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March 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 6

Research Says / Simple Interventions Boost Self-Esteem

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In a heartfelt 2013 TED talk,, lifelong educator Rita Pierson recalled teaching impoverished students who "were so low, so academically deficient" that it made her cry. "I wondered, how am I going to take this group in nine months from where they are to where they need to be? How do I raise the self-esteem of a child and his academic achievement at the same time?"
One year, Pierson came up with a bright idea. She told her students, "You were chosen to be in my class because I am the best teacher and you are the best students. They put us all together so we could show everybody else how to do it." To reinforce the message, she gave them a saying:
I am somebody. I was somebody when I came. I'll be a better somebody when I leave. I am powerful, and I am strong. I deserve the education that I get here. I have things to do, people to impress, and places to go.
Pierson's bright idea reflected a great deal of research, including an emerging body of knowledge about the complex interactions among student self-image, racial identity, negative stereotypes, and the ability to overcome obstacles and succeed.

What We Know About Stereotype Threat

We've long known that racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps widen with age, especially as students enter adolescence and begin absorbing messages about race, confronting negative stereotypes, and developing their personal identities (Okeke, Howard, Kurtz-Costes, & Rowley, 2009). Two studies of more than 500 black middle school students, for example, found a strong, negative link (r = −.25) between performance on standardized tests and the extent to which students had internalized negative stereotypes about their own ethnic group's academic abilities. The effect doubled for students who reported that racial identity was central to their own self-image (Okeke, Howard, Kurtz-Costes, & Rowley, 2009). In light of these findings, the researchers speculated that adolescence may be a crucial time to help students develop positive beliefs about their own academic competence, thus combatting the subtle, yet powerful psychological phenomenon known as stereotype threat.
One of the most widely studied topics in social psychology, stereotype threat refers to a situational predicament in which people feel at risk of confirming negative stereotypes about their race, gender, or other social group. In a groundbreaking 1997 study, Steele observed that tests or classroom experiences that white students perceive as mere measures of academic ability often carried an extra burden of anxiety for minority students.
Subsequent studies have supported Steele's findings. In a now-famous study, Princeton researchers (Alter, Aronson, Darley, Rodriguez, & Ruble, 2010) found that minority children who were asked to report their ethnicity prior to a test answered an average of just 38 percent of questions correctly, whereas those who were asked to report their ethnicity after the test got 59 percent correct. In an earlier study, Asian-American females performed better on a math quiz when pretest prompts made their ethnic identity salient, but lower when these prompts reminded them of their gender (Shih, Pittinsky, & Ambady, 1999).
Stereotype threat doesn't need to be overt to have pronounced effects. Through a meta-analysis of 43 studies of different conditions—some that sought to trigger stereotype threat, some that sought to diminish it, and some that did neither—Walton and Cohen (2011) found that the results on tests administered under conditions of reinforced stereotype threat, like that presented in the Princeton study, were equivalent to roughly 100 fewer points on the SAT. But even latent stereotype threat depressed performance by roughly 60 fewer points on the SAT. Researchers conjecture that in the real world, stereotype threat can create a downward spiral of lower performance, which reinforces poor self-image, which leads to ever lower performance (Cohen & Garcia, 2008).

Overcoming Stereotype Threat

Fortunately, a series of experiments have found that rather simple interventions can reverse these effects. One early study observed that when black college students received "unbuffered" critical feedback on an essay, they tended to label the criticism as racially biased and to disregard it; however, when the critique was accompanied by talk of high standards and personal assurances of the students' capacity to meet those standards, they no longer viewed the feedback as biased and became more motivated than white students to revise their writing (Cohen & Steele, 2002).
In another study, both black and white second-semester college freshmen read the results of a survey of upperclassmen that ostensibly showed that all college students, regardless of race or background, experienced challenges and feelings of self-doubt that they later overcame. To internalize the message, students were asked to write about how their own experience reflected the survey results and to record a video message for future students to reassure them that doubts about belonging in college were normal. The intervention had no effects for white students, but it boosted the grade point averages of black students by nearly a quarter of a point the next semester—an effect that persisted into their senior year, eventually cutting the achievement gap by 79 percent and tripling the number of black students in the top quarter of their class (Walton & Cohen, 2011).
A study of 7th grade black students and white students asked them to spend 15 minutes writing about the role of personal values (such as religion or family relationships) in their personal lives at the beginning of the term in a targeted course (Cohen, Garcia, Apfel, & Master, 2006). During the term, this simple exercise cut in half the number of black students earning a D or lower, reduced achievement gaps by 40 percent, and reversed previous declines in performance. The researchers speculated that merely calling to mind their own positive attributes may have buttressed students' feelings of self-worth and disrupted the downward spiral of stereotype threat.

It's Not Magic

A recent review of research (Yeager & Walton, 2011) noted that although these seemingly simple interventions have the power to unleash "powerful psychological forces" (p. 274) and "lead to large gains in student achievement and sharply reduce achievement gaps," we should not view them as a silver bullet (p. 267). For starters, students still require good instruction and access to a challenging curriculum. Moreover, the interventions must be "stealthy" (p. 284); if students perceive that someone is trying to "fix" them, they may feel further stigmatized, which might inadvertently reinforce stereotype threat rather than reduce it.
So although these interventions can be immensely powerful, they must be delivered skillfully so that students absorb them in a deep and personal way. That's exactly what Rita Pierson understood about the daily assurances of self-worth she encouraged her students to repeat. "You say it long enough," she noted, "and it starts to be a part of you."

Alter, A. L., Aronson, J., Darley, J. M., Rodriguez, C., & Ruble, D. N. (2010). Rising to the threat: Reducing stereotype threat by reframing the threat as a challenge. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 166–171.

Cohen, G. L., & Garcia, J. (2008). Identity, belonging, and achievement. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17(6), 365–369.

Cohen, G. L., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., & Master, A. (2006). Reducing the racial achievement gap: A social psychological intervention. Science, 313, 1307–1310.

Cohen, G. L., & Steele, C. M. (2002). A barrier of mistrust: How negative stereotypes affect cross-race mentoring. In J. Aronson (Ed.), Improving academic achievement: Impact of psychological factors on education (pp. 305–331). San Diego: Academic Press.

Okeke, N. A., Howard, L. C., Kurtz-Costes, B., & Rowley, S. J. (2009). Academic race stereotypes, academic self-concept, and racial centrality in African American youth. Journal of Black Psychology, 35(3), 366–387.

Shih, M., Pittinsky, T. L., & Ambady, N. (1999). Stereotype susceptibility: Identity salience and shifts in quantitative performance. Psychological Science, 10, 80–83.

Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. The American Psychologist, 52(6), 613–629.

Walton, G., & Cohen, G. L. (2011). A brief social-belonging intervention improves academic and health outcomes of minority students. Science, 331, 1147–1151.

Yeager, D. S., & Walton, G. M. (2011). Social-psychological interventions in education: They're not magic. Review of Educational Research, 81(2), 267–301.

End Notes

1 Rita Pierson's TED talk, "Every Kid Needs a Champion," can be viewed at Pierson passed away one month after delivering this talk.

Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International, a Denver-based nonprofit education research and development organization. Goodwin, a former teacher and journalist, has been at McREL for more than 20 years, serving previously as chief operating officer and director of communications and marketing. Goodwin writes a monthly research column for Educational Leadership and presents research findings and insights to audiences across the United States and in Canada, the Middle East, and Australia.

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