In the study, children in classrooms whose teachers used students' shirt colors to label and organize them were more likely to form stereotypes about children wearing a different color shirt.
Authority figures should refrain from using group membership to label or organize children into social groups, (e.g., saying "good morning boys and girls or requesting children to sit boy-girl) as this can have the effect of encouraging the development of social stereotypes, says lead author Rebecca S. Bigler, of the department of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.
The study is published in the August issue of Child Development.
In a controlled experiment, 91 elementary-age children were randomly divided into two groups based on the color shirt they had to wear while attending a summer school program. Half the students wore yellow shirts and half wore blue.
The children were then divided into three subgroups. In one group, the students attended classrooms decorated with posters depicting children and adults in yellow shirts as being more successful, such as winning spelling bees or excelling at sports. Their teachers, however, ignored the difference in shirt colors.
In the second group, the children attended classes decorated with the posters and had teachers who reinforced the formation of a group identity based on shirt color. For example, teachers had students wearing yellow shirts wait in one line, while blue-shirted children stood in a separate area.
A third group of students had teachers who similarly encouraged children to identify with classmates who wore the same color shirts, but the students were not exposed to posters espousing one group as being more successful than the other.
"The high- versus low-status manipulation affected children's intergroup attitudes when social groups were used in a functional manner by authority figures in the environment," she says.
According to this study, indirect suggestions of group differences, such as posters, did not have an effect on students' perceptions when teachers ignored the color grouping.
"The failure of children to develop intergroup biases in this condition is important because it suggests that children will not necessarily form stereotypes for which there is some basis in the environment," says Bigler.
However, the children were more likely to form stereotypical beliefs that students wearing a certain color clothing were inferior if they themselves belonged to the more "successful" group and their teachers frequently made use of the color groups in the classroom.
These findings "provide clues about the development of social stereotyping in actual social groups," says Bigler.
Child Development is the bimonthly peer-reviewed journal of the Society for Research in Child Development. For information about the journal, contact Jonathan J. Aiken at 734-998-7310. For copies of the article, contact the Center for the Advancement of Health at 202-387-2829 or e-mail email@example.com.
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