Pocket folders, notebook paper, backpacks, glue sticks...the back to school list seems endless. You run from store to store, website to website, identifying the right size, design and color to please your child, hoping that it will inspire hard work and learning. But have you missed one of the most important items that should be on the list? What’s your plan to address the unconscious behaviors that can derail your kid’s opportunity to excel at school?
Implicit or unconscious bias is a big topic in the workplace. Parents in the know are using lessons learned at work to ensure that their children are getting a fair chance at school. When teachers see your son, what automatic assumptions might they make about your son’s ability to be an excited and curious learner? When your daughter raises her hand, will the teachers assume that she can solve the tough math problem? Will your child be placed in a “high potential” group or a “take it slow” group? What assumptions will be made about your child?
What’s the first step to address the unconscious behaviors that can harm your child? Setting high expectations. I have three millennial sons who have now graduated from college and launched successful careers, but the going was not always smooth and easy. Raising black boys in a competitive, predominantly white and Asian community meant arming myself with parenting skills to address unconscious biases. Our sons had the same raw skills that every child enters school with. The same potential to be molded and shaped by the world they encountered. Yes, my boys were tall and physically fit. But that didn’t mean they wanted to pursue careers in football and basketball at the expense of excelling in mathematics, English, and science. I noticed that some teachers made assumptions based on their “look” and put them in the category of “less than” academically.
So my husband and I established an annual routine for back to school. We met with each teacher and not so subtly made it clear that we had high expectations for our sons. We name-dropped our Ivy League backgrounds, shared our vision of success for our kids, and established ourselves as the teacher’s partner in the education process. A little obnoxious? Yep. Paranoid? Perhaps. But we found it necessary to combat the images of black boys portrayed by media and society. And for us, it worked.
Research proves that there is a self-fulfilling prophecy effect for teacher expectations. And students live up to the expectations -- for better or worse. Lower expectations, lower performance. Higher expectations, higher performance.
QUESTION #1: Are you sure that your child’s teacher knows that you have high expectations for them?
Do you have a daughter who loves math and science? Create a plan to make sure she continues to love it. Talk to her teacher, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), department heads, and school administrators to discuss the subtle ways we discourage girls. Do you have a son who loves arts and humanities? Challenge the assumptions and stereotypes to create an environment where your son can excel and have the opportunity to pursue his dreams. Images, words, and programs at school should send strong messages to your children that convey, “Yes you can!” Not in an abstract way, but in a detailed, specific way that supports your child. Often the messages are fine, but what if they weren’t directed to and received by your child? Encouraging STEM only matters if your daughter knows they’re talking to her.
QUESTION #2: How are your child’s dreams and passions being supported (or discouraged) at school?
Just like at work, unconscious bias shows up in the classroom in subtle ways. Think MicroTriggers. Students who are unconsciously viewed as “less than” are called on less frequently, receive less positive body language such as smiles and head nodding, are reprimanded more harshly than others for bad behaviors, are more likely to be praised for incorrect answers, and overall have fewer friendly interactions. Make sure that your teachers and administrators are receiving quality unconscious bias and MicroTriggers training.
QUESTION #3: Have you visited your child’s classroom or talked to classroom volunteers to observe interactions and to assess the climate?
What assumptions are made about who can and can’t volunteer in the classroom? Are working parents at a disadvantage relative to parents who don’t work outside the home? Understand how unconscious bias may shape and or influence your child’s experience. Finally, take time to discuss your child’s expectations. Listen carefully to see if they may be influenced by their own bias either about themselves or others.
Back to school is an exciting time. Ready yourself to be an advocate for your child...and all children. Here’s to a successful learning experience for all of them!
How are YOU addressing unconscious behaviors
to support your children in the classroom?