Developing Positive Racial Perceptions in Children

Issue Date: 
April 11, 2016

Parents and teachers should engage children in conversations about race because “color-blind” approaches in parenting and teaching are misguided, according to a newly released report from the University of Pittsburgh School of Education. 

Among other findings in the report, Understanding PRIDE in Pittsburgh: Positive Racial Identity Development in Early Education, are:

• Positive racial-identity concepts have been linked to favorable educational and social outcomes, including a strong sense of self-esteem as well as higher grades and standardized test scores; and 

• Negative identity concepts contribute to racial achievement gaps, including a nearly 35 percent difference in reading proficiency between African American and Caucasian children in Pittsburgh’s public schools.

The report explores methods for building positive racial self-perceptions in underrepresented children in Southwestern Pennsylvania. 

Among a wide range of recommended measures, Understanding PRIDE in Pittsburgh suggests continuous parent-child and parent-teacher communication about race. Additionally, the report calls for increased partnerships among the region’s educational institutions and professional organizations.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto will join Kathy Humphrey, Pitt’s senior vice chancellor for engagement and chief of staff, and Pitt’s researchers to discuss the report’s findings and recommendations during a media event at 10 a.m. April 14 in Alumni Hall’s Connolly Ballroom. The session is open to the public.

“This occasion brings together two influential decision makers for a conversation about how our region can collectively respond to the report’s recommendations on helping our youngest and most vulnerable children and pave an even better path for our young people,” said Kenneth Smythe-Leistico, a lead researcher on the report and the assistant director of Pitt’s Office of Child Development.

The report brings together findings from focus groups, surveys, interviews, classroom observations, and literature and curricula reviews. A sampling of other key takeaways from Understanding PRIDE in Pittsburgh follows.

• Southwestern Pennsylvania is uniquely qualified, more so than some other U.S. regions, to support positive racial-identity development measures. Local strengths include a rich base of expertise in early childhood education and a growing community of researchers and programs focused on race.

• The city also has racial inequalities to overcome. In terms of education, only 33 percent of African American third- to fifth-graders in Pittsburgh public schools read at a proficient level. That compares to 67 percent of White students who do. For mathematics, 17 percent of African American students scored proficiently compared to 52 percent of Whites.

• Children become aware of racial differences at an early age. Infants as young as 3 months old are capable of categorizing people by race. Before a child’s third birthday, they are able to attribute positive and negative traits to racial groups. By age 5, children are able to express race-based biases and preferences.

• Both parents and teachers believe possessing an understanding of race is valuable to a child’s healthy development. However, they are not always clear on the best approaches to the issue and often avoid talking about race out of fear of doing harm.

• Researchers, parents, and teachers alike believe institutional racism must be addressed if underrepresented children are to ever reach their fullest potential.

• Proactively teaching young children to recognize and appreciate cultural differences promotes positive perceptions and empathy toward others.

Understanding PRIDE in Pittsburgh was researched and produced by The Race and Early Childhood Collaborative—a partnership of the Office of Child Development, Center for Urban Education, and Supporting Early Education and Development (SEED) Lab—within Pitt’s School of Education. The report was supported by the Frank and Theresa Caplan Fund for Early Childhood Development and Parenting Education.