Implicit Bias in Schools: How to Level the Playing Field for Immigrants and Other Minority Students

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In our annual, free online workshop Immigrant Student Success, educators from across the country often mention the importance of addressing implicit bias to create safer and more welcoming classrooms for immigrant and refugee students. But what is implicit bias, and why is it so important? To answer those questions, we look to presenters Stacy Davison, formerly with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and social worker Alaisa Grudzinski, who explained why this is such an important concept in school environments.

What is implicit bias?

Screenshot from New York Times video on bias
The New York Times‘ video series “Who, me? Biased?” explores these concepts in depth

Stacy gives the ADL definition of implicit bias as “the unconscious attitude, stereotypes and unintentional actions (positive or negative) toward members of a group merely because of their membership in that group.”

How does this happen? The human brain is capable of processing about 11 million pieces of information at a time but can only give conscious attention to a handful of those. To handle the rest, your brain categorizes information into groups and assigns an instinctive reaction.  That’s why the word “jelly” automatically comes to mind when you hear someone say “peanut butter.” It may also explain our unconscious reactions to people of different ethnic backgrounds or immigration status. Bias can often overrule rational thought, causing well-meaning and intelligent people to react in ways that are at odds with their conscious intentions.

How does implicit bias affect immigrant students?

As a group, American teachers are less diverse than the students they teach. As of 2014, about one out of every four, almost 19 million, school-aged children were either first- or second-generation immigrants. This number is increasing every year. In contrast, only about one in 10 education professionals is an immigrant, and the numbers drop even lower for first through 12th grade teachers and special education teachers. This means that teachers are likely to come from different racial, ethic and socio-economic backgrounds than many of their students. To mitigate divisions and stereotyping in diverse classrooms, teachers must become aware of implicit bias in themselves and others.

Alaisa notes, “Our own racial identities are framing the way that we perceive students’ racial identities, students’ experiences.” Even the best intentioned of educators can make generalizations about their students’ ideas, experiences and abilities. One common problem she noted was based on a positive association, the belief that Asian students are better at math. Asian students who struggle in math often don’t receive the help they need because teachers assume they don’t need it. Teachers who are aware of such potential subconscious biases can find a way to counteract them and see past the stereotype to extend a helping hand to their students.

How do you examine implicit bias?

Having a thorough understanding of how implicit bias works is essential. Stacy recommends watching a short series of videos from The New York Times called “Who, Me? Biased?” that breaks down common forms of bias and the reasons why people are susceptible to them.  One form of bias mentioned in the series is called a blind-spot, the tendency for individuals to see prejudiced action in others not in themselves. To learn about your own bias, try taking some of the Implicit Association Tests developed by Project Implicit, an international network of researchers investigating implicit social cognition. Educators and school districts may consider an in-depth training on implicit bias offered by organizations like the ADL or Teaching Tolerance.

The best thing you can do to counteract biases is to build relationships across ethnicity, age and immigration status. If you have immigrant students in your classroom, make a habit of going to events in those students’ communities. Reach out to your peers or community leaders in different ethnic, immigration status or cultural groups. If you’re used to mostly being with people who are like you, it may sound uncomfortable to go places where you are the minority. Research suggests you can reduce the awkwardness by addressing it head-on. Making a genuine effort to better understand your students will be seen as a sign of respect.

What other strategies can combat implicit bias?

Examining your own perceptions and the influences that form them is an ongoing challenge. However, once you take the first step in recognizing that bias is an inherent part of human thinking, it gets easier to build patterns of perception and reaction that accurately represent your values and your care for your students. Remember that having biases doesn’t make you a “bad” person. So let yourself relax, especially since it’s been shown that humans are more likely to show bias when they are tired, hungry or stressed!

Your most important tool, real relationships with diverse people, is something that will gradually become a part of your daily routine and patterns of thought. It’s also a good idea to stimulate positive associations. Stacy brought up a sign at the entrance of her son’s elementary school that reads “Respect, Responsibility, Regard,” and showed how it helped the community to remember those values.

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