If You’re Not Outside Your Comfort Zone, You Won’t Learn Anything

Harvard Business Review

JULY 29, 2016
You need to speak in public, but your knees buckle even before you reach the podium. You want to expand your network, but you’d rather swallow nails than make small talk with strangers. Speaking up in meetings would further your reputation at work, but you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. Situations like these — ones that are important professionally, but personally terrifying — are, unfortunately, ubiquitous. An easy response to these situations is avoidance. Who wants to feel anxious when you don’t have to?

But the problem, of course, is that these tasks aren’t just unpleasant; they’re also necessary. As we grow and learn in our jobs and in our careers, we’re constantly faced with situations where we need to adapt our behavior. It’s simply a reality of the world we work in today. And without the skill and courage to take the leap, we can miss out on important opportunities for advancement. How can we as professionals stop building our lives around avoiding these unpleasant, but professionally beneficial, tasks?

First, be honest with yourself. When you turned down that opportunity to speak at a big industry conference, was it really because you didn’t have the time, or were you scared to step on a stage and present? And when you didn’t confront that coworker who had been undermining you, was it really because you felt he would eventually stop, or was it because you were terrified of conflict? Take an inventory of the excuses you tend to make about avoiding situations outside your comfort zone and ask yourself if they are truly legitimate. If someone else offered you those same excuses about their behavior, would you see these as excuses or legitimate reasons to decline? The answer isn’t always clear, but you’ll never be able to overcome inaction without being honest about your motives in the first place.

Then, make the behavior your own. Very few people struggle in every single version of a formidable work situation. You might have a hard time making small talk generally, but find it easier if the topic is something you know a lot about. Or you may have a hard time networking, except when it’s in a really small setting.

Recognize these opportunities and take advantage — don’t chalk this variability up to randomness. For many years, I’ve worked with people struggling to step outside their comfort zones at work and in everyday life, and what I’ve found is that we often have much more leeway than we believe to make these tasks feel less loathsome. We can often find a way to tweak what we have to do to make it palatable enough to perform by sculpting situations in a way that minimizes discomfort. For example, if you’re like me and get queasy talking with big groups during large, noisy settings, find a quiet corner of that setting to talk, or step outside into the hallway or just outside the building. If you hate public speaking and networking events, but feel slightly more comfortable in small groups, look for opportunities to speak with smaller groups or set up intimate coffee meetings with those you want to network with.

Finally, take the plunge. In order to step outside your comfort zone, you have to do it, even if it’s uncomfortable. Put mechanisms in place that will force you to dive in, and you might discover that what you initially feared isn’t as bad as you thought.

For example, I have a history of being uncomfortable with public speaking. In graduate school I took a public speaking class and the professor had us deliver speeches — using notes — every class. Then, after the third or fourth class, we were told to hand over our notes and to speak extemporaneously. I was terrified, as was everyone else in the course, but you know what? It actually worked. I did just fine, and so did everyone else. In fact, speaking without notes ended up being much more effective, making my speaking more natural and authentic. But without this mechanism of forcing me into action, I might never have taken the plunge.

Start with small steps. Instead of jumping right into speaking at an industry event, sign up for a public speaking class. Instead of speaking up in the boardroom, in front of your most senior colleagues, start by speaking up in smaller meetings with peers to see how it feels. And while you’re at it, see if you can recruit a close friend or colleague to offer advice and encouragement in advance of a challenging situation.

You may stumble, but that’s OK. In fact, it’s the only way you’ll learn, especially if you can appreciate that missteps are an inevitable — and in fact essential — part of the learning process. In the end, even though we might feel powerless in situations outside our comfort zone, we have more power than we think. So, give it a go. Be honest with yourself, make the behavior your own, and take the plunge. My guess is you’ll be pleased at having given yourself the opportunity to grow, learn, and expand your professional repertoire.


Andy Molinsky is a Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School. His forthcoming book, Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence is to be published by Penguin Random House in January 2017. For more information visit andymolinsky.com and follow Andy on Twitter @andymolinsky.

THE DIVERSITY DIVIDE

National Association of Elementary School Principals

Recent studies show lack of racial diversity among educators in America.
By Robert Bittner
Principal, January/February 2017

Several recent studies have explored the issue of racial diversity in American education. “The State of Racial Diversity in the Educator Workforce” (2016), developed by the U.S. Department of Education, uses cold numerical data to underscore the fact that, despite some very modest gains, today’s education workforce is nowhere near as diverse as today’s students. The report cites a handful of programs across the country that are working to correct that deficiency. Yet, like most studies, the focus is on reporting current conditions, with questions of why and what can be done left unanswered.

A study by The Education Trust, “Through Our Eyes: Perspectives and Reflections from Black Teachers” (2016), by Ashley Griffin and Hilary Tackie, puts a human face on the data, at least where black educators are concerned. (A separate report on Hispanic teachers is forthcoming.) While acknowledging that “building a diverse teacher workforce is complex,” the authors’ interviews with black teachers across the country emphasize the need to do just that and to help point the way to solutions.

During the 2012-2013 school year, 51 percent of all elementary and secondary public school students were white, 16 percent were black, and 24 percent were Hispanic. Among teachers, 82 percent were white, 7 percent were black, and 8 percent were Hispanic. As for principals, 80 percent were white, 10 percent were black, and 7 percent were Hispanic.

The “Racial Diversity” Study Summarizes The Key Findings In Three Main Points:

  1. Racially speaking, elementary- and secondary-school educators in the United States are relatively homogenous and not as racially diverse as their students or the population in general.
  2. Diversity decreases at multiple points across the teacher pipeline through which teachers progress in postsecondary education, teacher preparation programs, and retention. (See infographic on page 17.)
  3. Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and alternative routes to teacher certification—including online institutions—tend to enroll a more racially diverse population of teacher candidates than other colleges and universities. For example, the study notes that 16 percent of all black teacher candidates attend an HBCU; however, that number represents a mere 2 percent of all of those preparing to teach.

There are signs of very modest improvement. For example, the survey points out that, although a large racial imbalance between educators and students remains, educator diversity has increased over time. In the 1987-1988 school year, 13 percent of public school teachers were teachers of color compared with 18 percent in 2011-2012, a 5 percent increase over more than 20 years. (During the same period, the proportion of black teachers actually decreased slightly.)

In 2011-2012, the percentages of new black and Hispanic principals were higher than the percentages of experienced black and Hispanic principals, suggesting growth here as well. But, again, gains were modest: 11 percent of black principals were new versus 8 percent with prior experience; similarly, 8 percent of Hispanic principals were new versus 5 percent with prior experience.

Student Perception

Of course, students of any race and background can be taught well by teachers of any race and background. But “The Importance of Minority Teachers,” a study by Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng and Peter F. Halpin, published in the October 2016 issue of Educational Researcher, suggests that teachers of color may have an edge in the classroom—at least in urban schools, the focus of the study. “There is consistent evidence that students have more favorable perceptions of minority teachers than white teachers,” the authors write. “[Hispanic] teachers are more positively perceived by students … Students perceive black teachers more than their white peers to hold students to high academic standards and support their efforts, to help them organize content, and to explain clearly ideas and concepts and provide useful feedback.”

Although Hispanic students didn’t have particularly favorable perceptions of Hispanic teachers, black and Asian students had particularly positive perceptions of black teachers. In addition, “students in the ‘Other’ racial category also report that black teachers are particularly caring.” These perceptions are critical: “Students’ perceptions of teachers are associated with motivation and achievement,” the study notes.

Cherng and Halpin touch briefly on why teachers of color may make such a positive impression in the classroom. They found, among other conclusions, that Hispanic and black teachers simply are “more multi-culturally aware than their white peers,” significant because “higher levels of multicultural awareness are linked to better classroom environments.” As a result, these teachers are uniquely equipped to “help empower youth of all racial/ethnic identities.”

Such findings echo those of Griffin and Tackie, authors of the “Through Our Eyes” report. “Teachers of color bring benefits to classrooms beyond content knowledge and pedagogy,” they report. “As role models, parental figures, and advocates, they can build relationships with students of color that help those students feel connected to their schools. And they are more likely to be able to enhance cultural understanding among white colleagues, teachers, and students. Acting as ‘warm demanders,’ they more frequently hold high expectations for all students and use connections with students to establish structured classroom discipline. Furthermore, they are more likely to teach in high-need schools that predominantly serve students of color and low-income students.”

Added Pressures

Whether they are driven by personal concern for students and community or a perceived need to go the extra mile simply to prove themselves (as both educators and role models), black teachers, in particular, are likely to experience workday pressures beyond those faced by their white colleagues. In fact, “Through Our Eyes” focus group respondents acknowledged a sense of overarching obligation toward their students that extends far beyond academics, leading them to act as “parent, hairdresser, chauffeur, advocate, counselor, and cheerleader.” And because they are more likely to teach in high-need environments, those added pressures take an even greater toll. Neither the “Racial Diversity” nor the “Through Our Eyes” study pinpoints direct causes for teachers’ decisions to leave the profession. But the fact that black teachers leave at a higher rate than white teachers suggests that there is a personal price to pay for striving to be an educator, role model, spokesperson, disciplinarian, mentor, and parent all rolled into one.

Teacher Diversity Diminishes At Each Point.

Postsecondary Enrollment

All states require a bachelor’s degree as the first step toward teacher certification. Yet even at this early point the demographics have shifted: the racial composition of college graduates is already less diverse than it is among public high school graduates. In 2012, for example, 62 percent of all bachelor’s degree students were white, whereas only 57 percent of those graduating from high school were white.

Enrollment in Education Programs

In 2012, 73 percent of students majoring in education at colleges and universities were white. The study acknowledges that this is not the only path for potential teachers. Teacher preparation programs—which may or may not be provided in association with an established college or university—deliver state-approved curricula that give enrollees an initial teaching credential. Even in teacher preparation programs associated with a college or university, the study found that enrollees were less diverse than the larger student body.

Postsecondary Completion

The “Racial Diversity” study notes that bachelor’s degree completion is lower for black and Hispanic students than it is for white students. For students beginning college in 2008-2009, 42 percent of black students and 49 percent of Hispanic students had completed a bachelor’s degree after six years, compared with 73 percent of white students. Graduates have become more diverse over time, but it is happening very slowly. In 2000, 77 percent were white, 11 percent were black, 8 percent were Hispanic, and 3 percent were other. By 2012, 73 percent were white, 12 percent were black, and 11 percent were Hispanic.

Entering the Workforce

Among those beginning postsecondary study in 2007-2008, 82 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients certified to teach K-12 by 2012 were white, 4 percent were black, and 9 percent were Hispanic. Citing a 2011 study, “Racial Diversity” suggests that the low numbers of black and Hispanic certifications may reflect licensure exam performance; teachers of color, on average, score lower on licensure tests and pass at lower rates than white colleagues. Nonetheless, the authors note, “the racial composition of new teachers entering the teaching profession is more diverse than the racial composition of all teachers,” hinting that, once teachers of color embark upon a teaching career, retention becomes the greatest challenge.

Teacher Retention

Teacher retention data follows a familiar pattern: there are more white teachers in the same position from one school year to the next than teachers of color. There are many reasons why this is the case, with “Through Our Eyes” data suggesting teacher burnout, lack of administrative support and understanding, unrealistic expectations (from administrators, colleagues, even students), and more. In addition, “Racial Diversity” notes that most black and Hispanic teachers work in urban schools, which tend to be high-stress, high-turnover environments.

The reasons go beyond high-need students. The lack of diversity among teachers and administrators increases the likelihood that teachers of color work alongside white colleagues and bosses. At best, this situation can enrich the work environment for everyone. According to  “Through Our Eyes,” however, “best” is not the typical black teacher’s experience.

“[Black teachers] face racial discrimination and stereotyping that leave them feeling alienated and restricted from participating in the school community, impacting their ability to be effective and ultimately their desire to remain in the profession,” the report says. “Despite their feelings of alienation, they take on extra responsibilities and are often assigned additional duties because of their unique strengths, leaving them burdened and taxed. These same abilities and attributes can often leave black teachers stuck in such rigid positions as the school disciplinarian. These unyielding categorizations often limit their opportunities, advancement, and abilities to hone their craft.”

The report concludes, “The issues that stifle the development and empowerment of black teachers are so deep-seated that it will take honest and critical examinations of school cultures and systemic processes in order for school and district leaders to develop the trust, support, and collegial working environments needed to recruit and retain teachers of color.”

No Easy Fix

Neither study is intended to be prescriptive or to recommend practical steps to move past “deep-seated” issues. “Racial Diversity,” though, highlights three diversity program success stories from across the country. Developed independently, these programs take similar approaches, fostering future educators from within the community.

  1. In Boston Public Schools (BPS), 37 percent of teachers are nonwhite, with black teachers representing 25 percent of new hires in 2015-2016. The district’s commitment to improving diversity is bolstered by the BPS “High School to Teacher” program, which identifies city high-school students with teaching potential, provides mentors and college prep courses, pays half of students’ college tuition, and, if they are successful, funnels them into teaching jobs. Eighty-seven percent of program participants are black or Hispanic or both.
  2. The Call Me MiSTER (Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models) Initiative, sponsored by Clemson University in South Carolina, is expanding the pool of teachers in the state with local initiatives, drawing from among the state’s underserved and at-risk communities. The program provides tuition assistance, a support system, and help with job placement.
  3. The Teach Tomorrow in Oakland program in Oakland, California, also recruits from the community. It seeks out Oakland Unified School District alumni, community members, middle- and high-school students, paraprofessionals, out-of-industry professionals, and student teachers. It then provides educational and financial support, including training, tutoring, interning opportunities, and classroom resources.

ACCESS THE SOURCES

“The Importance of Minority Teachers: Student Perceptions of Minority Versus White Teachers” by Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng and Peter F. Halpin, Educational Researcher 45, no. 7 (2016)

“The State of Racial Diversity in the Educator Workforce,” U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, Policy and Program Studies Service (2016)

“Through Our Eyes: Perspectives and Reflections from Black Teachers” by Ashley Griffin and Hilary Tackie, The Education Trust (2016)

These efforts are creating change, but they remain the exception. According to the “Racial Diversity” study, “All stakeholders must do more to support teachers of color throughout the teacher pipeline. From getting more students of color into postsecondary education, to ensuring teachers of color are placed and supported in their roles in the classroom, improving each step in the process can help capitalize on the diversity of our nation.”

There is no one, decisive moment when the demographics of the classroom suddenly break down and a diverse student body is no longer reflected by a relatively homogenous group of teachers. The fact is, the “Racial Diversity” study finds, “diversity diminishes at each point along the way to becoming a certified teacher.”

Robert Bittner is a Michigan-based freelance journalist.

What Happens When Students Notice Racial Bias

(CNN)Children rarely forget the moment when a teacher might inadvertently display a racial bias.

Sara Sidner, CNN’s Los Angeles-based national and international correspondent, remembers sitting in class as a child while her teacher stood and starting taking roll, marking down the race of each student in the room.
“He was trying to figure out whether I was black or white, and he looked at me, and he said, ‘You know what; you’re a smart kid; I’m going to check white,’ ” said Sidner, whose mother is a white British woman and whose father is African-American.
“It definitely had an impact on me,” she said. “It made me want to fight back and say, ‘I can be black and smart. Those are not separate entities. Those are not different things.’ “
It turns out that when black and Latino middle school students notice racial bias at school, they are more likely to lose trust in their teachers and other authority figures, according to a study published in the journal Child Development this week.
The study also showed how establishing trust in their teachers can have life-long consequences for middle school students, even making a significant difference in their likelihood of attending college, said Geoffrey Cohen, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and a co-author of the study.
“There’s this kind of hidden construct of trust that teachers and schools are influencing all the time and maybe not knowing it, and they have these far-off, far-flung consequences, like college enrollment,” Cohen said.
“A lot of the things that happen to us during our teenage years end up sticking with us. A disproportionate number of our memories, for instance, come from our teenage years. If you suffer a depressive episode in your teen years, you’re more likely to suffer one later on in adulthood,” he said. “This developmental stage is important.”

Trust linked to success in school

The study involved 277 middle school students in Connecticut who were surveyed twice yearly about their perceptions of school from sixth to eighth grade, and then were tracked to indicate whether they enrolled in a four-year college after high school. About half of the students were white, and about half were black. Their teachers were white.
The researchers assessed each student’s trust in school by including statements in the survey such as “I am treated fairly by teachers and other adults at my school” or “students in my racial group are treated fairly by teachers and other adults.” The students could select whether they agreed or disagreed with each statement.
The survey results showed that while the trust students had in their teachers declined from sixth to eighth grade overall, that trust plunged faster for black students and had a more significant association with their likelihood of attending college.
Among black students, when their trust in school declined, their rate of college enrollment was about 43%, but when their trust increased, it was about 64%, said David Yeager, a faculty research associate at the University of Texas at Austin’s Population Research Center and a co-author of the study. So, there was a difference of 21 percentage points.
Among white students, when their trust declined, their rate of college enrollment was about 54%. When trust increased, college enrollment was about 62%. So, there was a difference of only 8 percentage points, Yeager said.
The researchers also surveyed 206 middle school students in Colorado over a one-year period. About half of the students were white, and about half were Latino. Their teachers were white.
The surveys showed that a loss of trust was more significant among the Latino students and emerged more prominently in the seventh grade.
But the study has some limitations.
“I would love to see researchers try to replicate that sort of ‘trust gap’ in other schools and see if they get it. We only looked at two schools,” Cohen said.
“How general it is, is a question. I think it’s general for two reasons. One is, it does match with other research,” he said. “The second reason is that these two schools, they’re pretty different. They’re from different regions in the United States. One is the Mountain West; one’s in Connecticut.”

Is there a flaw in the education system?

Middle school, a time when adolescents are carving out their identities, may be when a student needs encouragement from a trustworthy authority figure the most.
Yet, in most middle schools, such encouragement is lacking — and that might be because standardized exams are higher-stakes starting around then, said Chris Emdin, associate professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College and author of the book “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … and the Rest of Y’all Too.”
“It’s part of elementary school practice for young people to feel like the teachers love them and to feel as though, ‘you’re valuable. You’re smart.’ It’s almost like part of the discourse in elementary education,” said Emdin, who was not involved in the new study.
“But when you get to middle and high school, the focus becomes less on the social and emotional development of the learner and more of an emphasis on the content area,” he said. “What’s flawed about the system is that, at the point where youth are most vulnerable in carving out their identities is the point where teachers are least prepared to help in developing trust and confidence. So it’s at that age that we need to sort of really infuse practices that let kids know how much they are loved and how brilliant they are.”
Once a teacher affirms a child’s abilities, that child is more likely not only to believe in his or her own abilities but to trust that teacher, Emdin said.
He added that students, especially those of color, thrive when they feel as if a teacher cares about them, is consistent in what and how they are teaching, and is someone students can trust.
“For young people, care, consistency and trust are the anchor of being engaged academically. If any of those three things are missing, then you can’t engage them,” Emdin said.
“So teachers have to be able to exhibit care, and they have to be consistent in the things that they tell young people,” he said. “If that happens, then young people feel like they can be trusted, and then that opens up a whole new world of possibilities.”

‘We can have more influence than we think’

For the new study, researchers also tested whether an intervention could improve trust in the teacher-student relationship.
At the same school in Connecticut where the researchers assessed a trust gap, 88 white and black seventh-graders were given a handwritten letter from their teacher, along with feedback comments on an assignment they completed.
Half of the students received a letter stating, “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper.”
The other half received a letter stating, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.”
The students and the teacher were unaware of who received which type of letter.
The researchers found that after receiving the more encouraging letter about “high expectations,” fewer black students had discipline issues the following year than those who received the other letter, and they were more likely to attend a four-year college. There were no significant associations found between the letter and behavior or college enrollment among the white students.
However, Cohen said the results of this small experiment should not be misconstrued to suggest that giving a nice note to a student will increase their chances of going to college.
Join the conversation”That’s not the message. The message should be that we can have more influence than we think, through timely acts that recognize and validate kids’ potential,” Cohen said.
“The note that we gave kids was one example of this, and it worked, in this place, in this time, in this school,” he said. “Whether it would work in another school, I don’t know. I think it would depend. It’s not a magic bullet. The school where we used this note was one where the kids had the resources they needed to learn and to grow.”

Tips to help teachers build trust

Teacher and student relationships are improved when teachers make an effort to better understand a student’s life both in and outside of school, said Richard Milner, a professor of education and endowed chair of urban education at the University of Pittsburgh, who was not involved in the new study.
Based on research he has conducted in middle and high schools, Milner offered the following advice on how to build, cultivate and maintain trusting relationships with students:
  • Develop assignments that allow students to share aspects of their lives inside and outside of school.
  • Build powerful discussion opportunities for students to share their point of view across all subject areas.
  • Attend some extracurricular activities of students, such as a school or community play, sporting event or band concert.
  • Visit local community sites of students, such as churches, synagogues, mosques, beauty salons or community centers.
  • Interview or talk directly to students themselves, rather than talking about them.

How Diversity Makes Us Smarter

Scientific American

Being around people who are different from us makes us more creative, more diligent and harder-working

Credit: Edel Rodriguez

IN BRIEF

  • Decades of research by organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers show that socially diverse groups (that is, those with a diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation) are more innovative than homogeneous groups.
  • It seems obvious that a group of people with diverse individual expertise would be better than a homogeneous group at solving complex, nonroutine problems. It is less obvious that social diversity should work in the same way—yet the science shows that it does.
  • This is not only because people with different backgrounds bring new information. Simply interacting with individuals who are different forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort.

(Editor’s note (1/30/16): In response to President Donald Trump’s immigration order to close U.S. borders to refugees and visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries, which has impacted scientists and students, we are republishing the following article from or 2014 special report on how diversity powers science and innovation.)

The first thing to acknowledge about diversity is that it can be difficult. In the U.S., where the dialogue of inclusion is relatively advanced, even the mention of the word “diversity” can lead to anxiety and conflict. Supreme Court justices disagree on the virtues of diversity and the means for achieving it. Corporations spend billions of dollars to attract and manage diversity both internally and externally, yet they still face discrimination lawsuits, and the leadership ranks of the business world remain predominantly white and male.

It is reasonable to ask what good diversity does us. Diversity of expertise confers benefits that are obvious—you would not think of building a new car without engineers, designers and quality-control experts—but what about social diversity? What good comes from diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation? Research has shown that social diversity in a group can cause discomfort, rougher interactions, a lack of trust, greater perceived interpersonal conflict, lower communication, less cohesion, more concern about disrespect, and other problems. So what is the upside?

The fact is that if you want to build teams or organizations capable of innovating, you need diversity. Diversity enhances creativity. It encourages the search for novel information and perspectives, leading to better decision making and problem solving. Diversity can improve the bottom line of companies and lead to unfettered discoveries and breakthrough innovations. Even simply being exposed to diversity can change the way you think. This is not just wishful thinking: it is the conclusion I draw from decades of research from organizational scientists, psychologists, sociologists, economists and demographers.

INFORMATION AND INNOVATION

The key to understanding the positive influence of diversity is the concept of informational diversity. When people are brought together to solve problems in groups, they bring different information, opinions and perspectives. This makes obvious sense when we talk about diversity of disciplinary backgrounds—think again of the interdisciplinary team building a car. The same logic applies to social diversity. People who are different from one another in race, gender and other dimensions bring unique information and experiences to bear on the task at hand. A male and a female engineer might have perspectives as different from one another as an engineer and a physicist—and that is a good thing.

Research on large, innovative organizations has shown repeatedly that this is the case. For example, business professors Cristian Deszö of the University of Maryland and David Ross of Columbia University studied the effect of gender diversity on the top firms in Standard & Poor’s Composite 1500 list, a group designed to reflect the overall U.S. equity market. First, they examined the size and gender composition of firms’ top management teams from 1992 through 2006. Then they looked at the financial performance of the firms. In their words, they found that, on average, “female representation in top management leads to an increase of $42 million in firm value.” They also measured the firms’ “innovation intensity” through the ratio of research and development expenses to assets. They found that companies that prioritized innovation saw greater financial gains when women were part of the top leadership ranks.

Racial diversity can deliver the same kinds of benefits. In a study conducted in 2003, Orlando Richard, a professor of management at the University of Texas at Dallas, and his colleagues surveyed executives at 177 national banks in the U.S., then put together a database comparing financial performance, racial diversity and the emphasis the bank presidents put on innovation. For innovation-focused banks, increases in racial diversity were clearly related to enhanced financial performance.

Evidence for the benefits of diversity can be found well beyond the U.S. In August 2012 a team of researchers at the Credit Suisse Research Institute issued a report in which they examined 2,360 companies globally from 2005 to 2011, looking for a relationship between gender diversity on corporate management boards and financial performance. Sure enough, the researchers found that companies with one or more women on the board delivered higher average returns on equity, lower gearing (that is, net debt to equity) and better average growth.

HOW DIVERSITY PROVOKES THOUGHT

Large data-set studies have an obvious limitation: they only show that diversity is correlated with better performance, not that it causes better performance. Research on racial diversity in small groups, however, makes it possible to draw some causal conclusions. Again, the findings are clear: for groups that value innovation and new ideas, diversity helps.

In 2006 Margaret Neale of Stanford University, Gregory Northcraft of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and I set out to examine the impact of racial diversity on small decision-making groups in an experiment where sharing information was a requirement for success. Our subjects were undergraduate students taking business courses at the University of Illinois. We put together three-person groups—some consisting of all white members, others with two whites and one nonwhite member—and had them perform a murder mystery exercise. We made sure that all group members shared a common set of information, but we also gave each member important clues that only he or she knew. To find out who committed the murder, the group members would have to share all the information they collectively possessed during discussion. The groups with racial diversity significantly outperformed the groups with no racial diversity. Being with similar others leads us to think we all hold the same information and share the same perspective. This perspective, which stopped the all-white groups from effectively processing the information, is what hinders creativity and innovation.

Other researchers have found similar results. In 2004 Anthony Lising Antonio, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, collaborated with five colleagues from the University of California, Los Angeles, and other institutions to examine the influence of racial and opinion composition in small group discussions. More than 350 students from three universities participated in the study. Group members were asked to discuss a prevailing social issue (either child labor practices or the death penalty) for 15 minutes. The researchers wrote dissenting opinions and had both black and white members deliver them to their groups. When a black person presented a dissenting perspective to a group of whites, the perspective was perceived as more novel and led to broader thinking and consideration of alternatives than when a white person introduced that same dissenting perspective. The lesson: when we hear dissent from someone who is different from us, it provokes more thought than when it comes from someone who looks like us.

This effect is not limited to race. For example, last year professors of management Denise Lewin Loyd of the University of Illinois, Cynthia Wang of Oklahoma State University, Robert B. Lount, Jr., of Ohio State University and I asked 186 people whether they identified as a Democrat or a Republican, then had them read a murder mystery and decide who they thought committed the crime. Next, we asked the subjects to prepare for a meeting with another group member by writing an essay communicating their perspective. More important, in all cases, we told the participants that their partner disagreed with their opinion but that they would need to come to an agreement with the other person. Everyone was told to prepare to convince their meeting partner to come around to their side; half of the subjects, however, were told to prepare to make their case to a member of the opposing political party, and half were told to make their case to a member of their own party.

The result: Democrats who were told that a fellow Democrat disagreed with them prepared less well for the discussion than Democrats who were told that a Republican disagreed with them. Republicans showed the same pattern. When disagreement comes from a socially different person, we are prompted to work harder. Diversity jolts us into cognitive action in ways that homogeneity simply does not.

For this reason, diversity appears to lead to higher-quality scientific research. This year Richard Freeman, an economics professor at Harvard University and director of the Science and Engineering Workforce Project at the National Bureau of Economic Research, along with Wei Huang, a Harvard economics Ph.D. candidate, examined the ethnic identity of the authors of 1.5 million scientific papers written between 1985 and 2008 using Thomson Reuters’s Web of Science, a comprehensive database of published research. They found that papers written by diverse groups receive more citations and have higher impact factors than papers written by people from the same ethnic group. Moreover, they found that stronger papers were associated with a greater number of author addresses; geographical diversity, and a larger number of references, is a reflection of more intellectual diversity.

THE POWER OF ANTICIPATION

Diversity is not only about bringing different perspectives to the table. Simply adding social diversity to a group makes people believe that differences of perspective might exist among them and that belief makes people change their behavior.

Members of a homogeneous group rest somewhat assured that they will agree with one another; that they will understand one another’s perspectives and beliefs; that they will be able to easily come to a consensus. But when members of a group notice that they are socially different from one another, they change their expectations. They anticipate differences of opinion and perspective. They assume they will need to work harder to come to a consensus. This logic helps to explain both the upside and the downside of social diversity: people work harder in diverse environments both cognitively and socially. They might not like it, but the hard work can lead to better outcomes.

In a 2006 study of jury decision making, social psychologist Samuel Sommers of Tufts University found that racially diverse groups exchanged a wider range of information during deliberation about a sexual assault case than all-white groups did. In collaboration with judges and jury administrators in a Michigan courtroom, Sommers conducted mock jury trials with a group of real selected jurors. Although the participants knew the mock jury was a court-sponsored experiment, they did not know that the true purpose of the research was to study the impact of racial diversity on jury decision making.

Sommers composed the six-person juries with either all white jurors or four white and two black jurors. As you might expect, the diverse juries were better at considering case facts, made fewer errors recalling relevant information and displayed a greater openness to discussing the role of race in the case. These improvements did not necessarily happen because the black jurors brought new information to the group—they happened because white jurors changed their behavior in the presence of the black jurors. In the presence of diversity, they were more diligent and open-minded.

GROUP EXERCISE

Consider the following scenario: You are writing up a section of a paper for presentation at an upcoming conference. You are anticipating some disagreement and potential difficulty communicating because your collaborator is American and you are Chinese. Because of one social distinction, you may focus on other differences between yourself and that person, such as her or his culture, upbringing and experiences—differences that you would not expect from another Chinese collaborator. How do you prepare for the meeting? In all likelihood, you will work harder on explaining your rationale and anticipating alternatives than you would have otherwise.

This is how diversity works: by promoting hard work and creativity; by encouraging the consideration of alternatives even before any interpersonal interaction takes place. The pain associated with diversity can be thought of as the pain of exercise. You have to push yourself to grow your muscles. The pain, as the old saw goes, produces the gain. In just the same way, we need diversity—in teams, organizations and society as a whole—if we are to change, grow and innovate.

Identity, Affinity, Reality

NAIS

Winter 2012

“I hate it when we talk about Martin Luther King and everybody stares at me,” a second grader said.

These words weren’t shared in a classroom. The girl who experienced this emotion revealed her feelings to students who knew firsthand what it meant to be a child of color in a predominantly white school. In the safe zone of her affinity group, she shed light on a classroom dynamic that might otherwise have remained hidden.

Even in the most progressive independent schools, issues of race often lie just below the surface of children’s daily experiences. In the relative security of an affinity group, these realities come to life. Affinity groups are places where students build connections and process “ouch” moments from their classes. Children talk about the isolation they sometimes feel. The relationships students gain through race-based affinity groups enable them to feel less alone with their emotions and help them build a stronger sense of self. At the same time, faculty facilitators gain valuable insights into ways their school’s curriculum and culture can support children on the road to identity development.

So, why isn’t every school clamoring to promote affinity groups?

When Do Children See Race?
I (Kimberly) am the director of diversity and multicultural practice at the Gordon School (Rhode Island). One early May morning, a faculty member of color walked into my office. Her son, who happens to be one of the few African-American children in his kindergarten class, was told by a classmate that he wasn’t invited to a party because he is brown.

The boy’s teacher handled the interaction between the children with gentleness and care, using it as a learning opportunity for both students. Nonetheless, the encounter stirred worries for the boy’s mother, stemming from her own childhood and school memories attached to race. She had hoped her son would not have to hear those words of rejection so early in his school journey, if at all.

I remember the stinging feeling of such an event. When my own daughter was in third grade at another independent school, she shared how it felt to hear another classmate say, “I hope I can dance with a normal white boy,” as her class was preparing for a colonial day re-enactment.

These are not isolated events.

Many adults believe that children see race only when it is pointed out. But as Beverly Daniel Tatum makes clear in her book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, children as young as three years old notice physical differences such as skin color, hair texture, and the shape of facial features. The research shows that, even in infancy, children demonstrate in-group preference. Consider the experiment conducted by Rebecca Bigler at the University of Texas.1 Bigler randomly gave four- and five-year-old children red or blue T-shirts. She observed them while they played with each other freely at recess. Afterwards, when she asked children in red T-shirts, “How many reds are nice?” they said, “All.” When children in red T-shirts were asked how many students in blue T-shirts are nice, they said only “some” are nice, but other blues are dumb or mean. Bigler noted that children “form these preferences on their own and naturally categorize everything, and the attribute they rely on is that which is the most clearly visible.”

Racial identity is being shaped from the outside and constructed inside, meaning that children struggle to understand the connection between their external experiences and their internal feelings and reactions they have to observed differences.

The physical features that children see — such as eye shape, skin color, and hair texture — are connected to our society’s description of race. In their book, Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves, Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards describe this physical recognition as children’s first encounter with racial differences. They conclude that racial identity is “being shaped from the outside and constructed inside, meaning that children struggle to understand the connection between their external experiences and their internal feelings and reactions they have to observed differences.” The authors describe four interacting factors that affect children’s racial understanding: the larger society in which they live, their families and other significant people, their individual life experiences, and their stage of cognitive development.

A longitudinal study entitled “Race and Sex as Factors in Children’s Classroom Friendship Choices” further supports this notion of preferences.2 A friendship nomination questionnaire was given to 80 boys and 65 girls in grades one through four and six. The results showed that race played a significant role (though less pervasive than gender) in children’s friendship choices, particularly when considering same-sex friendships.

Identity and Success in the Independent School
How does current research inform us about the experiences of children of color in schools where the dominant racial culture is white? A 2003 study by Edith Arrington, Diane Hall, and Howard Stevenson examined the variables that lead to success for African-American students in independent schools.3 Of the students interviewed, 75 percent reported making a special effort to fit into their school communities, 82 percent reported that they had negative school experiences, and 40 percent did not believe the school treated all students the same. The authors concluded that, “for black students, success is best defined by a strong sense of connection to the school community; a positive sense of self across contexts, but especially in the school; social and emotional health; and a racial identity that would serve as a resource as they develop, but particularly when students encounter racism.”

Another Independent School article by Michael Thompson and Kathy Schultz (2003), focusing on the “Psychological Experiences of Students of Color in Independent Schools,” highlights the fact that students of color, because they are in predominantly white schools, often experience intense social loneliness.

In Can We Talk About Race?, Beverly Daniel Tatum writes that it is essential for schools to actively address the “continuing significance of race and racial identity in ways that empower and motivate students to transcend the legacy of racism in our society.” She defines the ABCs of creating and maintaining an inclusive learning environment: A is for affirming identity; B is for building community; and C is for cultivating leadership. In this article, we emphasize “affirming identity” because we believe that one’s racial identity — reflected in the curriculum, faculty and staff, and/or classmates — helps to avoid what Tatum describes as “invisibility or marginality that can undermine student success.”

Facing the Tough Questions
The research is there. The need is there. So why do many schools hesitate to establish affinity groups? It’s mostly a matter of institutional will — and a willingness to take on critics and skeptics.

For any independent school that makes an effort to establish affinity groups — whether your school is deeply invested in multicultural education or just starting to examine the possibilities for your institution — you are bound to encounter resistance. At the Gordon School, which earned the Leading Edge award from the National Association of Independent Schools in 2004 for its work in equity and justice, one board member anticipated the response from the community when learning of the need for affinity groups. She knew it would be difficult for all school constituents “to come to the understanding that children of color can still be hurt in our school, even after we have done what feels like so much incredible work on diversity and multicultural practice.”

Introduce affinity groups and, on cue, some concerned parent will say, “I can’t believe you’re promoting segregation at our school, in this decade, in this post-racialized country. For goodness sake, we have a black president!”

You may even be accused of segregation or reverse racism. “My child tells me she wants to participate,” says a parent. “She thinks it’s not fair because white kids can’t join. My white student is being denied this opportunity.”

Undoubtedly, some of the most complex questions about affinity groups will be presented to you in the hallway or at pick up time. Sixty seconds, surrounded by other students or parents, simply isn’t enough time, nor is it the place, to consider these issues thoughtfully. However, this is a good opportunity to tell the parent that it is normal for a young child to question race in this manner, and to commend the parent for having a dialogue about race with his or her child. The latter point is important because too many in our culture avoid the topic, as if they believe it’s incendiary.

You can validate parents’ concerns by confirming that, yes, sometimes things do feel unfair, especially in the eyes of a seven-year-old. Make a plan with the parent to continue the conversation with you when everybody has more time to talk. Get the voices of dissension through the door, because if you don’t, those voices will go underground and undermine your efforts to create affinity groups.

Building relationships with skeptics is an essential step in the process of creating affinity groups. A bit of listening and friendly discussion goes a long way. If you can help parents understand racial identity development and clearly express the goals of your affinity groups, you may in fact create newly empowered allies.

Research indicates that starting a program in the younger grades can allieviate some of this peer pressure while providing the opportunity for students to practice discussions about race.

How do you define racial identity development? Tatum describes it as “the process of defining for oneself the personal significance and social meaning of belonging to a particular racial group.” Children internalize aspects of racial identity from the adults and peers around them. For students of color in predominately white independent schools, resisting negative stereotypes and affirming carefully considered definitions of themselves are critical to counterbalance the limited number of role models who mirror them racially.

Over time, in our experience, more members of the school community will come to understand that well-facilitated, racial affinity groups are gatherings that facilitate positive identity exploration, where people can pose questions and process issues. As a learning base, affinity groups offer affirmation of identity, empowerment of the individual, and empowerment of the group within the learning community — all things worth fighting for.

Planting the Seeds of Change
Nearly a decade ago, Gordon School developed a Strategic Plan for Racial Diversity and committed itself to multicultural and anti-bias education. Two adult race-based affinity groups developed at this time: Parents of Students of Color (POSOC) and Faculty and Staff of Color. POSOC began meeting in the evening, with childcare provided. The informal get-togethers in the childcare area became the first school-supported opportunity where children of color from nursery to eighth grades could gather — even though the primary meeting was for adults. Children who participated began asking their families when the next POSOC night would be and demanding to go to childcare “so they can be with their friends.” The desire for students of color to gather and play in a majority experience did not go unnoticed.

In 2004, the school’s diversity committee created a task force to research student affinity groups in school settings. Committee members visited exemplary elementary school affinity group programs at Shady Hill School (Massachusetts), Nashoba Brooks School (Massachusetts), and The Orchard School (Indiana), as well as programs located at independent secondary schools and colleges. At the same time, Gordon also embarked on its first Racial Climate Assessment — “racial climate” defined as the current perceptions, attitudes, and expectations that inform the educational experience of various racial/ethnic groups at an institution.

The assessment included data from division directors and middle school students. Broadly, perceptions of the students’ needs and experiences were as follows:

• Students live in two worlds, both of which are critical of them.

• Students of color continue to sit alone within some classrooms.

• Middle school students were asking for affinity group meetings.

• Students of color felt an affinity with each other already.

• On their own initiative, students of color sought out faculty of color for support.

• The curriculum was driving some racially linked feelings.

• Students of color reported feeling socially lonely, isolated, and devalued.

• Race was used as one element in creating classroom groupings and cross-grade “buddy” pairs.

In 2006, based on these findings, Gordon created Common Ground, a race-based affinity group for the lower school (grades one to four). The task force decided to start with lower school students because the research reveals that it could be difficult starting affinity groups in middle school, especially an affinity group that can point directly to difference. Developmentally, middle school students feel the pressure to “blend in,” and middle school programs in other schools found it a challenge to recruit students based on this fact.

Research indicates that starting a program in the younger grades can alleviate some of this peer pressure while providing the opportunity for students to practice discussions about race. The hope is that, when they reach middle school, the students who have participated in an affinity group in elementary school will feel more empowered and positively informed about their racial identity.

Common Ground met for one hour, once a week, after school, for eight sessions a season. It was a free and voluntary program for families of color. The school decided it would not be appropriate to charge for a program that exists because the greater institution was, in effect, broken.

Although participants included children of various races and ethnicities, and they belonged to several different social circles, they found commonality when they discussed their experiences as minorities in the school. During the first few years, nearly 50 percent of eligible families participated.

Learning from Experience
While working as a Spanish teacher at an independent school in the early 1990s, Zenaida Muslin observed a peculiar phenomenon. Her school would admit intellectually talented students of color, but by the end of the school year, academically, they would fall to the bottom of their classes. She concluded that her school was not prepared to support students who are linguistically, racially, and socioeconomically different from the majority. This realization inspired her first effort to create affinity groups for students of color.

Can a White Teacher Facilitate an Affinity Group of Color?

When Gordon School launched its Common Ground affinity group, there were no teachers of color in the lower school, due to maternity leaves. This presented a dilemma. Could a white teacher facilitate an affinity group for students of color?

After some deliberation, I volunteered to co-lead the affinity group with a fifth grade faculty member of color. My logic was simple: I didn’t think that all diversity work should be on the backs of faculty of color, and I thought it would be beneficial for students in Common Ground to have a white adult ally they could identify with.

Like other affinity group facilitators, I participated in ongoing identity development. I also had some experience leading a white affinity group among interested faculty in my school. I engaged in dialogue and activity on numerous occasions at the White Privilege Conference and took part in a weeklong dialogue at the Social Justice Training Institute.

Six years later, I’m still at it. Common Ground now serves over 70 percent of Gordon’s students of color, who comprise approximately 30 percent of the student body. The program is facilitated by four women — one who is white and two who are faculty members of color.

White teachers who are thinking about leading race-based affinity groups in their schools need to think deeply and ask themselves some difficult questions, such as:

• What do I understand about my racial identity as a white teacher/person?
• How do I feel about issues of race as they relate to children’s school experiences?
• What issues are unresolved around my racial identity?
• How does my racial identity affect the way I relate to my students and colleagues within and outside of my school community?
• How do I help children of color find their voices to express their school experiences?

There is no perfect pathway or map to arrive at the answers to these questions, but it is important that we engage in conversation and collaborate with colleagues, administrators, parents, and board members to think about ways to address, affirm, and support all students around racial identity development. — Julie Parsons

In 2000, Muslin moved to the Bank Street School for Children (New York), where she serves as diversity coordinator. Here, she founded lower school race-based affinity groups that start in first grade and meet once a month for 45 minutes, facilitated by two teachers of color. At the same time that students of color work in their affinity groups, white children also discuss issues of race and identity. A follow-up lesson for the full class takes place during the same week of the affinity group meeting, allowing for cross-racial dialogue. The majority of students of color participate in the affinity groups, which encompass 70 to 80 percent of their student-of-color population.

Muslin describes experiencing “push back” from a handful of parents — primarily white parents, but also from those who have children of color, and from a smaller number of parents of color — but she also notes the value of the program.

“Our families need to be more forward thinking,” says Muslin, “and realize that race continues to be an issue in the 21st century and is a part of our human condition — and that our children need to understand the importance of this fact.”

Several schools have been doing this work for 10 years or more with clear success. Randolph Carter, a diversity consultant and director of the Eastern Educational Resource Collaborative, started a lower school affinity group at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School (Virginia) in 1999. Carter’s group initially started in kindergarten, but he soon felt that second grade was a better starting point, as children of this age could understand the purpose of the group. The program ran from September until May during the lunch period, when he met with students by grade, once weekly. Eventually, the groups morphed into what he described as “multiracial groups,” as students were allowed to bring friends. Carter recognized the need for white children to engage in dialogue about race. He emphasizes, however, that racial affinity groups alone are no substitute for the broad institutional change that needs to take place in schools.

Even after 10 years of diversity and inclusion work at their schools, Elizabeth Denevi of Georgetown Day School (Washington) and Sandra Chapman of the Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School (New York) indicate that they still experience pushback from some parents around the issue of race-based affinity groups, but they also see the clear value for students.

Chapman encourages parents and colleagues to recognize that the white members of their community already spend much of their time surrounded by other white people. “For families of color, the affinity group experience can be profound,” says Chapman. “It creates that safe space inside the school building.”

Both Chapman’s and Denevi’s schools begin affinity work in lower school with informal meetings of children while their parents participate in parents of color meetings. More formal affinity groups for children begin in fifth grade.

Schools considering affinity groups can explore approaches taken by schools in various stages of race-based affinity work by visiting the websites of Shady Hill School (Massachusetts), Friends School in Baltimore (Maryland), The Hamlin School (California), The Village Community School (New York), and The Orchard School (Indiana). Even better, see if you can visit these schools to observe the positive impact of affinity groups on the entire school community.

Where to Begin
Schools interested in launching affinity groups for elementary age students of color can draw from the experiences of those who have been traveling this path now for several years. Although every school may bring unique challenges to the table, this short list of goals can guide educators in their program development.

• Conduct a Racial Climate Assessment to obtain useful data about students’ school experiences.

• Facilitate positive identity exploration, self-awareness, pride, and self-esteem through books, games, discussion, and structured play activities that connect students to each other.

• Provide students with the opportunity to discuss topics of race, identity, and diversity in a safe space that will enable students of color to develop their voice.

• Encourage and develop leadership skills.

• Develop accurate language and vocabulary to describe themselves and others.

• Increase the school’s ability to recruit and retain families and teachers of color.

• The purpose of the affinity group is to provide a majority experience for students regularly who are in the minority at school.

At Gordon, we have also learned to be flexible with regard to each student’s needs and the group’s desires. We want Common Ground to stay dynamic and to be fun. Ours is essentially a play-based program. Our third and fourth grade students receive more formalized programming around race and identity.

Some schools choose to focus on a theme for each season. Fall can be a time for building a sense of group identity and community. Winter weather makes a good time for projects such as scrapbooks, dance, and cooking that provide opportunity for more in-depth identity work. Spring is a good time to focus on closure, on celebrating what you’ve learned.

Every group creates its own traditions, whether it’s celebrating the graduation of our fourth graders into middle school or sharing our goodbyes to our friends moving into new schools. Many resources exist to help facilitators with social and emotional learning activities, including Open Circle (www.open-circle.org); Tribes Learning Community (www.tribes.com), the Roots and Wings Foundation (www.rootsandwingsnj.org), and various education and diversity-related websites.

Past participants are another valuable resource. These middle school mentors can have a profound effect on the developing identity of an elementary school child.

Supporting Adults
As we worked to establish our lower school affinity group at Gordon, we had board approval, and also met with lower school faculty to educate them about the nature of the affinity group structure. We encouraged faculty to connect with the facilitators about the experiences of students of color in the classroom. In addition, we shared strategies with teachers that aid in addressing parents’ concerns and questions about the purpose of the program. We have since learned that it is not a one-shot deal, but that we need to be continuously engaged with school personnel about how to talk about common ground with students and parents. Children will have developmentally appropriate questions and teachers need to respond accordingly. In 2008, Gordon School provided a forum for the school community to learn about Common Ground and voice questions. Voices of dissension were welcomed. In Spring 2012, we will be having a panel discussion about the value of affinity-group programming in elementary school.

Building a Common Language
First graders may not fully understand why they join an affinity group. By third or fourth grade, however, students often can articulate what the affinity group means to them and why it’s important.

This confidence becomes especially important when they feel scrutinized by other students who want to know what they’re “doing in there.” Affinity groups help to reduce the pressure on these children by giving both students and adults in the school community a common language in which to discuss not only the program, but also larger issues of race and diversity. Affinity groups are a present-day Band-Aid for the conditions and experiences children of color are having in predominately white affluent schools. In the larger context, schools must be prepared to examine systemic changes in their institutions to provide a more equitable space for all students. All students — not just students of color — must be engaged in examining and clearly understanding the multiple facets of identity.

Eventually, “positive racial identity development” may become a standard element in the school lexicon, fitting seamlessly along terms like “developmentally appropriate” or “academically rigorous.”

Julie Parsons is a kindergarten teacher and affinity group facilitator at the Gordon School (Rhode Island). Kimberly Ridley is director of diversity and multicultural practice at the Gordon School. The authors wish to thank writer Cindy Elder, a parent of two children at the Gordon School, for her generous assistance in editing this article. For more information about the Gordon School’s affinity groups, visit www.gordonschool.org.

Notes

1. Bigler, Rebecca, 2009. “See Baby Discriminate,” Newsweek, September 2009.

2. Graham, James A., Robert Cohen, Susan M. Zbikowski, and Mary E. Secrist, 1998. “A Longitudinal Investigation of Race and Sex as Factors in Children’s Classroom Friendship Choices,” Child Study Journal, v28, n4, 1998.

3. Arrington, Edith G., Diane M. Hall, Howard C. Stevenson, 2003. “The Success of African-American Students in Independent Schools,” Independent School, Summer 2003.

Teaching Good Study Habits, Minute by Minute

Edutopia

 

Nobody said that raising an adolescent was easy, and schooling one is even more of a challenge! Parents are taking on a lot of school responsibility, and let’s face it — things are different than they used to be. How are parents supposed to know how to handle the homework load without some guidance?

Take studying, for example. If you are a parent of a struggling or resistant learner, you’ve probably heard more than one person suggest, “She just needs to study more.” Most kids think this means filling in a study guide or rereading a chapter. But many don’t learn by writing or reading. Their strengths lie in the visual, kinesthetic, musical, or social realm. How, then, are we to help our children develop their studying skills?

The task does not have to be daunting. In fact, it can actually be simple and effective!

GETTING STARTED

Determine when tests will happen.

Use school websites, email, planners, etc. to help you and your adolescent pinpoint an effective way to get tests on the calendar.

Set a goal.

Work with your student to determine how many days of studying he needs, and make a session-minute goal (one minute per grade level) and a target for him to study twice daily. An eighth-grade student will set the timer for eight minutes each session, a tenth-grade student for ten minutes, and so on.

Determine the study material.

Notes, study guides, worksheets, or quizzes from the chapter or unit are all good choices. Textbooks are easily accessible, but study material from them may be difficult to identify.

Ask and answer.

Have your adolescent ask and answer her own questions, or for those of you with social students, you can join in and ask the questions. If she gets through the material before the time is up, start over!

Do it again.

Set aside the same time increment before bed, and repeat the entire exercise.

If you do the math, a sixth-grade student will study twelve minutes every day for five days, and will have put 60 minutes of no-tears studying into his pocket!

MINUTE-BY-MINUTE STUDY STRATEGIES

But is the question-answer strategy really the best way to study? No single way works for everybody, as each child has a different set of strengths and preferences when it comes to internalizing information. Here are some other ways to use this time (also provided as a downloadable PDF to print for your students):

1. Flashcards

Turn those questions and answers into flashcards and have your adolescent quiz herself. The simple act of flipping the cards around and putting them into piles of “mastered” and “needs practice” may be enough to keep an active kid moving. Some kids are motivated by timing themselves. Flip those flashcards around, have her read the answer, and try to reproduce the question for a bigger challenge.

2. Categorizing

Use the flashcards to organize the information by categories, put them in some kind of order, or match them up in pairs. The idea is to organize them differently each time so that your student can make more than one connection in his brain for the information.

3. Word combining

Language lovers won’t mind creating sentences with vocabulary. If the test is vocabulary-heavy, start by either writing or speaking the sentences with one word in each and then moving to two words, then three, etc.

4. Song lyrics

Ask a musical or rhythmic adolescent to take the lyrics of her favorite song and rewrite it to include as much of the required information she can. This may take multiple sessions to accomplish, but once it’s done, she can sing it over and over again.

5. Picture notes

During the study session, have a more visual adolescent draw pictures of his notes on flashcards, paper, or a whiteboard, and then describe them.

6. Talk-through

Many adolescents are highly social. If yours is, too, have her go through flashcards or a study guide and explain each aspect in as much detail as possible without reading from the printed information.

7. Picture walk

Have him use the visuals provided in the textbook, online text, worksheets, notes, etc. to explain information either out loud or in writing, depending on his preference.

8. Mnemonic devices

Have her rhyme or create sayings to help her remember information. Creating acronyms or sentences with the first letters of words can also be fun for students who like to play with language.

9. Oral visualization

Read a portion of the notes or worksheet and have your student describe what comes to mind visually.

10. Perspective talk

Talk or write about the material, pretending to be somebody or something else.

11. Superhero letter

Have a word-smart adolescent write a letter to a superhero explaining the material and why the information should be important.

Ultimately, studying comes in dozens of forms, and it’s important to help your adolescent figure out what’s going to work for him or her. Whatever her strengths, whatever his level of comfort, start there. Keep it short. Keep it simple. Keep it painless. And watch what happens when studying becomes a familiar routine — and when students see the fruits of their efforts.

The Teenage Brain: Stress, Coping, and Natural Highs

Edutopia

During a workshop that I was facilitating on marijuana and the teen brain, a high school sophomore said to me, “I take Ritalin on weekdays for attention, but go off it on the weekends because that’s when I smoke weed.” I asked him, “Are you saying that you’ve got a mind-altering substance in your brain every day?” He answered with a concerned look, “Do you think I should get off the Ritalin?”

It’s no surprise that young people are taking more psychoactive chemicals for psychological problems, such as poor attention, anxiety, and depression. In many cases, like the student above, they choose to self-medicate in addition to using a prescription drug. In some schools, I’ve been told that as many as 25-40% of their students are on medication for psychological and behavioral problems, and that does not include recreational use. In addition, when I meet with teens as part of my work speaking at schools across the country, the vast majority of them report that they have stress, anxiety, and trouble paying attention in class. Medication can save lives for those with severe and debilitating conditions, but for everyone else, I believe we can do better.

In order to foster a sense of resilience and encourage healthier ways to cope with life, we need to educate young people about natural highs. Over the past decade, neuroscience research has shown that exercise, meditation, positive social support, laughing, and many other factors can elevate mood and improve brain functioning. These activities don’t require putting a chemical into your body, but they do take time and effort to have an impact.

The Teen Brain vs. the Adult Brain

Teenagers have lots of reasons for being more anxious, stressed, and distracted than adults. They deal with high expectations from parents, social pressure from friends, and the constant fear that their smartphone will go dead and totally ruin their life. To make things worse, the teenage brain is generally more anxious than the adult brain. This may be due to the rapid development of the amygdala, a brain structure involved in emotional expression, compared to the slower development of brain areas involved in decision making and reasoning. Also, the teen brain has a larger pleasure center than adults, which means that rewards feel — well, more rewarding. This is particularly true of risks taken in unsupervised settings with their peers. As a result, the teenage brain is a contradiction of epically exhausting proportions, both more anxious and more thrill seeking than its adult counterpart.

Teenage angst is nothing new, but using natural highs to alleviate it might be novel. One of the best-studied natural highs is running or any form of cardio exercise. My wife loves running. She even runs when it snows. I always tell her, “If you get lost, I’m not coming to get you.” When I ask her why she runs, she says, “It makes me feel better, even when I’m tired. It also helps me focus at work.” It turns out that there’s a lot of research backing her up. Thirty minutes of any physical activity that elevates the heart rate helps to release endorphins and improve mood and cognitive functioning. Regular running has also been shown to increase the volume of the hippocampus, the most important brain structure for memory. It doesn’t have to be intense physical activity, either. Taking a walk in the woods has shown benefits for memory, mood, and attention.

In my case, I love meditation, despite having been a skeptic for many years. Meditation has proven to be a powerful stress reliever for me, particularly at night. Students report some of the highest levels of stress during the evening hours when they’re tired but expected to finish homework and fight off distractions. Meditation is like a cell phone charger for the brain. I encourage students to start out with 5-10 minutes in the late afternoon, before dinner, to test it out. The goal is to practice calming the mind. Nodding off is fine, even welcomed. I’ve presented this to students and staff for over a year, and the response has been tremendous. They are in a better mood after the meditation and report experiencing greater productivity that doesn’t interfere with their sleep.

Exploring Your Own Natural High

Whether you love surfing, biking, cooking, or gardening, consider your favorite pursuits as means to your own natural high. Invite young people to experiment with perceiving the activities that make them happy through the lens of a natural high, and then report back to you about how it made them feel. This can be a great bonding experience for the classroom and teach skills for dealing with stress for years to come. Check out yoga and meditation classes in your community — some might even be free. Visit websites such as Inward Bound or Guided Mindfulness Meditation, along with meditation apps that you can download. For the classroom, check out Natural High, an online source of free videos and curriculum for teachers to help youth identify and cultivate their passions.

Does your school have a dialogue with students about recognizing stress and exploring the best means of coping with it? What does that look like? Please share your thoughts in the comments section of this post.