We Have Implicit Bias Toward Students. Here are 3 Ways to Reduce its Effects.

Research shows that we all have implicit biases.  Neuroscientists have found that our brains tend to quickly categorize others as a way to identify threats. These categorizations are often based on institutional race or gender stereotypes that we have been exposed to from a young age. Different than stereotypes or racism, implicit bias is an unconscious and involuntary belief or attitude about a particular group.  Implicit bias can be subtle, such as setting an expectation for a student based on race, appearance, or another external factor. Even the most progressive among us has implicit bias. At some point, every educator has judged a student solely based on the student’s appearance — “that student looks like she’s going to be a troublemaker,” or “that student looks like he is going to be someone important later in life.”  These judgements are part of our subconscious, so they can be difficult to change. But there’s good news. Research shows that we can overcome these implicit biases by learning to identify when it occurs and practicing effective responses.

Negative Impacts of Implicit Bias on Students

Implicit bias lowers equity in schools and negatively impacts students, and these effects can be far-reaching. Research consistently shows that minority students receive harsher and more frequent discipline referrals than white students who engage in the same behavior. Special Ed students don’t always get equal praise for working hard to succeed. Female students are often marginalized from science and math because “girls aren’t good at those subjects.” All students who are subject to implicit bias face lower expectations for success, which can have a long-term, negative impact on their motivation and confidence. Also, educators may unconsciously limit students’ learning opportunities, which can reduce their options later in life.

3 Ways to Reduce Implicit Bias

Professional development, social and emotional learning (SEL), and the DESSA can help improve equity in education by teaching educators to identify implicit bias and reduce its prevalence and negative impact on students.  Here are three actionable steps you can take to mitigate implicit bias:

Increase general knowledge about implicit bias. Awareness is the first step for reducing implicit bias toward students. Host professional development to teach educators about implicit bias and how it affects students. Help staff explore the research behind implicit bias, identify when it is occurring, and take actions to avoid it.

Use the DESSA to help educators identify implicit biases toward students. Start by having educators complete the DESSA or DESSA-mini on their students. Educators should then examine their DESSA ratings at the item level and note whether any answers surprised them, especially those that were rated in the strength range. Surprise at  students’ strengths based on observations of their behavior versus an expectation of a lower rating might be an indicator of implicit bias. They should also analyze the data to identify patterns among ratings for certain groups of students, including demographics like race, gender, and special education status. Ask if any of these groups were rated higher than another group and explore possible reasons why. If no valid reason can be identified, it might be a reflection of bias.

Reduce implicit bias with SEL. SEL teaches educators ways to reduce implicit biases. For instance, when educators develop empathy for students, they can better reflect on where students are coming from, and this has shown to reduce discipline referrals. Mindfulness can help lower educators’ stress levels, which can indirectly impact implicit bias. Building a growth mindset in themselves can help educators change the language they use around student success. This can have a lasting positive impact on students and give them confidence to succeed.

Often, when educators learn about implicit bias, they are surprised to discover that they may unconsciously treat one group of students differently than another. The best way to tackle this problem is to address it head-on and teach educators ways to overcome it. Part of this involves giving educators opportunities to see when and how implicit bias occurs (i.e. through an analysis of their DESSA ratings) and using SEL and effective professional development to improve how they act toward certain groups of students. This can go a long way to improving educational equity.

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