Evidence in the news

Stereotype threat: A self-fulfilling prophecy

“STEREOTYPE THREAT” refers to the idea that negative stereotypes can be self-fulfilling, with individuals’ performance suffering because of their awareness that the social group they belong to is not expected to do well. Two recent pieces of research have explored the role that stereotype threat plays in children’s school attainment.

Researchers from the University of Kent, UK, have looked at the role that stereotype threat plays in boys’ academic performance with three studies. In the first study, involving 238 children aged four to 10, they examined whether and when children develop adverse academic stereotypes about boys relative to girls, in terms of academic ability, performance, motivation, regulation of attention, and behavior. They also examined children’s awareness that adults may endorse these gendered academic stereotypes. The findings showed that girls from age four and boys from age seven believed, and thought adults believed, that boys are academically inferior to girls. The second study manipulated stereotype threat, informing 162 children aged seven to eight that boys tend to do worse than girls at school. This manipulation hindered boys’ performance on a reading, writing, and mathematics test, but did not affect girls’ performance. The third study counteracted stereotype threat, informing 184 children aged six to nine that boys and girls were expected to perform similarly. This improved the performance of boys and did not affect that of girls.

Researchers in France have also been looking at this subject, and whether the order in which tests are taken can, by itself, create or alleviate stereotype threat. They conducted studies with 1,625 French middle school children, first with a mathematics test being taken before a verbal test, and then the other way round, with the verbal test being taken first. The researchers predicted that taking the mathematics test before the verbal test would be detrimental to girls’ mathematics performance – a stereotype threat effect. They found that girls did underperform on the mathematics test relative to boys in the mathematics–verbal order condition, but performed as well as boys in the verbal–mathematics order condition. Girls’ mathematics performance was also higher in the verbal–mathematics order condition than in the mathematics–verbal order condition. In a second study, additional measures looking at pupils’ self-evaluations in, and perceptions of, the mathematics and verbal domains provided complementary evidence that only girls who took the mathematics test first experienced stereotype threat.

Sources: A Stereotype Threat Account of Boys’ Academic Underachievement, Child Development (2013).

Order of Administration of Math and Verbal Tests: An Ecological Intervention to Reduce Stereotype Threat on Girls’ Math Performance, Journal of Educational Psychology (2013).

Social class matters

A NEW STUDY has looked at the relationship between social class and achievement in the early years of schooling. Researchers used data from the UK’s Millennium Cohort Study to examine the extent to which social class inequalities in early cognitive scores can be accounted for by parental education, income, family social resources, and parental behaviors.

They found that the links between social class and education on the one hand, and children’s test scores on the other, were only very modestly mediated by family social resources and parenting.

The researchers conclude that social class remains an important concept for both researchers and policy makers. The study found that parents’ educational qualifications were the strongest predictors of children’s scores. It also found that authoritative parenting and surprisingly TV viewing, had positive effects.

Source: Social Class and Inequalities in Early Cognitive Scores, Sociology (2013).

A connection between school climate and school success

WHAT MAKES SUCCESSFUL SCHOOLS different from other schools? What makes a school perform better than predicted, given the characteristics of the children it serves? These were the questions posed in a study published by the California Comprehensive Center. Using data from more than 1,700 California public middle and high schools, researchers identified 40 that consistently performed better than predicted on standardized tests of mathematics and English. These were labeled “beatingtheodds” (BTO) schools.

The BTO schools had substantially more positive levels of school climate than other schools, as measured by the California Healthy Kids Survey. This examines such dimensions of the school environment as safety, academic supports, social relationships, and school connectedness. BTO schools had climate scores at the 82nd percentile, on average, whereas other schools were at the 49th percentile, on average. Differences in school climate were twice as large between BTO schools and 20 schools that were consistently performing worse than expected.

The authors say that the study adds to the growing body of evidence suggesting that school climate is an important factor for school success, and this is significant as it is a malleable factor that schools/ districts/local authorities are able to manipulate.

Source: A Climate for Academic Success: How School Climate Distinguishes Schools That Are Beating the Achievement Odds.

Bullying linked to poor parenting

CHILDREN MAY LEARN THE RULES and constructs of relationships though their experiences with their primary caregivers, and an article published in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect has explored the link between parenting and bullying. The authors analyzed the findings of 70 previous studies into the association between parenting behavior and peer victimization, which involved more than 200,000 children and young people aged four to 25. They found that children who are victims of bullying, and children who both bully others and are victims of bullying themselves (bully/victims), are more likely to be exposed to negative parenting. This negative parenting included abuse and neglect. The effects were generally small to moderate for victims but moderate for bully/victims.

A number of possible explanations are given. Some mistreated and abused children may be submissive at home to maintain their safety, or they may learn that they are powerless, have less confidence, and become less able to assert themselves. On the other hand, some mistreated children display heightened levels of aggression, which suggests that they may be more inclined to bully. Although, as most studies did not differentiate between cause and effect, it could be that a bullied child may be difficult and this might lead to poor parenting.

High parental involvement and support, and warm and affectionate relationships were most likely to protect children and adolescents against peer victimization, followed by good family communication and supervision. However, protection by positive parenting from becoming a victim of peer bullying was small and at best moderate for bully/victims.

The authors recommend intervention programs targeting children who are exposed to harsh or abusive parenting, and parental training programs to strengthen supportive involvement and warm and affectionate parenting. Identifying bully/victims may be particularly valuable as children in this category have been shown to display the highest level of conduct, school, and peer relationship problems and have the greatest risk of developing multiple psychopathologic behaviors compared to pure bullies, pure victims, or children who are not involved in bullying behavior.

Source: Parenting Behavior and the Risk of Becoming a Victim and a Bully/Victim: A Meta-analysis Study, Child Abuse & Neglect (2013).

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October 2013