Positive racial identities can help children learn

By Dale Shoemaker / News Editor

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When parents and teachers start having conversations about race and racial identity with children — even when they’re as young as 3-years-old — those children go on to do better in school.

That suggestion, which Pitt’s School of Education published in a report on March 31, is part of the School’s effort to outline best practices for decreasing the disparity in school performance between white children and children of color. Some children do poorly in school because of negative identities they develop about themselves, the report said, which also outlined everal methods parents and teachers can use to build positive racial self-perceptions in Pittsburgh and southwestern Pennsylvania.

Pitt’s report highlights racial disparties between children in southwestern Pennsylvania’s schools and looks to find ways to close the learning gaps. According to the report, 33 percent of black third, fourth and fifth graders read at a proficient level, compared to 67 percent of white children. In math, the disparity was similar, with 17 percent of black students scoring proficiently compared to 52 percent of white children in Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Pitt’s School of Education, along with the Center for Urban Education’s Office of Child Development and the Supporting Early Education and Development Lab used findings from focus groups, surveys, interviews, classroom observations and literature and curricula reviews to compile the report, titled “Understanding PRIDE in Pittsburgh: Positive Racial Identity Development in Early Education.”

The Frank and Theresa Caplan Fund for Early Childhood Development and Parenting Education funded the research.

The report, which focused on young children, suggested that those as young as 5 years old are able to have race-based biases, making it vital for parents and teachers to include them in positive conversations about race, the report said. The report suggests conversations about racial differences, racial inequality and self-esteem can lower the levels of bias in young children. 

One method the report recommends to combat this disparity is continuous conversations about race between parents and children and teachers and children.

Current theories and best practices about early childhood development largely ignore race, the report said, which can contribute to racial achievement gaps.

Though the researchers were based in Pittsburgh, their report found that southwestern Pennsylvania is in a key position to enact many of its findings, in part because of the concentration of early-childhood experts in the region.

Since psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s “doll tests” in the 1940s, in which the pair of researchers assessed black children’s self-esteem by having them play with black and white dolls, scholars have published a substantial body of research that shows children learn best when they have positive attitudes about their racial group.

The Clarks’ doll study showed that racial prejudice and segregation damaged the self-esteem of black children, a finding later research showed can harm students’ grades and test scores.

The report also recommends ways for parents and teachers to improve positive racial-identity development within the region and calls for increased collaboration between schools and professional organizations.

To discuss the report’s findings, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Kathy Humphrey, Pitt’s senior vice chancellor for engagement and chief of staff, will hold a press conference 10 a.m. Thursday, April 14, in Alumni Hall.

“This occasion brings together two influential decision-makers for a conversation about how our region can collectively respond to the report’s recommendations on helping our youngest and most vulnerable children and pave an even better path for our young people,” lead researcher Ken Smythe-Leistico said in a statement.

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