Minority Schoolkids Aware of Racial Stigmas

But younger black students are more motivated about school than their white classmates, says a new study.

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A recent study out of UCLA says that minority students as young as second grade are aware of stigmas against their ethnic groups and have increased academic anxiety as a result. But in a compelling twist, researchers also found that minority kids are more motivated about school than their white classmates.

Cari Gillen-O'Neel, a UCLA graduate student and one of the study's authors, said that the higher motivation levels among minority students is an encouraging "ray of hope."

"That really does suggest the idea of a kind of resilience in the face of adversity," she said. "Despite the fact that minority students might be aware that their group might not be as respected, they like school; they felt more interested in school."

Researchers conducted three 40-minute interviews with 451 second- and fourth-graders from New York City schools. The students were African American, Chinese, Dominican or Russian and ranged from 7 to 11 years old. European-American students were also interviewed but weren't counted as ethnic minorities. A female researcher from each child's ethnic group asked questions to determine their stigma awareness, academic anxiety, intrinsic motivation, sense of school belonging and ethnic identity.

To assess motivation, kids were asked to rate four factors, including their levels of interest in school and if they chose to do their homework because they like learning new things. Based on those responses, black students' average motivation level on a scale of one to five was 4.37, compared with 3.82 for white students.

"Elementary kids do tend to be universally positive -- almost all say that they like school -- but the fact that we do still find a reliable difference between the groups is meaningful," Gillen-O'Neel said. "It's not huge, but the difference between African-American and European-American kids was half a point, and I think that's significant."

So if black kids are more motivated, why are there so many disparities -- from grades and graduation to discipline and dropouts -- among ethnic groups?

According to the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, the high school dropout rate for black students was 9.3 percent, compared with 5.2 for whites in 2009. And a new report using data from the department's Office for Civil Rights shows that black students who are disciplined for the first time are suspended at higher rates than white students for the same minor offenses.

"Children are constantly being told nonverbally who they are and what that means," said Huggins, who is also a professor of women's studies at California State University, East Bay. "We live in a world where the systems are set up based on race. So naturally, by the very nature of who a child is, they're learning all the time about how things work."

The zest for school can naturally begin to wane as kids advance in grades; motivational levels among all fourth-graders in the study were lower than among the second-graders. That's where administrators and teachers are tasked with having active lessons and other programs to keep kids interested.

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