NIH Awards UMD $1.67M for Research on Reducing Bias and Promoting Diverse Friendships in Childhood

By: Audrey Hill, University of Maryland

COLLEGE PARK, MD—A $1.67 million grant from the National Institutes of Health will support University of Maryland College of Education research that promotes children’s friendships across different backgrounds and aims to reduce prejudice in childhood.  

The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development award will fund research to evaluate the effectiveness of a classroom program comparing whether participants hold fewer gender, racial and ethnic stereotypes, more cross-group friendships and a greater sense of school belonging than children in the control group. 

The four-year study will address issues of equity, fairness and mutual respect in peer relationships, and aims to foster positive classroom environments that stimulate academic learning and achievement in schools, with inclusivity among children playing a key role.

“This is a very timely issue right now in our culture and country,” said Melanie Killen, a professor in the Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology and the project lead. “There are tensions and crises about inclusion and exclusion based on race, ethnicity and immigrant status, to name a few. Stereotypes are deeply entrenched by adulthood. The time for intervention is in childhood.”

Previous research has shown that social segregation has long-term detrimental effects on children’s physical, emotional and academic development. The “Developing Inclusive Youth” project, which includes Tracy Sweet, associate professor in the Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology, is rooted in a three-year study funded by the National Science Foundation and led by Killen and Laura Stapleton, professor and associate dean of the college.

The research team’s in-classroom intervention program has students in grades 3–5 view a series of online, animated scenarios about peer social encounters. The first session, for instance, involves characters deciding whether to include a “new kid” in playing at recess; other scenarios include social interactions at a birthday party or in a science classroom that involve exclusion based on gender, race, ethnicity, immigrant status and wealth status.

Students are then asked to assess how they think the characters in the scenarios feel, evaluate decisions of peer inclusion or exclusion, and choose how they think the characters should react in the situation. Teachers, trained by the researchers, then facilitate classroom discussion about inclusivity based on the animated scenario. The discussion often results in students relating the scenario to real-life situations, Killen said.

“The science scenario, where a girl is excluded from a group project, came up in the classroom discussion and led one girl to tell the others that it was similar to when she wasn’t allowed to play soccer with the boys at recess. The boys said, ‘We didn’t know you wanted to play,’ and then publicly stated [in the classroom] that they’re going to help her. That’s a way to change norms and expectations,” she said.

The NIH grant will expand the “Developing Inclusive Youth” project beyond the feasibility study of 400 students in Montgomery County, Maryland, to additional schools in its public school system; the project has received interest from school systems in other states and countries as well. 


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