Uncovering Bias in Early Childhood Education

By John Gregory | 7/14/17 8:00 AM

Biases: we all have them, says Yale University researcher Walter Gilliam. The functional ones help us navigate the hundreds of decisions we face each day. You could call those preferences.

The dysfunctional biases, and the biases we don’t realize we have – well, Gilliam says that’s where the problems can begin.

“If you’re not aware of your biases, I will guarantee you this: your biases will use you and they will change your behaviors in ways that you’re not even aware of,” he says.

So what if you’re a teacher, and your unrecognized biases cause you to treat some students differently because of their gender or race? He says that can lead to real harm to those children.

Gilliam is an associate professor of child psychiatry and psychology at the Child Study Center at Yale’s School of Medicine, and he’s the director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale. Gilliam appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss his research on how biases impact teachers who work with preschool children.


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The Problem with Suspension and Expulsion
Gilliam says research indicates that African-American children are expelled from school at more than twice the rate of white children, and boys are expelled roughly four times more frequently than girls. And it’s not just older students who face suspension or expulsion: Gilliam says children as young as three, four, and five years old may be suspended from Head Start and other preschool programs.

“If the idea is that expulsion or suspension is supposed to somehow help this child, it is a bad intervention because it isn’t working,” says Gilliam, who is a native of Pikeville.

Even among the youngest children, expulsion can cause them to fall behind in their educational and social development. When school no longer makes sense to them, they can act out even more, which leads to more suspensions as the child grows older. He says the ultimate expulsion from school is when the now-young adult winds up in jail.

“[School] is a public investment in order to be able to help improve the educational outcomes of all our children,” says Gilliam. “If we kick the children out who could gain the most from it, we’re basically undercutting our own investment.”

Gilliam contends there is never a good reason for expelling a child in the vast majority of cases. Instead of removing even the most troubled students from school, he suggests they should be transferred to specialized classrooms with teachers who can give those children more individual attention based on their particular needs.

“If you provide the right kind of supports in the program to the teacher, in many cases you can actually be able to handle and manage the behaviors just fine,” Gilliam says. “Then, over time the child learns how to be able to regulate their own emotions and behaviors in the classroom.”

Learning More about Bias in the Classroom
The troubling statistics about expulsion and suspension rates for minority children got Gilliam curious as to why the disparity existed. Was it simply a matter of increased stressors in the lives of boys and African-American children that caused them to act out more?

Or was there something else at play? Could implicit bias among teachers and administrators be a factor?

Gilliam and his colleagues devised a two-part study to explore potential biases among preschool teachers. First, the teachers were asked to watch a video of four young children (a white boy and girl, and a black boy and girl) playing in a kindergarten classroom and to note when they sensed bad behavior was about to occur.

Unbeknownst to the teachers, the four children were all actors who were instructed to not show any signs of misbehavior. Special technology tracked the eye movement of each teacher to follow which child they looked at and how long they observed them.

“What we basically found was that the teachers spent more time looking at black children, but especially the black boy,” says Gilliam.

In talking with the teachers afterwards, Gilliam says they thought they were watching the boys more closely – the educators thought they had a gender bias. But in reality they were watching the African-American boy the most. And that was true regardless of the race of the teacher.

The second part of the study involved telling teachers a story about a child who exhibited challenging behaviors in the classroom. The only difference in the story the teachers heard was the name given to the student: sometimes it was a stereotypical name of a white boy or girl, sometimes it was a name generally associated with a black boy or girl.

Gilliam says they found that when white teachers heard the story and perceived that it was about a black child, the teacher considered the acting out to be normal for a minority student. When black teachers thought they were hearing about a black child, they expressed a desire to “fix” the child by getting him or her to stop acting that way now. They feared for the minority child’s safety and well-being if they continued to misbehave as they got older.

To further randomize this part of the experiment, Gilliam told some of the teachers about the home life of the fictional student. The child’s father was largely absent, and when he was around he could be violent. Mom was working three low-wage jobs and battling depression.

“If you can humanize somebody, it makes it harder to dehumanize them with biases,” says Gilliam. “That was what we were really interested in, because we’re not interested in studying implicit bias, we’re interested in changing it.”

Using Privilege to Overcome Bias
The researchers discovered that when the teachers knew more about the child’s family, they tended to reduce their bias – but only if the teacher was the same race as the student. Gilliam says if the races were different, the teacher considered the child’s behavior to be even worse after they learned about their home life.

“What we’re trying to do right now is trying to find ways in which we can help teachers gain a better cultural frame for understanding that there are segments of our population that have experienced things you haven’t had to experience,” says Gilliam.

It’s not bad that a teacher may come from a background of more privilege than their students, Gilliam says. But can the teacher be empathetic enough to use that privilege for the good?

“It’s not a shame to be of privilege,” Gilliam says. “It’s just a shame to not pay attention to it and to not use it to help people who don’t have that privilege.”

Although the social ideal may be that a child will be raised in a stable home life where dad works a good job and mom stays home to raise the kids, Gilliam says that’s not the reality for many children these days. That’s why he argues that public school systems must be properly funded so that they can provide a quality education experience to all children, especially preschoolers who may come from difficult backgrounds.

“Education in the early years of our babies’ lives cannot be overstated,” says Gilliam. “What happens in the baby’s first few years of life sets the stage for everything else that can potentially happen later on, [so] the real question is whether or not we’re willing to take that knowledge and back it up with a political will to be able to do right by our babies.”