When Tunette Powell’s 4-year-old son first got suspended from his preschool class in 2014, she assumed that she needed to be doing something different as a parent. She had already worked hard to enrich her children’s lives, but she challenged herself to be better.
The second time her son JJ got suspended, Powell began to think that maybe it was “just the fate” of her child. When Powell was in school, she had been suspended many times from a young age, and she began to think, “Maybe the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
Her thinking only turned around after she attended a birthday party for one of her son’s preschool classmates. Powell and her children are black, but most of the other parents at the party were white. When she mentioned to the group that her son had been suspended for behaviors like allegedly throwing a chair, they were shocked. Their kids had committed worse behaviors, but were only punished with a phone call home.
Her younger son, 3-year-old Joah, also faced a number of suspensions at school. Powell began to consider that maybe something more insidious was working against her children.
New research released Tuesday backs up Powell’s suspicions. A two-part study out of the Yale Child Study Center shows that preschool teachers respond to their black and white students differently. Implicit biases ― or unconscious stereotypes ― might be at the root of these differences, researchers found.
The research is the first-of-its-kind at the preschool level, said study author and Yale professor Walter Gilliam. Black children are 3.6 times more likely to receive a suspension in preschool than their white classmates, according to 2013-2014 data from the Department of Education. But, “until now, no research existed to explain why boys or black preschoolers are at greatest risk for expulsion,” Gilliam said on a call with reporters.
The first half of the study used eye-tracking equipment to determine where teachers look when they are expecting student misconduct.
Researchers had 132 educators watch videos featuring a diverse group of students and primed them to expect student misbehavior. Although no misbehavior actually occurred in the videos, teachers tended to focus their eyes on black students. This suggests that educators expected black students to act out more than other students.
In the second half of the study, the educators read vignettes about a child’s misbehavior. All of the educators read the same vignette, but the students’ names were different. Some teachers were told the child had a traditionally black name, like LaToya, while others were told the child had a stereotypically white name, like Emily. After reading the vignette, researchers asked teachers to rate the severity of the child’s misconduct.
White teachers tended to rate the behavior of the “black” children more mildly than black teachers, who tended to rate the misbehavior of black children more harshly. However, when teachers were told that the child faced a difficult home life, black educators tended to view black children with more empathy, while white educators viewed them as more hopeless. On the other hand, when the same scenario occurred for the “white” students, white teachers tended to view the children with more empathy, while black educators viewed them as more hopeless.
There are a few possible explanations for these behaviors, researchers hypothesize. White teachers might have lower expectations for black students, so they might not see a black child’s misbehavior as particularly unusual or severe. On the other hand, white educators might be self-conscious about giving negative reviews to black children, although this would not explain why they seemed to expect misbehavior in the first half of the study. Black educators might be trying to prepare their black students for a harsh world, researchers speculate.
The researchers did not find a relationship between child race or sex and a teacher’s decision to expel or suspend, “contrary to hypotheses,” says the study.
According to Gilliam, a teacher’s implicit biases can have a big impact on a child’s future.
“Implicit bias is like the wind, you can’t see it but you can sure see its effects,” Gilliam said. “Implicit biases do not begin with black men and police, they begin with young black boys and their preschool teachers, if not earlier.”
“Implicit bias is like the wind, you can't see it but you can sure see its effects.”
In the study’s conclusion, researchers suggest that preschool teachers get continual training and guidance on this topic. On a call with reporters, early childhood expert and government official Linda Smith said the study’s conclusions are “far too important for us to ignore.”
“The early childhood field has its roots in social justice. We’ve been fighting for a number of years for resources for our most vulnerable children and their families,” said Smith, who is the deputy assistant secretary for early childhood development at the Administration for Children and Families. “The findings presented today present us with a real challenge that all of us know is not new, but one we haven’t really been addressing with the same rigor as some of these other challenges.”
After seeing how implicit biases were playing out in her sons’ lives, Powell began to dedicate her life to fighting them. In total, Powell’s older son, JJ, was suspended three times from preschool, while her younger son, Joah, was suspended eight times.
However, once JJ entered kindergarten, his apparent behavioral problems disappeared. And when her son Joah got different preschool teachers, he seemed to thrive. The children are now 7- and 5-years-old, and are flourishing in school, said Powell, who recently moved to Los Angeles so she could pursue her doctorate in urban schooling.
Still, every time she looks back on her children’s suspensions, it breaks her heart.
“It’s still very fresh. It’s something that I think about more than I would like to, even when I try to block it,” Powell said. “To tell a child he’s a danger at 3 years old, that is unacceptable. If he remembers even the slightest bit of that, what kind of psychological effect might that even have on him?”
Rebecca Klein covers the challenges faced in school discipline, school segregation and the achievement gap in K-12 education. In particular, she is drilling down into the programs and innovations that are trying to solve these problems. Tips? Email Rebecca.Klein@huffingtonpost.com.