A researcher at the University of Maryland develops software that reduces bias and bias in children

A researcher at the University of Maryland is developing software to reduce bias in children

For more than two decades, Melanie Killen, professor of human development and quantitative methodology at the University of Maryland College of Education, has studied child development, researching topics such as social and moral reasoning, intergroup relationships, and the origins of bias.

“Research shows that experiences of bias and bias negatively affect children’s motivation to go to school. The social inequalities that result from these experiences have a long-term detrimental effect on children and we want to help correct this.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, K-12 schools are the most frequently cited locations for bias-related discrimination and harassment. In an effort to reduce bias in and out of the classroom, Killen and her team created Inclusive Youth Development (DIY), an interactive classroom program designed to foster positive friendships between groups and reduce bias, funded in part by the National Science Foundation.

“Children use group membership, like gender and ethnicity, as an indicator of differences. But when they are made aware of shared interests and shared values, those interests take priority when it comes to friendships. Having the opportunity to discuss these issues in a safe environment can make a positive difference,” Killeen said. .

For children ages 8-11, the DIY program’s web-based curriculum tool provides examples of exclusive, inclusive peer encounters over the course of eight weeks. The characters in the examples vary in gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and immigrant status. Children watch and respond to simulations, and note the results of their decisions. After the exercise, a specially trained teacher engages the students in an in-class discussion that helps them reflect on their thoughts and feelings about the scenarios. Children also talk about whether they have experienced situations similar to what they observed. This provides an opportunity to learn from peers about what exclusion is like, particularly when the reason is based on group identity.

In 2018 and 2019, Killen conducted an evaluation to determine whether the DIY program changed children’s expectations of others and their desire to play with their diverse peers. Conducted in a large, ethnically diverse public school district in Maryland, it involved 983 third- to fifth-grade students. Half of them took the DIY program and the other half followed their usual curriculum. Before and after the program, children from both groups took a survey designed to measure bias and attitudinal changes.

a Recently published article in Child growth, sum up the positive results. Kellen and her team found that children in the program were more likely to: 1) view the exclusion of interracial and same-race peers as wrong, 2) associate positive traits with peers from different racial, ethnic, and sexual backgrounds, and 3) expect such diversity. Peers were good at math and science, and 4) reported wanting to play with peers from a variety of backgrounds—more so than children in the control group.

With a grant from the National Institutes of Health, Kellen and her colleagues are currently conducting a new study in public schools to closely examine the types of conversations children have during class discussions, how teachers can benefit from their participation, and how children of different sexual, racial, and ethnic backgrounds can experience the program. In addition, the team plans to implement the program in several school districts in the United States to focus on social exclusion from childhood STEM-related activities.

Of her ultimate goal, Killeen said, “I want people to know that children have the ability to learn about concepts of justice, fairness, and inclusion from each other, and that through guidance and support, schools can be a source of positive change.”

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