Preventing Racial Bias in the Classroom: What One Researcher Hopes to Learn

Racial bias exists in many domains of our society, including the classroom where teachers’ hidden biases can lead to diminished expectations for students of color. Doris Chang, Ph.D. is Director of Clinical Training and Assistant Professor of Psychology at the New School for Social Research in New York City. She leads a research team that recently received a Mind & Life PEACE Grant to develop and pilot a Mindfulness-Based Critical Consciousness Training (MBCC-T) for teachers. The ten-week program will combine training in mindfulness and culturally-responsive pedagogy with the ultimate goal of enhancing teachers’ intercultural effectiveness. Below she shares her motivation for the project, and what she hopes to achieve.

Studies have found that racial bias among teachers contributes to lower educational achievement among minority students. Can you elaborate?

Teachers are just like the rest of us. Even though they’re doing amazing work with youth, that doesn’t mean that they’re exempt from exposure to cultural biases and stereotypes that are pervasive in our society. Teachers may consciously or unconsciously internalize these stereotypes. For example, they might assume that Asian students are going to be more studious and high-achieving than African American students. Such stereotypes can influence how teachers interact with students, how encouraging and responsive they are, and their expectations overall. A child that receives positive reinforcement in school is going to exhibit greater persistence and self-efficacy, which will ultimately impact their academic performance.


What motivated your personal interest in this issue?

A lot of my work has examined the individual, interpersonal, and structural factors that contribute to the well-being of people of color. My particular interest in enhancing teachers’ multicultural teaching effectiveness stems from witnessing problematic racial dynamics in schools and knowing teachers who were concerned that they might be unintentionally contributing to those dynamics. In conversations with teachers and administrators, I observed a real desire to explore how they might better promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in their schools. I also have two school-age kids. We live in an ethnically- and socioeconomically-diverse part of Brooklyn. I started to realize at what a young age—as early as preschool and kindergarten—that children start to internalize stereotypes about themselves and others. I wanted to do something to disrupt those dynamics that can set up certain groups, particularly black and brown children, to see themselves as not able to achieve as much as others in school.


When did you start exploring the application of mindfulness-based approaches?

Five years ago, I started pursuing mindfulness as a personal practice and realized I could apply it to my teaching, and that it might help my students. In teaching courses on race, culture, and mental health, I found that students often had strong emotional reactions when learning that we are all implicated in perpetuating structural inequities that affect the well-being of people of color and other minority populations. It occurred to me that mindfulness could be applied in a variety of settings to deal with the difficult feelings that arise when very well-intentioned teachers, clinicians, and others want to practice social justice principles but struggle to do so.


What does your research involve?

It is a two-year study and we will recruit 100 K-5 teachers in New York City schools to participate. In Year One, we’ll study two separate programs to see the benefits of each. Specifically, we’ll randomize the teachers to receive either mindfulness training or Critical Consciousness Training (CCT) and compare how they respond on outcomes such as well-being, burnout, multicultural teaching competence, and racial biases. Given that so many teachers struggle to manage the stresses of teaching in schools with significant racial disparities in achievement, we are interested in comparing these two approaches to see how they might enhance teachers’ coping and effectiveness. Mindfulness may help teachers respond more effectively to stressful classroom situations and help them create a more inclusive and nurturing environment. Critical consciousness training may help transform the way teachers teach by examining power structures that privilege some voices over others and seeking to create a classroom culture that affirms the identities of all students.

During Year One, we will carefully observe group processes to see where the CCT sessions could have benefitted from an infusion of mindfulness to help trainees manage difficult emotions that can arise in talking about inequities. We’ll also be observing where the mindfulness training sessions could benefit from more instruction in a social-structural analysis of the factors that promote or hinder equity and inclusion. We’ll be looking for places to bring these two together in a hybrid curriculum.

In Year Two, we’ll write the hybrid MBCC-T curriculum and randomize a second group of teachers to either the standard CCT curriculum or this hybrid model. Then we’ll look at all the data and compare which training was more effective in cultivating the professional practices—and personal qualities—that can promote equity and inclusion in the classroom.


What do you hope to achieve through the study?

More and more studies are being done with mindfulness in the classroom and schools in general. Most teachers these days are also required to take a course in multicultural issues in education. As far as I know, we’re the first to bring these two together to enhance teachers’ capacities to teach and nurture students from diverse backgrounds. We’d like to answer some scientific questions about how these interventions affect bias and intercultural effectiveness individually and together, and how they might complement each other. I don’t know what we’re going to find, which makes it exciting. I hope we will come to some conclusions about the kind of training that is most effective in helping teachers create more equitable and inclusive classroom environments.


Looking ahead, what is the long-term impact you would like to see from the study?

Ultimately, I’d like to erase the racial/ethnic disparities in academic outcomes we see in schools, starting as young as preschool. Such disparities are reflected not only in academic achievement, but also who stays in school versus who drops out, who gets suspended or given a second chance. Obviously, there are many factors affecting how children do in school—including their family environments, and the safety and resources of the communities they live in—but the classroom is an important social environment that can be a source of stability and growth for a child. Teachers can play such an important role in disrupting dominant cultural narratives about power and privilege as it is shaped by race, ethnicity, gender, social class, and other aspects of identity. I would be proud if we can empower teachers with the tools to do that more effectively.

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