Study shows importance of helping children understand different social identities

The results of a recent nationwide survey show that many teachers believe different social and demographic identities have an impact on children’s success in school, but far fewer feel comfortable discussing these in the classroom.

Researchers from NORC at the University of Chicago and Sesame Workshop found that out of more than 1,000 pre-K through fifth-grade teachers across the country, more than 80 percent said social class impacts student success — 40 percent said it has a major impact. Yet, despite noting its importance, only 32 percent of educators said they are extremely or very comfortable discussing social class with their students.

“Seeing their identities in a positive way provides kids with a critical pathway to success in school and in life. ‘The Sesame Workshop Identity Matters Study’ indicates that more work is needed to better understand this important topic,” Tanya Haider, executive vice president for Strategy, Research, and Ventures of Sesame Workshop, said in a statement. “Our hope is to lead an urgent national conversation on how to ensure children develop with a positive sense of identity.”

Teachers need straightforward guidance

Surveyed teachers express a high level of comfort with discussing most identities, in general, with their students. For instance, more than 60 percent said they are very or extremely comfortable talking about students’ gender, countries of origin and race and ethnicity, while more than half said the same of discussing family make-up, such as living in a single-parent household or one with same-sex parents. Fewer teachers said the same for discussing religion or social class, at 42 percent and 32 percent, respectively.

There is also evidence that school and district leaders can do more to help guide teachers through these conversations.

At least 60 percent of teachers say their school neither encourages nor discourages discussions of each of the identities. Religion was the only identity which more than 20 percent of teachers said they were discouraged from talking about in their classroom. Race and ethnicity are the most likely to be encouraged, according to respondents, though just 27 percent of teachers said leadership encourages these types of discussions.

The study results did show that while many districts are not actively encouraging discussions about identity, more than 75 percent of teachers said they have received some form of training or advice in order to discuss at least some components of social identity with students. Half of teachers reported they received ongoing professional development or continuing education; 19 percent received curriculum material from their district or school leadership; 23 percent from online resources; 34 percent from pre-service teacher education programs; 24 percent from supervisors or coaches; and 38 percent from speaking to peers. Thirty-three percent said they sought out the information themselves through self-study.

Developing a healthy identity

Extensive research has found that social identities play an important role in shaping self-image, providing a sense of belonging within a social group and fostering prosocial actions such as caring for others. Studies suggest that a healthy sense of identity helps children feel better about themselves, which in turn can lead them to be more optimistic and be better students. Having a healthy sense of one’s own identity also helps children be more open to other communities and not to fear differences in others.

It’s important that families and educators of young students start helping children understand the differences between themselves and others early on with the message that different isn’t bad. If these conversations don’t occur, children may begin coming up with their own reasons (like a black student having darker skin because he drinks more chocolate milk, as one 3-year-old came to believe).

Social science research shows that children notice differences between themselves and others — and try to make sense of those differences — from a very early age. As early as 6 months old, children begin to show a preference for members of their own race and against members of different races.

Conversations also rarely happening at home

In a separate survey of more than 6,000 parents, NORC researchers found that conversations about differences in race or ethnicity, gender, class or other categories of social identity rarely, if ever, come up at home unless a child reports hearing something negative about their own identity.

For instance, 40 percent of black parents reported that their child had heard a negative comment at least once about their race, ethnicity or religion — as did 36 percent of Hispanic parents and 32 percent of Asian parents. Seventeen percent of white parents reported the same occurrence.

In response, 61 percent of black parents, 56 percent of Asian parents and 46 percent of Hispanic parents said their families discuss race and ethnicity often or sometimes; just a quarter of white parents said they talk about it with any frequency.

For additional guidance surrounding specific student populations, ensuring schools are safe and supportive environments, or expanding collaboration efforts with parents and families, visit CSBA’s policy briefs on those topics.