Blog

Written by Marsha Basloe, President of CCSA

Dr. Walter Gilliam presenting Implicit Biases in Early Childhood Settings at the Child Care Resource & Referral (CCR&R) Institute 2019 Conference on March 11, 2019.

“Better Together” was the theme of this year’s Child Care Resource & Referral (CCR&R) Institute held in Greensboro, N.C. in March, and Mary Erwin recently shared details of the Institute. A highlight of this year’s conference was the keynote delivered by Dr. Walter Gilliam from the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale. This blog is to keep the keynote information on our minds and in our work.

Delivered in a “TED talk” manner, Dr. Gilliam shared his research on implicit bias with the audience and the implications research has on both policy and practice impacting the early childhood workforce and children in early learning settings.

What is Implicit Bias?

Webster’s dictionary defines it as “bias that results from the tendency to process information based on unconscious associations and feelings, even when these are contrary to one’s conscious or declared beliefs”.

What is the Relationship Between Implicit Bias and Early Childhood Settings?

Dr. Gilliam shared data from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights that found black boys in particular were disproportionately suspended or expelled from preschool. To learn more about whether this may be related to the behavior of the child or the perceptions of the teaching workforce, Dr. Gilliam and his team at Yale conducted a study.  Specifically, Dr. Gilliam wanted to see whether implicit biases may play a role in identifying children with challenging behaviors.

Video Observation Study

Dr. Gilliam’s team recruited participants at a nationwide conference of early childhood educators. Early childhood teachers were asked to watch several video clips of preschool children engaged in typical table top activities. The children were racially balanced (one white boy and girl and one black boy and girl). Early childhood teachers were told the study was related to better understanding to how teachers detect challenging behaviors in the classroom. They were told sometimes this involves seeing behavior before it becomes a problem and were asked to press the enter key on a computer keyboard every time they saw a behavior that could become a potential challenge. They were told the video clips may or may not contain challenging behaviors and to press the keypad as often as needed. In addition to the keypad entries, an eye tracking device was used to log the time teachers spent watching the behavior of individual children. (For frame of reference with regard to the children, they were child actors and no challenging behaviors were present).

Heat map related to study participants’ child behavior observations. (Photo Credit: Yale Child Study Center)

Results

Dr. Gilliam and his team found teachers spent more time looking at boys and at black children than girls and white children. In particular, teachers spent more time watching the black boy in the videos. When teachers were asked explicitly which of the children required most of their attention, 42% indicated the black boy, 34% indicated the white boy, 13% indicated the white girl, and 10% indicated the black girl. The race of the teacher did not impact the findings.

Background Information Study

A second part of the study was related to finding out if teachers were provided information about the child’s background, whether that impacted their perception of the severity of the behavior and their ability to impact the child’s behavior. For this part of the study, early childhood teachers were given a brief description of a preschool student with his or her behavioral challenges. The description of child behaviors remained the same, but the name of the child associated with the description changed to reflect stereotypical black and white girl and boy names (Latoya, Emily, DeShawn and Jake).

To test if teachers changed their perceptions of the child’s behavior when given a brief family background summary, some teachers were also given more context related to the child’s home environment (e.g., the child lives with a single mother working multiple jobs and who struggles with depression but doesn’t have resources to receive help; the father is barely around, but when he is around, the parents fight loudly in front of the children, and sometimes violent disputes occur). The study randomized whether the early childhood teachers received background information or not.

Results

Dr. Gilliam and his team found that teachers appeared to expect challenging behaviors more from black children and specifically black boys. Without family background, white teachers seemed to hold black children to lower behavioral expectations. In contrast, black teachers held black children to very high standards.

The provision of family background information caused different perceptions based on teacher-child race. For example, when black teachers were provided with family background information on black children, teachers rated child behavior as less severe. When white teachers were provided with family background information on black children, behavior severity ratings increased – potentially indicating knowing family stressors may lead to feelings of hopelessness that behavior problems can improve.

The Role of Implicit Bias in Early Childhood Settings

Dr. Gilliam explained that understanding the role implicit bias may play in child care and early learning settings is the first step toward addressing racial disparities in discipline approaches. He explained that interventions are underway throughout the country designed to address biases directly or increase teachers’ empathy for children (which paves the way for more effective strategies related to children’s learning styles and behaviors).

Progress in North Carolina

North Carolina is beginning to review and implement strategies to address implicit bias, give early childhood teachers strategies to promote more effective ways to address challenging behavior and to support high-quality child care programs through better teacher-child interactions.

For example, the Infant Toddler Quality Enhancement Project (ITQEP) provides technical assistance through the statewide CCR&R system to better support infant and toddler staff and to improve teacher and child interactions. Staff participating in the Healthy Social Behaviors project use the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL) Pyramid Model to provide tiered support based on individual classroom needs.

We are exploring infant and toddler mental health consultant evidence-based approaches as well as the use of tools to improve teacher-child interactions through the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), which measures teacher interactions and is paired with specific improvement strategies identified through observational assessments. Overall, practice-based coaching models can impact teacher strategies to better meet the needs of children.

For more information on Dr. Gilliam’s research, check out this research brief and the work of the Yale Edward Zigler Center and Child Development and Social Policy.