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April 1, 2019

Countering the Adultification of Black Girls

Black girls deserve to be treated like the developing young people that they are.
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Last fall, in a middle school in North Carolina, a 14-year-old African American girl claimed that she was not feeling well, so she obtained a hall pass from her teacher and went to make a phone call to her mother. A white school resource officer intervened when he saw her, preventing her from making the call. He allegedly followed her outside and, according to the girl, shoved her to the ground and held her face against the hot pavement as he handcuffed and arrested her. Once the incident went public, many in the community expressed concern.
"This officer did not see this child as he would his own child," stated a minister, who saw race as a driving factor in the treatment of the teenage girl.
The faith and civil rights community—alongside the girl's family—found the officer's actions to be contrary to what should happen with a 14-year old girl, in school or elsewhere. Her mother proclaimed to the media, "She's a child" (Hewlett & Newell, 2018).

The Impact of Our Beliefs

Educators and other adults in schools routinely work with children and adolescents whose physical attributes and emotional maturity span a wide spectrum. In their classrooms are young people who grow from small children to adolescents—each in a process of becoming. Yet as the incident in North Carolina illustrates, black girls are often viewed by educators as less innocent and childlike than they are.
A recent study by the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality found that African American girls experience a specific type of age compression in which they are seen as more "adult-like" than their white peers (Epstein, Blake, & Gonzalez, 2017). Black girls, according to the adults surveyed, are perceived to need less nurturing, less protection, less comfort and support, and to know more about sex than their white peers. The study also found that the disparity in treatment begins when girls are as young as five years old, and that perceptions of difference are at their greatest when girls are between the ages of 10 and 14 years old.
Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Oregon have found that while adolescents are starting puberty earlier, their brains are also responding to stimulation from the adults and peers in their lives in ways that shape their maturation and the trajectory of their social and physical well-being (Dahl et al., 2018). In other words, what we believe about young people matters—it informs how we treat them and what they come to believe about themselves.
Specifically, treating a female student like she is older than she is can have several negative outcomes:
  • Hypersexualization and differential enforcement of school dress codes. The belief that African American girls know more about sex or are participating in sexual activity at an earlier age than their white counterparts informs how educators—and others working in schools—interpret the sexuality of black girls and sexual activity (consensual or not) on campus. In my work, I have encountered teenage girls who describe how school security and other adults on campus have made comments about the shape of their bodies, in the context of dress code enforcement or in other scenarios. In Washington, D.C., where African American girls are 20 times more likely than their white peers to be suspended, black girls describe the dress code in their schools as "unequally enforced" and "racist, sexist, unfair" (National Women's Law Center, 2018). For example, dress codes that ban "cornrows, Afros," and other hairstyles traditionally worn by people of African descent may be informed by racial bias, in the same way as subjective interpretations of a student's outfit as provocative or inappropriate. In an egregious (yet true) example, a group of teenage girls in California once described to me how others' views about their sexuality led to inappropriate relationships with adults on campus. One girl shared that the school security guard who helped to enforce the student dress code at her high school was the same person who introduced her to the underground, abusive world of sex trafficking.
  • Immediate censure when girls make a mistake. Black girls who have participated in my research, as well as those profiled by others, repeat that they feel educators have "less patience" with them when they make a mistake or do not understand instructions and expectations. They have observed educators patiently answering questions from other students, but when they come forward with their questions, they feel rushed or treated as if their inquiries are a bother. When they arrive late to class, they are often immediately and officially reprimanded while their counterparts from other racial groups are treated with more leniency. And then, there are the incidents of harsher treatment—removal from the classroom, suspension, and corporal punishment where it is legal—for comparable behaviors. If a girl is believed to be older than she is, the censure is immediate, and her assertions of independence, peer pressure, or lapses in sound judgment are not viewed as consistent with her chronological or developmental age; rather, they may be seen as violations of a social order beyond the maturation of that student. In New York City, girls asked for "less metal detectors and more authority figures who care about the well-being of our children," largely because they felt unfairly targeted by instruments of surveillance (Girls for Gender Equity, 2017). When we believe someone "should know better," then we are more likely to respond punitively and less inclined to provide opportunities for her to learn from her mistakes through discussion, counseling, and guidance.
  • Accountability is more inclined to include punishment and exclusionary discipline. When a school's primary mode of intervening involves exclusionary discipline, the opportunities for other measures of accountability are limited. This is particularly true for students who are perceived to be older than they are. The infrastructure and climate of a school may begin to reflect criminal legal systems, in nomenclature and sometimes in actual design of facilities. In Baltimore City, even as the school district is actively working to become "restorative," there is an overreliance on school police, arrest, and confinement. Black girls were the only girls arrested in the district in 2016–17, with the incidents sometimes involving excessive force and resulting in feelings of unsafety (McClellan, 2018). Across the nation, African American girls are disproportionately excluded from participation in restorative approaches and alternatives to exclusionary discipline because their actions may be subjectively determined as more "defiant" or intentionally disruptive to the learning environment.

Challenging Adultification in Schools

Education is not a neutral act, and educators hold onto implicit biases like everyone else. Our collective goal in the classroom is to educate students so that they are prepared for the next level of academic inquiry and to increase their capacity to be effective citizens. How our schools do this important work is informed by all that we bring to our own command of the content that we are teaching, as well as our beliefs in the promise of students. The pedagogical practices and policies that guide school culture reflect our explicit understandings about the performance and capacity of students, but they also reflect many of our unconscious biases and latent understandings about the conditions and norms that shape identities.
Addressing the adultification of African American girls is hard work, but, given their influence on student development, educators are in a unique position to prevent this phenomenon from having a negative impact on our girls' learning outcomes. Whether in classrooms, on school yards, or during informal interactions, we can collectively take action to reduce the presence of adultification in learning spaces.
  • Use age-appropriate language. Referring to a 10-year-old girl as a "young woman" is not always about affirming who she will become. It may be a priming (or trigger) for girls to feel that they are no longer in a critical stage of development and worthy of nurturing. Instead, refer to girls under the age of 12 as just that—girls.
  • Respect different communication styles. Being "loud" or outspoken is not always an intentional disruption and affront to the authority of a teacher. In Oakland, California, girls have stated, "African American girls are thought of as being loud, but that's because no one wants to hear us. We have to speak up to be heard" (Ohlson & Bedrossian, 2016). It is important for educators to understand that increased volume is sometimes a communication strategy for girls who experience (or feel) erasure in their learning space—a way to be seen rather than an act of immaturity or defiance. In the classroom, one of the most effective strategies for managing different communication styles is to co-construct expectations. Students can collectively determine when a loud noise might be appropriate, when it is not, and how the class will work together to uphold a structure of accountability. Schoolwide, educators can address the "erasure" of black girls by establishing advisory groups or other programs for girls that help to build community and a positive culture of communication that is consistent with their developmental stage. Such programs must honor girls' maturity level and provide an opportunity for compassion and empathy among educators to guide decisions about how to steer positive youth behavior and development. These programs should be led by adults who have a demonstrated ability to increase the capacity of black girls to feel empowered and safe in their learning space.
  • Recognize adultification as a specific and critical element of implicit bias. Training and professional development to address implicit bias should include a deep dive into the possibility of engaging intersectionality as a lens to inform educators' relationships with African American girls and other culturally and linguistically diverse students. We cannot assume that policies and practices intended to be race- or gender-neutral remain "neutral" in impact. When developing bias literacies, or structured decision-making tools to help standardize criteria and understandings of bias, include specific opportunities to discuss racialized gender-based violence toward African American girls and young women. Examine how these elements might manifest in the school community and be reflected in formal policies and informal practices in ways that may lead to the differential treatment of black girls.
  • Ensure each girl on campus has an adult mentor or counselor to go to in a time of crisis. An aspect of adultification is the failure to connect—through empathy and cultural competency—with girls who may come from a community or identity group other than our own. As we build positive learning communities, we should ensure that each student has at least one adult on campus who can function as her "safe person," who she can go to when she is in a moment of crisis, and who can work with other educators to emphasize her full identity and identify opportunities for inclusion.

Meeting Girls Where They Are

Ultimately, our pedagogical practices must reflect an intention to honor the development of all students, wherever they are along their developmental journey. Understanding how society adultifies African American girls provides an opportunity for all of us to improve our own practices and consider the biases that may inform how we interact with these girls in schools, communities, and other spaces.

Guiding Questions

➛ Can you recall a time you observed yourself or witnessed a colleague treating an African American girl as more "adult-like" than her peers? What impact did this have on the child?

➛ Which policies and practices could be contributing to the adultification of black girls in your school?

➛ What steps can you and your colleagues take to better understand and mitigate this phenomenon?


Dahl, R. E., Allen, N. B., Wilbrecht, L., & Suleiman, A. B. (2018). Importance of investing in adolescence from a develop mental science perspective. Nature, 554(7693), 441–450.

Epstein, R., Blake, J., & Gonzalez, T. (2017). Girlhood interrupted: The erasure of black girls' childhood. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality.

Girls for Gender Equity. (2017). The schools girls deserve: Youth-driven solutions for creative, safe, holistic, and affirming New York City Public Schools. Brooklyn, NY: Author.

Hewlett, M., & Newell, S. (2018, October 10). Ministers' conference calls for immediate firing of white officer who arrested 14-year-old black girl at Hanes Middle School. Winston-Salem Journal.

McClellan, C. (2018). Our girls, our future: Investing in opportunity and reducing reliance on the criminal justice system in Baltimore. Thurgood Marshall Institute, NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

National Women's Law Center. (2018). Dress coded: Black girls, bodies, and bias in D.C. schools. Washington, D.C.: Author.

Ohlson, B., & Bedrossian, K. (2016). Valuing girls' voices: Lived experiences of girls of color in Oakland Unified School District. Oakland, CA: Alliance for Girls, with Bright Research Group.

End Notes

1 For a primer on intersectionality, read "Teaching at the Intersections" by Monita K. Bell in the Summer 2016 issue of Teaching Tolerance.

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