Students are stigmatized for any number of reasons, from the clothes they wear to what model cell phone they clench in their hands.
Now, in a new report, researchers from UCLA show that youths from a range of ethnic-minority backgrounds have an added burden to contend with: ethnicity-based stigmatization. Even elementary school–aged children are aware of such stigmatization and, like older youths, they feel more anxious about school as a result.
In the current online edition of the journal Child Development, senior author Andrew J. Fuligni, a UCLA professor of psychiatry, first author Cari Gillen-O'Neel, a graduate student working with Fuligni, and colleagues report that while children who are stigmatized are more likely to have less interest in school overall, ethnic-minority children, despite this hurdle, reported high interest in school. And for some of these students, feeling close to other students or school staff helps them maintain higher levels of interest in academics, despite the potentially negative effects of stigmatization.
The study included 451 second and fourth graders from New York City schools who belonged to one of the following ethnic groups: African American, Chinese, Dominican, Russian or European American. They ranged in age from 7 to 11 years old. European American students were not considered to be ethnic minorities.
For the study, each student participated in three individual interview sessions lasting approximately 40 minutes each, which took place in a private room on the school's campus during school hours. Each interview was conducted by a female researcher who had the same racial or ethnic background as the student. Students were asked questions about their awareness of stigma, their anxiety about school, their interest in academics and their feelings of belonging in school.
"We found that differences in the young children's awareness of stigma were similar to differences among adults, with ethnic-minority children generally reporting more awareness than ethnic-majority children," Fuligni said. "There were few differences by grade, suggesting that even second graders are sensitive to ethnic attitudes in society."
Ethnic-minority children also reported higher academic anxiety, he said, which the researchers attributed to their greater awareness of stigma.
But the study also found that some ethnic-minority students reported significantly higher interest in school than their ethnic-majority peers, despite past research by others that showed that awareness of stigmatization is associated with lower interest in school.
For Dominican children in particular, this seemingly paradoxical finding was explained, in part, by their feelings about belonging: For these youngsters, feeling close connections to people at school accounted for their high levels of interest in school, despite their awareness of stigma.
The study has implications for intervention efforts, Fuligni said. "Programs aimed at decreasing students' perceptions of group stigma, such as providing community role models, could help keep students' academic anxiety in check," he said. "And school-based interventions that foster close connections among individuals at school may help students stay interested in learning."
The other author on the study was Diane N. Ruble of New York University. The study was funded in part by the MacArthur Foundation, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the National Science Foundation. The authors report no conflict of interest.
The UCLA Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences is the home within the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA for faculty who are experts in the origins and treatment of disorders of complex human behavior. The department is part of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, a world-leading interdisciplinary research and education institute devoted to the understanding of complex human behavior and the causes and consequences of neuropsychiatric disorders.