Minority students who feel they are treated unfairly by school staff are less likely to attend college – even if they get good grades. What causes this trust gap and how can we fix it?

New research from The University of Texas at Austin, published in the journal Child Development, found that many African-American and Hispanic teens perceive that discipline is doled out differently to them. They develop a distrust for authority figures at school upon feeling these biases, harming their chances of attending college later. This is called the trust gap, and it can be incredibly detrimental to minority students.

“When students have lost trust, they may be deprived of the benefits of engaging with an institution, such as positive relationships and access to resources and opportunities for advancement,” said UT Austin assistant professor of psychology David Yeager. “Thus, minority youth may be twice harmed by institutional injustices.”

trust gapThe researchers examined 483 students’ perceptions of their teachers’ fairness through middle and high school. The trust gap was calculated based on how students agreed with statements such as “I am treated fairly by my teachers and other adults at my school.”

Results showed that trust decreased for all students during seventh grade but declined faster for minority students than for their white peers. In addition, black and Latino students were more likely to be cited for behavior infractions in eighth grade, even if they had never been in trouble before and received good grades.

Furthermore, minorities students who reported a decrease in trust during these years were less likely to make it to a four-year college after high school.

So how can we close the trust gap in classrooms and schools?

1. Use “wise feedback”

The researchers tested a method designed to narrow the trust gap using notes written on students’ essays. While some students received a note that read, “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper,” others received one that stated, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations, and I know that you can reach them.”

Black students who received the second rendition of the note were greatly influenced by it, improving greatly on revisions of the essay and being 30 percent more likely to be enrolled in college six years later.

2. Let all students know they are respected and uniquely gifted

trust gapIf a student feels as though their instructor has high expectations of them, they are more likely to rise to meet them. Hold everyone accountable to the same standards, but take time to point out each student’s unique strengths. Recognize students’ achievements and express your disappointment when they act out and receive disciplinary action.

Keep reinforcing to each student that you know they are capable of meeting your expectations, both academically and behaviorally.

3. View disciplinary issues as learning opportunities

One contributing factor to the trust gap is how behavioral issues are handled. The next time a student receives detention or some other consequence for poor behavior, don’t simply hand out the punishment. Instead, find an appropriate time to talk to the student about what they did to receive the disciplinary action. Understanding what they did – and discussing how to avoid it in the future – will help them realize that they weren’t being singled out or punished unfairly. It will also let the student know that you care and want them to succeed, which can really help to narrow the trust gap.

Closing the trust gap is no easy task, but it is vital in ensuring all students have a fair chance at achieving their highest potential. Sometimes all it takes is an encouraging word to help a student understand that teachers are their allies, not their enemies.

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