How unfair treatment by school staff affects Black adolescents’ trust in adults?
Griffith, A. N., Leggett, C., Billingsley, J. T., Wittrup, A. R., Lee, S. J., & Hurd, N. M. (2022). A mixed methods study exploring the nature of Black adolescents’ unfair treatment by school staff: Implications for adolescents’ trust in adults. Child & Youth Care Forum. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10566-021-09669-3
Summarized by Ariel Ervin
Notes of Interest:
- Many Black adolescents are treated unfairly by teachers & other school staff members in ways that negatively affect their school engagement and trust towards adults.
- This study explores how unfair treatments (including teacher racial discrimination) from school staff members occur and how they, in turn, affect Black adolescents.
- Several types of unfair treatment were identified:
- Being singled out
- Observing favoritism
- Feeling belittled
- Unwarranted or overly harsh punishment
- Unfair treatment via teacher racial discrimination negatively correlated with the quantity of natural mentoring due to lower perceptions of adults as trustworthy.
- Unfair treatment from school staff members can trigger a domino effect that can have a detrimental impact on the school engagement of Black students. It can also weaken their relationships with supportive adults.
- Increased mistrust towards adults can a) create more problems in future youth-adult relationships and b) can decrease the likelihood of youth seeking help from adults.
- Qualitative findings indicate that Black adolescents’ experiences of unfair treatment were ongoing occurrences (they were not isolated incidents).
- While supportive parents (and other important adults) can alleviate some of the detrimental effects of teacher discrimination, school interventions are needed to decrease discriminatory behaviors from teachers.
Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)
Black adolescents commonly experience unfair treatment from teachers and other school staff that can undermine Black adolescents’ engagement in school and their perceptions of adults as trustworthy.
This study aimed to address the overarching research question: “How do unfair experiences with school staff manifest and impact Black adolescents?”.
This study used a mixed methods approach guided by two sub-questions. Our qualitative strand of inquiry used interview data from 25 Black adolescents, their parents, and another familial adult (75 total interviews) to explore the sub-question: “How do unfair experiences with school staff unfold?” Our quantitative strand analyzed survey data from 216 Black adolescents to address the sub-question: “Is a specific type of unfair experience, teacher racial discrimination, associated with Black adolescents having fewer natural mentors (supportive non-parental adults from adolescents’ everyday lives) via lower trust toward adults?”.
Analyses of interview data suggested experiencing specific types of unfair treatment— (a) being singled out, (b) observing favoritism, (c) feeling belittled, and (d) unwarranted or overly harsh punishment—was followed by students disengaging from class, schoolwork, or teachers. Analyses of survey data indicated unfair treatment in the form of teacher racial discrimination was negatively associated with the quantity of natural mentors via lower perceptions of adults as trustworthy.
Collectively, our findings suggest unfair treatment by school staff may set in motion a domino effect that negatively influences Black students’ engagement with school and undermines their connection with supportive adults.
Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)
Our combined qualitative and quantitative findings suggest that unfair treatment by school staff may set in motion a domino effect that negatively influences Black students’ engagement with school and undermines their connection with supportive adults. Our qualitative findings indicated that being treated unfairly by adults in the school may have led Black students to hold diminished commitment to academics or athletics or a loss of confidence in school staff. In the same way that teachers who focus on building positive relationships may positively contribute to Black students’ engagement in school (Kramer et al., 2020), our study suggests that experiencing mistreatment from school staff may lead Black students to disengage from school. Our qualitative findings also suggest that experiences of unfair treatment at school tend to be ongoing interactions rather than isolated incidents. In a number of cases, unfair treatment unfolded through a snowballing of incidents across time with an escalating or cumulative effect on students’ school engagement. For example, Zachary and his mother discussed the nature of unfair treatment as being singled out by his history teacher in a way that led him to stop going to class, eventually stop doing his history assignments, and culminated in his history grade dropping. The ongoing nature of many of the problematic experiences described by participants suggests that there may be multiple points of intervention when students are experiencing unfair treatment from an adult at school.
Notably, participants generally did not explicitly state that their experiences of unfair treatment resulted from racism although it is certainly possible that racism could have been underlying some of the unfair treatment they described. Interviewers did not specifically probe interviewees to inquire as to whether the unfair experiences they described may have been perceived as being motivated by racial bias from teachers or other school staff. Our findings from our quantitative measure of teacher racial discrimination suggest that, on average, Black participants in our sample were experiencing some racially-motivated unfair treatment from teachers. It is possible that if we had inquired about this more specifically in our interviews, we may have had more participants mention racism as a possible motivating factor for the mistreatment they experienced. It could be that perceiving unfair treatment as being racially-motivated makes the experience of unfair treatment even more harmful both in the context of academic disengagement as well as trust toward adults. Future research should seek to ask Black adolescents and parents/guardians more explicitly about what they perceive to be the motivating factors driving their experiences of unfair treatment in the school context and to potentially delineate whether perceived motivating factors for mistreatment may impact the degree of harm participants experience.
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