The Consequences of Discrimination in the Classroom

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            Multiple research studies have been conducted to try to understand the relationship between discrimination, academic performance, and psychological and physical well-being.  Previous work has shown the negative consequences of stereotypical views in the classroom between teacher and student, as well as between student and student.  (Brown, Alabi, Huynh, & Masten, 2011; Frontline, 1985; Richman & Leary, 2009; Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012) According to Richman and Leary (2011) humans are very responsive to how others "perceive, evaluate, and feel about them (p. 365)".  Previous studies show that children, even babies and toddlers, can recognize facial features, such as happy, disgust, and anger, though they might not accurately or fully understand the emotion associated with the facial feature (Widen & Russell, 2013).   Furthermore, the reactions that a teacher or peer might have can affect the student's perception and feelings toward themselves, their perception of others, and the quality of interpersonal relationships (Richman & Leary, 2011).  Previous research has shown how fundamental attribution errors, and cognitive errors in general are due to stereotyping and prejudices, which can cause discrimination that can negatively influence the classroom environment, the students' academic performance, the students' academic achievement, and the students' self-concept (Frontline, 1985; Schneider et al., 2012).   

           

            The negative consequences that discrimination in the classroom and in school can have on children I have witnessed firsthand with my son, who is a biracial child in a majority white school district.  My son is not the only biracial or minority in the school district and after speaking with other children and parents, apparently this is a problem within the school district.  Beginning in Kindergarten, my son had a great teacher who was very involved with getting to know her students and the parents.  My son did well with his Kindergarten teacher and he was slowly beginning to adjust to school life due to her amazing efforts.  In first, second, and third grade my son continued to do well academically and he was enjoying the learning experience, but he still was not fully comfortable with socializing at school.  By 4th grade, my son was still doing well academically, but my son's personality, emotions, and perspective of learning was changing for the worse.  My son was 9 years old at the time and he was able to communicate better about things that were taking place at school.  Noticing a complete change in his attitude and emotional state after school really concerned me.  More and more when I went to pick my son up from school he would come out of the school crying to the point he could not catch his breath. 

           

            One day, my son explained that the teacher had him turn his desk around, so he could not touch anything in his desk and placed him in the front of the class.  Furthermore, she made him utilize a desk next to him to get his books and supplies, so every time the teacher would ask the students to get something out of their desks my son had to physically get up in front of all the students and get his supplies.  The teacher did this in response to my son playing with his pencil inside and on top of his desk.  At first I, of course, had to explain that he needs to stop playing with his pencil and that he was getting punished for his distracting behaviors.  At this point, I did not see a big problem with this punishment, but I do remember thinking it was extreme for playing with a pencil.

           

            That same week I had a parent-teacher conference and the teacher began to express her concerns that my son had ADHD because he "fidgets" during class.  She also made the comment that in her 30 years of teaching she has never seen a child like mine that can't sit still and who will cry when being scolded.  I could completely recognize her disgust and frustration with my son and it was only the first month or so of school.  The teacher would not stop insisting my son had ADHD, needs psychological help, and medication.  The teacher decided to have the school's learning aid sit with my son during class to evaluate his behaviors.  I was very skeptical about the situation and felt very uneasy about what was being said to me and the way it was said to me. I didn't understand her perspective because the traits she viewed of my son were not consistent with his behaviors with previous teachers or at home.  I am not ignorant to my own biases as a parent, so I did not jump to any conclusions at the time.   I did not agree with the teacher that my son had ADHD and I expressed my opinion that he does not meet the symptoms for such a diagnosis. 

           

            My aunt is a clinical psychologist and my uncle is a professor of social psychology in California, so I reached out to them and I took him to his pediatrician.  All parties agreed that there was no way my son had ADHD.  My son is way to "laid back," even lazy at times, to even be considered ADHD.  Also, he was definitely able to focus on tasks given to him.  For example, I taught my son how to cook a variety of items by the age of seven, such as scrambled eggs, dippy eggs, bacon, sausage, toast, spaghetti, and many others.  We would cook together and today at the age of ten he can do it supervised without any help.  If my son could not focus, then how could he cook? That takes focus and following directions.  In addition, I worked with my son academically since he was a toddler and I still do today with no problems.  My son had A's even at the point the teacher was concerned that he had ADHD?  The teacher insisted that he may be doing fine now, but in middle school he will fail academically because he will not have the same support from teachers to guide him. 

           

            By this point, I am very frustrated with the school and really concerned about my son's overall well-being.  He is coming home an emotional wreck at 10 years-old.  Remember weeks have gone by and my son is still sitting in the front of the classroom with his desk tuned around so he cannot reach into it, and it is empty.  Next to him is his other desk that holds all of his school supplies, such as books, papers, and pencils that he has to physically get up and walk to when prompted to do so.  Also, now there is a learning aid sitting next to him constantly reminding him to keep his feet on the ground, eyes to the blackboard, and hands closed together on top of his desk.  The learning aid was not for helping my son learn academics, but to learn how to behave in class.  On his report card and during other parent-teacher conferences, I was told my son is well mannered, kind, helpful, and overall doing well, so this teacher was not consistent to any other facet in his life?

           

              I have and continue to work with youths in my community and local communities. I do not know of any child that can sit perfectly still and give undivided attention to a teacher for six hours.  Furthermore, most of the children I cared for, before and after school, at that time were kids my son went to school with and were in his class, so I know the children and the parents well.  Meaning, I know which children have behavioral problems not only from my own observations, but also coming from the parents, so the fact that my son was the only child experiencing this punishment began to have me really question what was going on at school.  As weeks passed, the same situation was taking place daily for my son except now my son was having breakdowns of crying in class.  For example, when the teacher would scold him for not knowing where they were in the book, or not having the proper papers in front of him, and so forth.  My son's well-being was getting worse and it was beginning to affect his academic motivation and his self-concept.   My son was beginning to feel inadequate for school and began to say negative comments about himself, such as "he is stupid," I hate myself," and "I hate school." 

           

            After talking about my concerns with friends and family, I began to question if my son was a victim of discrimination.  After all, I was a young mother at the time I was 27 years old, which was younger than many of the other parents I met at school functions.  I already noticed the biases and discrimination just by how the teacher and the aid spoke to me, such as I was uneducated or too young to understand what my son needed.  Second, my son is mixed European and Puerto Rican.  I went to the same school and I grew up in the same community, so I am not ignorant to prejudices and discriminations that take place in and out of school.  The school district has become more diverse since I attended the school as a youth, but the staff and teachers still reflect majority white.

           

            Taking all the facts into consideration and witnessing the emotional toll it was taking on my son I asked for another meeting, but this time with the guidance counselor present because she has been an amazing support since the moment my son lost his father, and I have established trust with her.  Interestingly, she did not have much to say and watching her reactions made me question things even more. The guidance counselor spoke to my son and me on many occasions and offered plenty of feedback, but in this meeting she did not say much and avoided eye contact.   The teacher and the aid were very aggressive when trying to convince me to get my son psychological help for ADHD, which the two ladies were so convinced he had.  Finally, I had enough and I told the two ladies that his pediatrician, psychologists, and many others do not see a need for my son to be medicated or treated for ADHD.  The teacher began to show her frustrations because her face was flushed, her demeanor was more aggressive, and she said she had to go back to class.  If that is how she behaved in the classroom, then it does not surprise me that my son was coming home the way he was.  The teacher's frustration and negative attitude shown through her tone of voice, body language, and overall presentation. 

           

            Finally, I said it to the aid and the guidance counselor, "I feel that my son is getting discriminated on and I am concerned for his emotional well-being," then it became so quiet in that room all the sudden and the guidance counselor gave me eye contact.  I began to state the facts and my concerns from my perspective, especially after speaking to other professionals and applying what I have learned from my education in criminal justice, psychology, and life experiences.   I questioned why there has not been any other children punished the way that my son was being punished, such as the desk being turned around in the front of the class and having to use a desk next to him to get his supplies.   I explained that this kind of punishment for weeks has created emotional turmoil for my son due to being singled out.  All the negative attention in the classroom was on my son.  When he didn't know what page the class was on the teacher made a spectacle of him and he was already a spectacle due to the position of his desk and him having to get up every time he needed a school supply.  All the negative attention only hurt my son worse. He was old enough to socially compare himself to others in the classroom, meaning, he witnessed other children actually misbehaving, such as kicking, hitting, talking while the teacher taught, etc., but the other children were not punished.  Furthermore, my son would explain that the teacher would use her cell phone during classroom time! 

           

            He expressed his feelings of isolation and said that the children were also treating him differently.  Due to the teacher's actions of isolating my son in the front of the classroom, students in his classroom were beginning to treat him the same, by excluding him. This all makes sense when the social cognitive learning theory is applied to this situation.  The children in the classroom began to model the teacher's behaviors towards my son, which isolated him from his own peers.  The teacher's actions were leading to self-fulfilling prophecy for the teacher and learning aid because my son began to feel inadequate to be a student and reconfirmed the teacher's biases when he would break down and cry, which usually would lead to him clamming up completely because he was embarrassed and scared of the consequences of being wrong.  Now my son's emotional instability and behaviors helped to fulfill the teacher's negative perspective of my son having behavioral problems in general.  There is much more to the story, but the information given provides a good enough example of how discrimination can have negative consequences on a child's education. 

           

            The teacher not only discriminated on my son, whether because of his race, his mother's age, gender, socioeconomic status, or some other personal reason, but she also created a negative moral climate in the classroom.  My son's teacher was making a fundamental attribution error by judging my son's behavior incorrectly.  For example, internally she applied behavioral issues to the cause of my son playing with his pencil, but did not take into consideration any external factors, such as he was bored with what was being taught at that time. The teacher's inaccurate perception of my son's behavior became a self-fulfilling prophecy because her extreme punishment caused for his emotions and behaviors to confirm her belief that my son had a behavioral problem. I believe the teacher socially categorized my son as a minority because no matter what facts were given to her about my son she would continue with her belief perseverance despite other possible factors.          

           

            For example, in the middle of his second grade year, his father died in a horrible car accident and he had to learn about death at a young age of 7 years old.  His second grade teacher, school counselor, and some office staff were very supportive of my son's emotional needs at that time. The school was aware of the situation due to the police and corner went to the school to try to reach family and the only thing they had to go by was my son's report card that was in the vehicle. Less than two years later of course my son is still missing his father and when things escalated with the teacher it was around the same time his father died, November.  Obviously, we take flowers to the grave, which of course causes emotions.   Missing his father did not cause my son to play with his pencil, but another external factor, such as boredom could have played a role.  My son was an A student and understood the 4th grade material well and he stated one day that the teacher reviews the same content that he already understood.  The emotions my son displayed after being isolated from the class and being made a spectacle almost daily on top of the emotions he was feeling missing his father was never taken into consideration even after trying to inform the teacher.

           

            In conclusion, after speaking up about my belief that my son was a victim of discrimination and things began to change almost instantly, but with my son.  Even though my son came home the next day and said his desk was returned back to his normal position, my son continued to be uncomfortable in the classroom.  Also, my son came home and said that another child had his desk turned around, but it was only for the day.  In my opinion, the school knew something was wrong with the punishment and the length of the punishment my son was receiving, so they had to stop it and also punish another child similarly. Though my son made it through his 4th grade year with very good grades, but my son does not have the same intrinsic learning attitude he had before, instead I have to externally motivate him.  I am constantly encouraging him to enjoy learning again and also to believe in himself again.  Even though he gets good grades of A's and B's, he still perceives himself negatively academically.  Furthermore, my son does not want to go to school anymore for multiple reasons and his overall attitude towards education has changed.  Though my son's situation was not a study or experiment, discrimination has shown to negatively affect my son's academic motivation and self-concept.  Never judge a book by its cover is the best advice I was raised with because the damage it can cause another human being is unacceptable.    

References:

 

Brown, C. S., Alabi, B. O., Huynh, V. W., & Masten, C. L. (2011). Ethnicity and gender in late   childhood and early adolescence: Group identity and awareness of bias. Developmental    Psychology, 47(2), 463-471. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0021819

 

Giamo, L. S., Schmitt, M. T., & Outten, H. R. (2012). Perceived discrimination, group     identification, and life satisfaction among multiracial people: A test of the rejection-           identification model. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 18(4), 319-328. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0029729

 

Smart Richman, L., & Leary, M. R. (2009). Reactions to discrimination, stigmatization,     ostracism, and other forms of interpersonal rejection: A multimotive model.       Psychological Review, 116(2), 365-383. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0015250

 

Widen, S. C., & Russell, J. A. (2013). Children's recognition of disgust in others. Psychological    Bulletin, 139(2), 271-299. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0031640

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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