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When the Classroom Feels Hostile

How stigma, stereotype, and labels can affect kids with learning disabilities
When the Classroom Feels Hostile

Stereotype threat — the fear of being judged on the basis of negative stereotypes, and the fear of doing something that would confirm those stereotypes — is insidious. It’s a cyclical, self-fulfilling phenomenon, where members of stereotyped groups can feel so much pressure (consciously or not) from the weight of those fears that it inhibits their performance. Studies have demonstrated the effects of stereotype threat on everything from academic performance to athletic competition.

When it comes to education, stereotype threat and social-emotional distress can significantly hamper a student’s ability to learn. Gabrielle Rappolt-Schlichtmann, Ed.M.'00, Ed.D.’07, an HGSE adjunct lecturer, is studying how stereotype threat affects students labeled with disabilities, and what educators can to do help.

Usable Knowledge asked Schlichtmann, a co-president of the educational nonprofit CAST, to describe her work.

You’re looking at stereotypes around disability — tell us about that work.
My work at CAST is focused on Universal Design for Learning. It’s really about: How can we design learning experiences that are flexible enough to work for everybody?

My colleague Samantha Daley [Ed.M.'05, Ed.D.'10] and I have two current projects funded by the National Science Foundation focused on understanding stigma and stereotype threat in the classroom. Our projects are the first to look at disability, stigma, and stereotype threat as it affects students in math and science.

We’ve been focused on creating and validating a measure that can be used to quantify kids’ experiences of stigmatization and then look at how that relates to their performance in math. We are also exploring design approaches that teachers can use to reduce stigmatization in schools.

What are you finding out about kids’ experiences?
We see many students with learning-related disabilities reporting significant feelings of stigmatization. In our experiment, students are assigned to take a math test. In one case, students are asked to reveal their learning disability on a demographic form, in the other they are not. The stress of identifying brings their disability to the front of their minds and significantly affects their ability to perform on the test.

Data collection is not yet complete, but early results indicate that stereotype threat is present and substantially affects student performances in math. The results are quite amazing when you consider that we are seeing the same students underperform on a math test — nearly 15 percent lower — in response to a very small manipulation. It will be interesting to see if this finding holds once data collection is complete, but these findings are consistent with the larger stereotype threat research literature.

Gabrielle Rappolt-SchlictmannWhat age group are you working with? Can you see a difference between what stereotype threat looks like in a kindergartener versus someone in high school?
Our work is focused on the transition between middle school and high school. It’s that sweet spot between 8th grade and 10th grade. We focused there because in the larger research literature on stereotype threat, that is the age at which it really emerges in a strong way and takes hold and affects kids’ performances. Kids’ consciousness of stigma strongly emerges as they begin to develop their sense of identity.

What can educators can do to recognize and help students overcome these social-emotional threats?
Teachers can make a huge difference. A big key to mitigating students’ feelings of stigma is really in that relationship between teacher and student. So much of the time, as we progress up the grades, there’s less focus on teachers developing a close interpersonal relationship with the kids in their classroom. Yet having a close and supportive relationship with a teacher can make all the difference for a student who feels undervalued or stigmatized.

As a first step, I think teachers can begin to ask kids what they think, how they feel, or what they’re experiencing in class. It’s a really powerful concept — ask them. As you’re developing relationships with your students and focusing on that as part of your teaching, ask: How is this going for you? How could I make this work better for you? Ask specific questions and then make changes they can see; then ask again.

You gain understanding by asking kids, but you also create a culture where kids feel valued. Sometimes the threat piece comes out when kids make assumptions about how a teacher might be biased against them because of prior experiences. If the relationship is strong and open, those assumptions don’t come into play as much.

The way teachers give feedback is really important too. Valerie Purdie-Vaughns at Columbia University is doing some really important work. She has shown that giving substantive, critical feedback (“I am giving you this feedback because I know you are capable and can improve.”) rather than sugar coating has a large impact on reducing students’ feelings of stigma and significantly improves engagement and performance.

Have you discovered anything about the role parents play? What can parents do at home or working with teachers to help students?
With regard to our work around stigmatization, I think parents can make a huge difference as to how children understand what having the learning disability label means. Really, there are two parts to having a label associated with your identity:

  • How do you understand that label for yourself? What meaning do you give it to your identity?
  • What do you feel the outside community perceives about that label?

The worst-case scenario is when students feel bad about themselves or believe that they have less worth because they have a disability label and they perceive that the culture devalues them as a result of that label.

If the school environment in the inclusive classroom setting were universally designed, then kids could have the intensive instruction that they need without having their label be negatively valued or be the reason they are pulled out of the classroom.

What does this mean for policymakers? Are there structural things that could change?
I’m on the Professional Advisory Board for the National Center for Learning Disabilities, and we often talk about how it’s so important for kids to get diagnosed and get their labels so that they can get access to services. But, there are many unintended consequences associated with giving kids labels. By creating a label that peers may negatively value, and then separating kids for services, we essentially create the conditions necessary for stigmatization.

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Do you have any advice for students who feel these stereotype threats? What can they do for themselves to overcome that hurdle?
One of the reasons that I do this work is that I’m dyslexic and I experienced stigmatization and stereotype threat all the way through school. Reflecting back on it, I think having a label changed how other people perceived my ability to be successful in school. So, I would say from my personal experience: You are not alone; you are not broken; you can be successful.

There are organizations that are specifically geared towards connecting people with others who have had similar experiences, so that they can try to better understand how that stigmatized label relates to their identity in different ways. I know for me, when I was in college, becoming active in being a tutor and giving back and helping other kids like me who were coming up through the system was huge.

Are there any resources that you would recommend people look at if they want to know more about social-emotional learning or stereotype threat?
Sure. Eye-to-Eye is a great program that pairs middle school students with learning and attention issues to college students who have similar issues and have been successful. is a great website. It’s a little bit technical, but it is framed for educators who want to be better informed. They provide lots of good, evidence-based ideas on the section of the site titled: “What can be done to reduce stereotype threat?” And of course, we are happy to answer questions about our work and love to collaborate with teachers in the field!



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