Researchers Find Important Nuances in Race, Preschool Discipline

Researchers Find Important Nuances in Race, Preschool Discipline

Terri SabolDevelopmental psychologist Terri Sabol directs the Development, Early Education and Policy (DEEP) Lab.  Teachers tend to complain more about Black preschool students and identify their behavior as problematic compared to white students — even though researchers found no differences when the children were observed in a laboratory setting, according to a new Northwestern University study.

The findings, published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, are particularly concerning as childcare provider complaints were related to how children fared in elementary school, the researchers said.

“Beyond preschool expulsions, we see disparities in more micro-level, subtle interactions,” said lead author Terri Sabol, assistant professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy. “And we see that school discipline is not always related to student behavior, based on neutral observers.”

The researchers’ work builds on past work demonstrating racial disparities in preschool expulsions. They found that less-studied and more nuanced interactions in the classroom, such as teachers identifying a child as problematic or complaining to parents about their child’s behavior, also vary based on race and have long-term implications for children’s success in school and beyond.

The study, “A Window into Racial and Class Disparities in Preschool Disciplinary Action Using Developmental Methodology,” is one of the first to focus on young children’s earliest school environments­–most research looks at the K-12 setting– and builds on past work demonstrating racial disparities in preschool expulsions.

It’s also one of the first to leverage standardized developmental methods specifically designed to identify “when to worry” about young children’s disruptive behavior via direct observations.

By following more than 400 racially diverse 4-year-olds from the Chicago-based MAPS study, the researchers were able to uncover racial biases in the adult reports of preschoolers’ misbehavior because no such racial differences were present when objective methods were used.  

The Annals study specifically found that poor or nonpoor Black/Hispanic children had significantly higher complaints from childcare providers than children in the White/Hispanic, nonpoor profile, suggesting differences based on race as opposed to class.

“We’re using more objective measures to highlight the biases in the adults report of student behavior,” said Sabol, a faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research.

Sabol directs the Development, Early Education, and Policy (DEEP) lab, which conducts research on pressing social policy issues that affect low-income children and families. Prior earning her doctorate, she taught first grade in Chicago through the Teach for America program. Her research explores the personal and environmental factors that lead to health child development, with a special focus on schools and families.

In addition to Sabol, the study was co-authored by SESP alumni Courtenay Kessler (PhD21), a researcher at Insight Policy Research, and Jamilah Silver (BS19), a doctoral student at Stony Brook University.

Other co-authors include Leoandra Onnie Rogers, assistant professor of psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences; Amelie Petitclerc, professor of medical science in the Feinberg School of Medicine; Margaret Briggs-Gowan of UConn Health, and Lauren Wakschlag, professor of medical social sciences in the Feinberg School of Medicine and director of Northwestern’s Institute for Innovations in Developmental Sciences (DevSci).

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 10/27/21