Newswise — A new study by two University of Maryland researchers shows that elementary students attending ethnically diverse schools are less likely to be racially biased than students at a homogeneous school. The study was co-authored by Professor Melanie Killen (Dept. of Human Development) and postdoctoral researcher Dr. Heidi McGlothlin. The research was featured recently in the journal Child Development.
Killen says picture cards were used to show first and fourth graders pictures of familiar peer situations at school. The intentions of the characters in those cards were ambiguous. The children pictured were of different races. For example, one child is behind a swing while another is in front of the swing on the ground. The children were asked their opinion of what had happened. Was the child on the ground pushed? Or did the child just fall off the swing?
"What we found is that children - white children in predominantly white schools - were more likely to use race when making a decision about what somebody might be doing - that is, attributing negative intentions to someone... than did white children who were in diverse schools." Killen says neither white nor minority children in diverse schools displayed racial bias in their evaluations of peer situations.
The Maryland child developmentalist and education professor says when children have friends or interact with kids from different ethnic backgrounds, "it gives them the ability to challenge the stereotypes they get in the culture. It's very important."
Diversity itself goes beyond just ethnicity says Prof. Killen. "When we say diversity, there's a lot of ways a school can be diverse. You can have diversity along the lines of religion, whether you're foreign born or an immigrant, all of those factors are important, and all make a difference for reducing prejudice." She says that it's important for teachers and parents to support the goals of diversity, and for children to have a high quality educational experience.
Parents who are worried because their children are attending a homogeneous school can do a number of things to help expose their kids to diversity. Prof. Killen says one way is for parents and teachers to use curriculum materials, such as books and stories, that involve different peoples and backgrounds. "It's important that you have teachers and parents who are promoting the goals of integrated environments, tolerance and mutual respect for others."
Prof. Killen says the business community is very interested in this kind of research because attitudes developed as children carries over into adulthood. Individuals who grow up in an isolated, very homogeneous school sometimes enter the workforce unprepared for how to interact with people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Business leaders are aware that growing up with a lack of diversity can result in a less productive and positive workforce environment. "Diversity makes a difference," she says.
Recently, Newsdesk had a chance to talk with Prof. Killen about how children develop racial attitudes. A transcript and audio interview are available online at:http://www.newsdesk.umd.edu/culture/2006/Education/Killen.cfm