Losing Labels: Maximize Learning and Minimize Stereotype Threat
Harper, a super active ten year old, loves elementary school. Indoors, she's getting messy with classroom crafts and projects while outdoors she's running, climbing, and sliding in the playground. Harper remembers circle times, group projects, and partner reading with her friends and teachers. She's sad to leave her elementary school this year, but she's excited to be moving on to junior high school in the fall. Mom and dad also feel enthusiastic as well as a bit apprehensive. How can they encourage Harper to continue learning to focus her attention and thrive in an inclusive learning environment?
Many school classrooms celebrate each child’s unique identity including ethnicity, gender, and interests among other things. These classrooms help a student become her own person and understand her own strengths and struggles. She may be different than other students in some beneficial ways and some challenging ways. While it is important to allow a child to self-identify with certain labels if she finds them helpful, it is equally important to make sure that outside forces do not negatively enforce stereotypical labels on her. When a child stands out due to certain differences, she runs that risk of stereotype threat.
Stereotype threat is the threat that one will conform to a stereotype associated with a certain social group simply because they are in that social group. Examples include “girls can’t do math” or “disabled students can’t play sports”. Studies have demonstrated the negative effects of stereotype threat on everything from academic performance to athletic competition. Those who successfully combat a stereotype are often those who refuse to identify with it in the first place. For instance, simply by stating "I am a math person", a child is more likely to perform like a "math person" and do well on math assessments. Fortunately, there are also many additional ways to combat stereotypes and grow potential.
Successful learning outcomes happen when children adopt a growth mindset and believe that academic and athletic skills can grow with effort. While helpful in many areas, this idea is especially powerful for students with specific academic challenges (often math) and also for students with significant learning differences. Viewing the world through a growth mindset motivates students to continue to learn and grow in the face of adversity.
What can teachers do to foster a growth mindset and conquer social-emotional threats?
In general, teachers can encourage all students to believe in their abilities to meet high expectations in all areas from academics to classroom behaviors and expectations. Specifically, there are many additional steps that teachers can take in their classrooms to shield students with significant differences from the toxic effects of stereotype threat.
Build strong teacher-student relationships.
Teachers can ask students about their thoughts, feelings, and experiences in class. Use daily whiteboard questions to allow students to express themselves and learn about one another. Think-Pair-share works well for this. Think-pair-share is a collaborative learning strategy where students first think to themselves about a topic, then pair up to discuss and share with classmates. By acknowledging student feedback, teachers can continually discover ways to make classroom improvements. Teachers can also use feedback to help students connect with each other through similarities they share.
Teachers may also give substantive, critical feedback rather than sugar coating criticism: “I give this feedback since I know you are capable and can improve”. This has a huge impact on reducing students’ feelings of stigma and significantly increases engagement and performance.
Create a positive, respectful classroom community.
One engaging way to start building a positive, respectful classroom community is to develop a mission statement as a class. Depending on the grade level, it might be something like "All kindergarteners will be respectful, responsible, and safe." Also, teachers should immediately address any put-downs, name-calling or internalized negative stereotypes. Engagement programs, like Project Cornerstone's ABC Program, use in-class book readings to help students develop the skills to handle verbal, physical, and digital bullying. They also teach students to STAND UP if they see someone else being bullied.
Prime positive images.
Research suggests that if teachers prime their students at risk of stereotype threat with positive messages such as “You're an amazing learner!” or “All you need is a little practice.” students often eliminate links with negative stereotypes and achieve at their potential. Repeatedly presenting students with examples of successful people who share their group identity can also certify students’ potential for success. Teachers can aid students in recognizing positive aspects of themselves and focus on that instead of letting any challenges get them down.
Forewarn students about stereotype threat.
While celebrating student strengths, teachers can also warn students about possible hurdles they may encounter. Some studies show that awareness among stigmatized groups of the existence of a stereotype helps minimize its influence on performance. When a student who is educated about stereotype threat feels anxiety during math testing, he can disassociate the feeling from his ability, accredit it to stereotype threat, and minimize its effects on his achievement. Minimizing anything that may remind the student of that stereotype before and during testing will help as well.
Journal about growth mindset and belief in abilities.
One effective way to maximize learning and reduce stereotype threat is to have students write reflections on subjects such as growth mindset, belief in abilities, or other subjects of importance to them. Topics can vary from writing about the significance of family and career aspirations to an inspirational person in their lives. Writing time can range from as little as ten minutes to a whole class period. Reading the testimonials of others in stigmatized groups that feature positive messages about academic or other triumphs also helps to combat stereo type threat. Role models provide children with goals and aspirations.
What can parents do to encourage learning and combat social-emotional threats?
Parents make a huge difference as to how children understand diversity and what being different in some ways might mean. Similarly to teachers, parents can also shield students from stereotype threat by priming positive images, forewarning, and journaling.
Advocate and build relationships within the school.
Parents may also need to advocate for their child in the classroom if differences are significantly affecting classroom performance. Often times, this involves developing stronger relationships with the classroom teacher as well as the principal. Students struggling in school may qualify for support services, allowing them to be taught in a special way that relates to their individual needs. Parents may also choose homeschooling as an alternate to a traditional classroom setting.
Support effective relationships within the community.
When conversing with others about their child, parents can speak of strengths at least as often as any challenges. More often. Way more often. Remember that priming positive images, "He is so creative!", can reduce negative stereotypes. A person is so much more than any particular challenge they may face. Try to celebrate strengths and avoid labels. Help children connect through shared interests and commonalities.
Model growth mindset behavior.
Parents can encourage a growth mindset by letting children know that learning is all about hard work. Use growth praise like "Fantastic problem solving!" or "Great job! You worked so hard on that!" This applies directly to sports as well as academics.
If we succeed in building positive, respectful communities for our children, then children can enjoy the individual learning opportunities that they may require without the need for any labels to be called out or negatively valued. Each of us is unique in our own way and should be celebrated for all the amazing gifts that we bring into the world.
Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks on Flickr
New Math Teacher boasts an enthusiastic team of passionate lifelong learners who love to grow that passion in others as well. Our curriculum specialists love to post creative and engaging ideas about STEM education and learning. We welcome helpful feedback and constructive criticism.