commitment to his cause.

To heighten the risk, he—and all of the other assailants, including the teens—had ready access to guns.

A Different Life?

But maybe once upon a time they were young children with challenging behavior. If they’d had strong relationships with their teachers and effective teaching, they might have turned out differently.

The police are lobbying for high quality early childhood education because research shows that it prevents crime.

What do you think? What causes violent behavior? Is it guns? Violent media? Poverty? Genes? And what can we do about it? Can high quality early childhood education prevent crime and violence?