Tweens Experience More Bias in School Than Younger Kids. Here's How To Fight That.

Young adolescents face racism and gender bias from educators. Fortunately, schools are starting to acknowledge and dismantle this harmful pattern. 


At Maxwell Elementary School in Denver, CO, Janette Barela is constantly evolving how she teaches gender and race stereotypes. In 2017, when the librarian and STEM tech teacher started the unit with fourth graders, it focused on gender bias in toys, colors, sports, and media. Since then, she’s expanded it for both fourth and fifth grade tweens, an age group where students are beginning to explore their identity.

“This is the perfect time to talk about stereotypes,” Barela says.

Her lessons, which draw from Common Sense Media, Learning for Justice, and Facing History and Ourselves, touch upon a variety of factors that shape identity. Among other activities, her students identify gender tropes in ads and reflect on 19th-century African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask.” They usually put together a final project with the library’s green screen—producing commercials, writing songs, and rapping poems about gender and race. This year, Barela swapped the project for Common Sense Media’s “Just Because” poem in the organization’s “Beyond Gender Stereotypes” curriculum. Taking what they learned from the unit, her students wrote poems that describe stereotypes they’ve experienced. One read:

Just because I’m Black, doesn’t mean I don’t know my dad.
Doesn’t mean I have nappy hair.
Doesn’t mean I’m armed.
Just because I’m 11 doesn’t mean I can’t make a change.
Doesn’t mean I don’t know what I’m talking about.
Doesn’t mean I don’t care.

Another student wrote:
Just because I’m Mexican, doesn’t mean I’m illegal.
Doesn’t mean I’m a crook.
Doesn’t mean that I’m on food stamps.

The poems included powerful statements on gender, race, class, age, sexuality, and disability. Barela was moved by their honesty. “I didn’t expect some of the responses I got. They were just so deep and raw,” says Barela.

Children become aware of gender, social, and racial differences very young, explains Seanna Leath, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, who studies how race and gender identity beliefs affect Black girls.

“As early as three, they can start picking up on implicit associations,” Leath says. “When teachers discipline or say a particular kid is doing something bad, children make associations with skin tone and bad and good, pretty and ugly.”

When young people are no longer seen as little kids, expectations of them change. That bar can be set higher or lower due to these gender and racial biases, experts say. Implicit and explicit discrimination toward students has led to unequal academic success, low self-esteem, and trauma among students.

Fortunately, more educators are using empowering and restorative practices to confront these damaging stereotypes and other oppressive social constructs. To understand students’ educational experiences, Leath says it’s necessary to unpack the roots of biases. “Conversations change and the understanding of history shifts over time,” she says. “It’s important to have a historical understanding of what’s happened before to make sense of our current moment.”


Invisibility and adultification

“Gender is a big part of being seen. Kids don’t learn from us when they don’t feel seen by us,” says Joel Baum, senior director for professional development at the organization Gender Spectrum. More broadly, “Whether it’s gender, race, culture, ethnicity, we have to know who our kids are in order to help them be successful.”

Growing up, most people are taught that gender is binary—the body you’re born with defines your gender as male or female. “It’s very biological—an either-or,” says Baum. As we grow up, binaries are reinforced, with gendered toys like pink and dolls for girls, blue and trucks for boys, and roles and responsibilities are established (strong men, caring women). But this is a Western view of gender. “One of the reasons we’re at the place we are today is because of the impact of colonialism, imperialism, and Western dominance,” says Baum.

Centuries of colonization have suppressed and erased cultures that have nonbinary gender identities, explains Charlie McNabb, archivist and author of the books Queer Adolescence and Nonbinary Gender Identities.

“We can see examples like this throughout colonial history into today, with the ongoing murders of Black trans women across the world,” McNabb says.

In their book Queer Adolescence, McNabb shares findings from a study surveying more than 150
LGBTQIA+ people about their youth. “Cisheteronormativity is relentless and can cause trauma, whether it’s physical, like for some of my research participants, or not,” they say. “Many of my research participants expressed wishing that adults in their lives had provided even nominal support.”

“I wish people in my life had been more vocal about supporting the LGBTQ community. I would’ve felt more safe knowing there were people who supported me,” one participant told McNabb. “It gets exhausting having to pretend to be something you’re not for that long.”

These types of experiences impact social development and learning, McNabb explains. A 2015 national survey by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) found that 75 percent of transgender youth feel unsafe at school. Those students who were able to persevere had significantly lower GPAs, were more likely to miss school out of concern for their safety, and were less likely to plan on continuing their education.

“The achievement and access gaps plague the educational experience because they’re rooted in these larger societal issues that devalue certain experiences,” says Baum. “Discrimination is real, racism is real, anti-Blackness is real, and those things have systemic impacts on the lives of people, including kids in schools.”

Students of color, especially Black students, experience unfair and harsh treatment in educational spaces, which can lead to a poor relationship with learning, according to research. In 2017, Georgetown Law’s Center on Poverty and Inequality reported that adults view Black girls ages five to fourteen as less innocent and more adultlike than their white peers—a bias known as “adultification.” Adultification has allowed decades of educators, clinicians, parents, and adults to justify their treatment of Black girls as developmentally older than their age, explains Leath. For example, a 10-year-old Black girl might face academic and behavioral expectations of a 15-year-old. “When Black girls fail to meet those expectations, they can be punished in school or defined as unmotivated,” Leath says.

Black girls are also objectified and hypersexualized, often receiving more dress code violations than girls who may not be as physically developed. “When they call out unfair treatment, there’s the risk of being seen as aggressive or disrespectful,” says Leath. “Then, they’re pushed out of the classroom even further.”

Similarly, Black and Latino boys experience stereotypes around physical aggression. They’re often criminalized, says Leath. Black boys and children also have a higher rate of recommendation for special education programs, but without receiving the developmental assistance they need. These acts of racism and microaggressions build up, causing marginalized students to feel like no one is investing their success.

“Part of the story is that when Black youth are not valued in a school context, they choose to disengage because they refuse to be undervalued,” Leath says. “They say, ‘I recognize that my teacher’s always calling me out or sending me to the principal’s office. I’m clearly not wanted.’”

Ultimately, this can lead to school dropouts. To ensure all students feel supported, “there’s so much learning and unlearning to do for all of us,” says Leath.


Educators commit to lifelong learning

To begin dismantling stereotypes, staff working with adolescent-age kids must put in the work and confront their own biases. That starts with self-reflection, says Baum. “What are your own experiences? The way you’ve experienced gender [and other individual characteristics] is probably going to reflect in some of your interactions as an educator.”

It’s important not to judge or shame people doing this introspective work, he adds. It requires lifelong learning, says McNabb—staying abreast of the latest information and adjusting practices and lessons. “We can’t stop with one diversity or safe space training,” they say. “Equity and inclusion must be part of the mission, and each library staff member must commit to doing that work themselves.”

That’s what library services specialist Janet Damon has promoted at Denver Public Schools (DPS). Educators who engage in mindfulness practices reduce some of the bias that they carry, she says. “It’s almost like any other practice around health, right? You can’t say, ‘I did the 90-day challenge. That’s it,’” Damon says. “For us, it’s really about increasing the awareness that this is a part of the work, forever.”

Commitment to long-term professional development is a part of a larger effort to create more culturally responsive practices and classrooms, she says. While creating an inclusive curriculum and collections is a critical step, the support and resources to make those changes happen might not exist.

While conversations about gender and race have progressed, that hasn’t happened equally, says Rae-Anne Montague, faculty member in the Department of Information Studies at Chicago State University and chair-elect of the American Library Association Rainbow Round Table. Curriculum updates and inclusion vary by state, they explain. “In Illinois, we now have legislation to include LGBTQ history, which is wonderful. We don’t want selective history that leaves out significant people or events,” Montague says. “In many other places, there isn’t that kind of curriculum oversight.”

Library collection development for tweenage readers is one way to highlight narratives that push back against stereotypes.

In an effort to boost those narratives, Leath’s future studies aim to share intimate stories of Black youth. “What does healing look like? Yes, we’re out in the streets marching, but also what does it mean to be at home sitting with Grandma laughing on a Sunday night? That’s also a story worthy of sharing with the world.”

Increased representation can help shift and normalize views of race and gender, says Leath. But, she adds, “You can introduce curriculum in harmful ways. It’s not just adding books or posters that have smiling brown kids on them.” Educators need to be able to address the stereotypes and history of oppression behind those images and stories, she explains. Similarly, it’s harmful to call out students to share experiences that might be triggering. “It’s not OK to ask the kid in your class who has an incarcerated parent how they feel about their parent being locked up,” she says. “That has been traumatizing. So it’s also about how you incorporate and address these stereotypes safely.”


Power shift toward students

As a community center and information portal, the library can be a natural, safe place to facilitate these conversations, says Montague—“that place where everyone can go hopefully to be themselves, to see themselves, to see others.”

At Maxwell Elementary, part of DPS, Barela builds safe spaces with transparency. While teaching the “Just Because” poems, Barela shared her own poem to foster a judgment-free zone and encourage deep reflection among students. Barela kept the authors of the student poems anonymous and presented them with permission in a video slideshow. The anonymity gave students a greater sense of safety and security, she says. Barela emphasizes that there are no wrong answers or invalid feelings.

“I really just let them take the lead and discuss it,” she adds. “I get to see what they are connecting with and see them discover a deeper understanding without inserting myself.”

This is just one way Damon, Barela, and the DPS team encourage students to be leaders in the system—and have some ownership over their own education while informing teachers of their needs. For example, at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Early College, students created the “Know Justice, Know Peace Resolution” to demand that race be part of the conversation and that curriculum resources reflect students’ lived experiences. Damon and the team helped ingrain continued equity and inclusion into a new vision statement in January. The district will be held accountable for identifying structural inequality in the schools and providing technology access, family support, and transparency and data on special education programs. The students who created the resolution also started a podcast where they can voice student concerns, discuss issues in education, and provide direct critical feedback when the system is failing.

“This is power shifting,” Damon says. “It’s giving students an opportunity to speak from a place of strength.”

She encourages creating teen and tween student community boards at the library: Issues are easier to tackle with a collaborative team, she says. In an ecosystem that enables “power sharing and community voice, you have space where magic can truly happen.”

Stereotypes confine kids in boxes, limiting their potential, says Baum, and dispelling biases is a key step toward a more inclusive society. “Fifth graders are so confident with themselves. They’re getting ready to go into middle school where there are a lot of things that can break their confidence,” Barela says. “I’m trying to teach them that you still have power. Even if you see something that tries to categorize you or box you in, you have the power to determine who you are.”

Lauren J. Young is a science journalist in New York City and producer at Science Friday.


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