Stereotypes influence teachers’ decisions
Michelle Healy

It’s well documented that black K-12 students – and younger – are more likely to face school disciplinary actions than their white counterparts, but why? A 2015 analysis by Stanford University psychology researchers shed light on this question: It found that teachers are likely to interpret students’ misbehavior differently depending on the student’s race, including perceiving infractions by African American students as more likely to be part of a pattern. 


Across two sets of experiments, about 250 elementary and secondary teachers from across the country read discipline records describing two minor classroom infractions by a student. The race of the student was not identified, but half of the records were labeled with a name more often associated with a black student (such as Deshawn) and half with a name more often associated with a white student (such as Jake).


The infractions – classroom disturbance and insubordination are the two most common reasons that students are referred for disciplinary action, says Jason Okonofua, co-author of the “Two Strikes: Race and the Discipling of Young Students” study and currently at the University of California, Berkeley.


Results showed that racial stereotypes influenced teachers’ responses about the students’ behavior not after the first infraction but after the second. Teachers reported a greater response of “feeling troubled” (a composite measure indicating their degree of irritation, the perceived severity of the infraction, and how great a hindrance they felt it would be to their teaching) by a second infraction that they believed was committed by a black student rather than by a white student. They also wanted to recommend a harsher punishment for the black student after two infractions compared to the white student.


Further analysis showed that teachers were more likely to label black students as “troublemakers” compared to white students; more likely to see black students’ misbehavior as part of a pattern; and more likely to image themselves suspending the presumed black students in the future. 


The findings show how stereotypes can lead teachers to escalate negative responses to black students over the course of multiple encounters, contributing to discipline disparities, Okonofua says. (Other studies have shown how these disparities are linked to lower school engagement and increased school dropout and incarceration rates.) Stereotyping, of course, can rest “below the surface” so that even the most well-intentioned are not aware of their biases, he adds.


To reduce the effects of implicit bias in the classroom, Okonofua advocates helping teachers shift from a “default punitive mindset” to an “empathic mindset” that is “more perspective-taking in that moment when misbehavior happens.”


In studies involving middle school math teachers who participated in a brief online course to learn to have more empathy for their students, Okonofua and colleagues reported that suspension rates were cut by half over the course of a year.


The researchers currently are working with several school districts, including Philadelphia Public Schools and Pinellas County Public Schools in Florida, to expand the use of their empathy-training intervention.



Teachers escalated their response to a black student more than a white student when the student had only one previous infraction.



First Interaction

White Students 3.75

Black students    3.94

Second Interaction

White Students   4.49

Black Students    5.10


(Results from Study 2: mean ratings of how troubled teachers felt by students’ misbehavior)

Note: ratings are on a scale of 1-7



First Infraction

White Students 3.34

Black Students 3.45

Second Infraction

White Students 4.31

Black Students   4.77


(Results from Study 2: mean ratings of how severely teachers felt students should be disciplined.)

Note: ratings are on a scale of 1-7


Source: Psychological Science