“Racist and anti-immigration views held by children,” warned a recent headline in The Guardian, reporting the results of a survey of nearly 6,000 British schoolchildren conducted by the charity Show Racism the Red Card.
It’s clear that prejudices are present among young people, due to a complex range of influences, many beyond their schools’ control. However, new evidence suggests that schools which work hard to promote an inclusive environment can help curb negative attitudes between groups of children in the classroom.
Much research has focused on how self-identity is reliant upon our membership of flourishing social groups. By the age of seven, children are aware of the groups to which they belong, and prefer being a member of an “in-group”, such as fans of a certain football team or members of a different ethnic group. Much of the evidence within this strand of research suggests that, on a day-to-day basis, children do not hold negative attitudes towards children outside of these groups, and are more worried about not being excluded themselves.
Among the most powerful influences on young people’s behaviour are norms: the rules, stated or otherwise, which govern society. Such rules exist within children’s groups: for example, to share or not to share, how to dress, or who can be included in an activity.
Norms within the school context are often explained to children within school charters – a document or statement that outlines how teachers expect pupils to behave in order to create a harmonious learning environment. By attending school, children agree to adhere to this set of generic rules. For example, one clause might be that all children have the right to learn in peace, regardless of their age, gender or ethnicity. Many schools adopt such a method, but little work has tested how efficient it is in beating prejudice.
Making inclusion the norm
In a study we just published, my colleagues and I carried out an experiment with 229 seven to 11-year-olds to explore this further. In this case, the children were asked to imagine that they were going to compete in a drawing competition. Participants were introduced to photographs of children they would never meet and told some were going to be their team mates and the rest the other team. In the past, it’s been shown that this leads to participants suggesting they would verbally bully a member of an opposing team, if members of their own team in the competition asked them to.
We were most interested in what might happen if a pupil’s peer group urged them to exclude those who were in the opposing team in the drawing competition, but the school stepped in and told the children to behave inclusively.
Half of the children heard a message recorded by a teacher instructing them to act in a kind and inclusive manner towards people from other groups and schools, or risk the consequences. Such an intervention is akin to the norms promoted by teachers, in either a formal charter-style, or more informally in the classroom. The children were then given a survey and asked to rate how much they liked, trusted and would like to play with members of both their own, and the other team.
When children were told by a teacher to be more inclusive, it had a positive effect on their attitudes towards their competitors. These children scored higher in the survey – meaning they were more likely to trust and like the opposite team – compared with participants who didn’t hear a message from the teacher. This was still the case even when the child’s team mates had asked them to exclude their competitors.
Peer groups matter too
Unfortunately, this was not always the case. When children thought their team mates within the competition would be able to read their answers to the survey, they reverted to saying they wouldn’t like or trust members of the other team. These results suggest that telling children to be more inclusive can be a useful intervention at the school level, but must work in conjunction with an effort to encourage peer groups to be positive and inclusive between each other.
This matches what other researchers have found: one of the most powerful influences on the development of children’s attitudes, are children themselves.
Our research pinpoints that we can successfully intervene in schools to help minimise prejudice between groups of children. School charters emphasising equality and inclusion that are endorsed by teachers and make clear there will be genuine consequences for those who flaunt the rules, should be encouraged. But it is vital to recognise that school rules alone are not enough to change attitudes. Teachers and children must work together to develop a harmonious multicultural environment in British schools.