University of Maryland Researcher Develops Program that Reduces Bias in Children

Diverse group of 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 prejudice.

“Research shows that experiences of prejudice and bias negatively affect children’s motivation to attend school. The social inequalities that result from these experiences have a detrimental long-term impact on children and we want to help correct this,” Killen explained.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, K–12 schools are the most cited locations for discrimination and bias-related harassment. Seeking to reduce prejudice in and out of the classroom, Killen and her team created Developing Inclusive Youth (DIY), an interactive in-classroom program designed to promote positive intergroup friendships and reduce bias, funded, in part, by the National Science Foundation.

“Children use group membership, such as gender and ethnicity, as a cue for differences. But when they are made aware of common interests and shared values, these interests take priority when it comes to friendships. Having an opportunity to discuss these issues in a safe environment has the potential to create positive change,” Killen said.

For children 8 to 11 years old, the web-based curriculum tool in the DIY program provides examples of exclusive and inclusive peer encounters over eight weeks.The characters in the examples are diverse in gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and immigrant status. Children watch and respond to the simulations, observing the outcomes of their decisions. After the exercise, a specially trained teacher engages students in a classroom discussion that helps them reflect on their own 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 their peers about what it’s like to be excluded, 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 about others and their desire to play with diverse peers. Conducted in a large, ethnically diverse public school district in Maryland, 983 3rd-5th grade students participated. Half received the DIY program and the other half followed their regular curriculum. Prior to, and following, the program, children from both groups took a survey designed to measure bias and attitude changes.

A newly published article in Child Development, outlined the positive results. Killen and her team found that children in the program were more likely to: 1) view interracial and same-race peer exclusion as wrong, 2) associate positive attributes to peers from different racial, ethnic, and gender backgrounds, 3) expect that diverse peers were good at math and science, and 4) report a desire to play with peers from diverse backgrounds--- than were children in the control group.

With a grant from the National Institutes of Health, Killen and her colleagues are currently conducting a new study in public schools to more closely examine the types of conversations children have during the classroom discussions, how teachers may benefit from their participation, and how children from different gender, ethnic, and racial backgrounds experience the program. Additionally, the team plans to implement the program in multiple school districts in the U.S. to focus on social exclusion from STEM-related activities in childhood.

Of her ultimate goal, Killen said, “I want people to know that children have the capacity to learn about concepts of justice, fairness, and inclusion from one another, and that with guidance and support, schools can be a source for positive change.”