When students believe schools are unfair places, their loss of trust can lead to a lack of engagement that affects them for years, researchers say.
Students who perceive a lack of justice or disparate treatment for certain racial groups may respond with defiant behavior.
And discipline for that behavior may cause them to become further disengaged from school, fostering a spiral of defiance that may lead to poor outcomes, such as less likelihood of college enrollment, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin and Yale and Stanford universities write in a paper published last week.
Black and Hispanic students, who often bear the brunt of inconsistent school discipline, are less likely than white peers to trust their schools, the researchers found.
Relationships between students and educators are key to interrupting that cycle or stopping it from beginning in the first place, the researchers suggest.
“Wise feedback”—interactions that show teachers have high standards for students and believe in their potential—can increase their trust, they found in a smaller, simultaneous experiment. Their findings, published in the journal Child Development, fit into a growing body of research that emphasizes the positive effects of building trusting relationships between students and their teachers and ensuring supportive and fair treatment in discipline and other areas.
“When we’re creating school policies, we’re not just maintaining order, we’re teaching teenagers about how society works, and they use those lessons—those teachable moments—going forward,” said David Yeager, an assistant professor of developmental psychology at University of Texas at Austin, who led the study.
Middle school students rated six statements on a scale of 1, for “very much disagree,” to 6, for “very much agree.” Statements included “I am treated fairly by teachers and other adults at my school.” Results are controlled for pre-middle school academic achievement and gender.
A ‘Trust Gap’
The researchers surveyed 277 black and white students at an unidentified middle school twice a year for three years on the amount of trust they placed in their school and their perceptions of bias in school policies. They followed up with those students for years, tracking their disciplinary incidents and, later, whether they enrolled in a four-year college the year after graduation.
The survey asked students to rank six statements—including “students in my racial group are treated fairly by teachers and other adults at [school name] middle school”—on a scale of 1, for “very much disagree,” to 6, for “very much agree.”
To detect a perception of bias, the researchers asked students to respond on a 5-point scale to questions like, “If a black or a white [school name] student is alone in the hallway during class time, which one would a teacher ask for a hall pass?” Students answered 1 for “almost always the black student,” 3 if they expected students of both races to be treated the same, and 5 for “almost always the white student.”
Tracking results, researchers found black and white students had similar responses on the trust survey at the start of 6th grade, but a “trust gap” developed by the spring of 7th grade, when black students’ average school trust score dropped to its lowest. That’s also when black students were most likely to sense inequitable treatment, with their average score on the bias scale falling below 2.5 while their white peers’ average score hovered near 3.
And it wasn’t just a perception; there was real evidence of bias at the school, the study says, noting that only black students received discipline for broad, subjectively interpreted infractions like “defiance.”
Researchers also detected a cycle: A higher perception of bias led to a lower sense of school trust at the end of 7th grade, students with a lower sense of school trust were more likely to be cited for discipline in their 8th grade year, and students with higher discipline rates were later less likely to be enrolled in a four-year college.
Seventh grade seemed particularly critical. Among black students whose trust declined during that year, 43 percent later had on-time enrollment at a four-year college, compared with 64 percent of black students whose trust increased, Yeager said.
In a second study, researchers found similar gaps in trust and perceptions of bias between whites and Hispanics at another middle school, but did not track effects on discipline and college-going rates.
To test whether teachers’ actions could counteract factors that caused students to lose trust in their school, the researchers pulled a subset of 88 7th graders with B and C grade point averages from the first experiment. Students in a control group had a note from a teacher placed on an essay they had written that said: “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper.” Students in the experimental group instead received a note that spoke to their potential as individuals: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.”
Response to Encouragement
Given the chance to revise their essays, black students in the experimental group were more likely to make changes suggested by the teacher. They also showed less loss of trust over time than their peers in the control group and they had fewer discipline incidents the next year. The researchers emphasized that the experiment used a small sample of students, and that a teacher’s encouraging note would not remedy all distrust.
“Of course, truly ‘wise’ educators do not simply append notes to essays and end their interventions there,” the study says. “Instead, they stay mindful of their students’ perspectives, and let this awareness continually inform their practices in word and in deed.”
The finding that changes to how adults interact with students can influence students’ attitudes and, subsequently, their behavior, is supported by a growing body of evidence. Researchers at Stanford recently found that an exercise designed to promote empathy in teachers led to lower suspension rates.
Similarly, a Rutgers University study found that having veteran teachers coach younger peers had an unexpected outcome: an elimination of racial disparities in discipline rates in their classrooms.
That coaching model, called “My Teaching Partner,” was developed at the University of Virginia. It emphasizes “holding high expectations for all students in the classroom, individualizing supports, and trusting students” by giving them more choices in the classroom, said Bridget Hamre, the associate director of the Center for the Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning at UVA. For example, teachers may seek students’ insights when they introduce new concepts, she said.
“It’s anything that shows them that you’re authentically interested in understanding their perspective in how the world works,” Hamre said. And students whose teachers had the training seemed to respond to their teachers’ trust in kind, which led to the surprising disciplinary outcomes, she said.
Changes in teacher behavior seemed to have greater effects on students of color because they’ve been traditionally marginalized by education systems, researchers say.
“We find that students who chronically had mistrust benefited the most [from receiving an encouraging note],” Yeager said. “A surprising instance of an adult taking you seriously can be a spotlight memory, something you look back to, a turning point.”