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Addressing Implicit Bias in Our Schools

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The protests and headlines of recent weeks have forced many of us to examine our lives and communities through a new lens. In the process, we have opened our eyes to bias and discrimination as never before.

Consider the experience of Loren, a Black child whose teachers treated him differently from his white peers from his earliest years. By the time he turned three, two different preschools had kicked him out. That hardly made him unique. Eighteen percent of preschool students are Black, but they account for 48 percent of the children who receive more than one out-of-school suspension.

After preschool, he spent nearly six years in a school where the staff didn’t understand him. He was diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), but instead of recognizing his behavioral challenges as responses to stress, his teachers treated them as signs of defiance and noncompliance.

The truth was that Loren simply didn’t feel safe at school. He experienced unrelenting toxic stress. His body’s stress-management system was constantly activated, and he lacked the support of adults who might protect him.

When he was twelve, a peer standing behind him in the lunch line unexpectedly tapped him. Loren, startled, punched the boy.

What triggered that reaction? Over time, Loren’s brain had become wired not for safety but for defense. His early and prolonged adverse experiences at school had led to his unpredictable behaviors—adaptive, instinctive, defensive reactions to circumstances that might have appeared unthreatening to others.

These incidents continued to accumulate until, eventually, Loren found himself in juvenile hall, another statistic in the school-to-prison pipeline. Indeed, most youths who experience such fates have endured the same sort of stress-loading conditions, including poverty, food insecurity, racism, and implicit bias.

How can we shift our perspective on the true causes of challenging behaviors like Loren’s? It takes time, resources, and training. We need to ensure that children and families have access to educators and therapists who are aware of our society’s implicit bias and trained in trauma-informed practices—who recognize and respect each family’s and each child’s experiences, individual differences, culture, learning pathways and abilities, and social-emotional development. In the process, it’s crucial to consider how factors such as poverty, race, power, and privilege affect a child’s perception of the world as safe or unsafe.

In a world rife with injustices and implicit bias, we all need to acknowledge the additional burden of threat children of color experience.

I should add that I’m speaking as much to myself as to my colleagues and peers. Those of us who work in or consult for preschools—and all schools—ought to ask ourselves these questions to bring implicit bias to our consciousness:

  • Am I spending more time surveilling or watching Black and brown children (especially Black boys) for infractions more than I am for white children?
  • Do I use harsher words, consequences, or actions with Black and brown children than I do with white children?
  • Am I keeping a watchful eye for moments to respectfully bring implicit bias awareness to the adults around me?

Together, and with self-compassion, I carry the hope that we can begin to heal the injustices within our educational system. Day by day, each of us can make a difference to bring hope and equality to children of color in our schools.

*I share more about redefining behavioral challenges for children and for those who experience bias and trauma in Beyond Behaviors: Using Brain Science and Compassion to Understand and Solve Children’s Behavioral Challenges. 

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