Stereotype Threat

1) Don’t Tell Kids They’re Smart

Dr. Carol Dweck has strong opinions about how to approach students:

Dweck and her collaborators have demonstrated that praising children for their intelligence can backfire. When young people’s sense of self-worth is bound up in the idea that they are smart—a quality they come to understand as a genetic blessing from the sky—at least three bad things can happen. Some students become lazy, figuring that their smarts will bail them out in a pinch. Others conclude that the people who praise their intelligence are simply wrong, and decide that it isn’t worth investing effort in homework. Still others might care intensely about school but withdraw from difficult tasks or tie themselves in knots of perfectionism.

In other words, instead of praising a child’s accomplishments by saying, “you’re so smart!” go with “you work so hard!” or “you’re so creative!” or “you stuck with that all the way to the end!” Focus on effort.

How often have you heard—or you have lamented yourself—something along the lines of “I’m just not good at X” or “my brain just doesn’t work that way” when you encounter a difficult subject? That’s stereotype threat, a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Ethnically Stereotyped Stickers

“He’s Got the Whole World (of ethnically stereotyped stickers) in His Hand(s),” available under a Creative Commons license for Claire Woods,

2) Black Students and Stereotyping

According to Dr. Claude Steele, stereotype threat is “the threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype, or the fear of doing something that would inadvertently confirm that stereotype. Everyone experiences stereotype threat.”

Steele has done studies where a difficult exam, like the GRE for graduate school admissions, is presented as a test of mental ability to both white and black college students (carefully selected to be of equal academic skill). When this simple comment is made, black students underperform white ones substantially. When the same test is administered but students are told “the task did not measure a person’s level of intellectual ability,” students of both races do well. What’s more, when a math test is given and the group is told that their Asian classmates generally shine, white students, who typically would not feel any stereotype threat, bomb the assessment.

What’s the take away?

Tell ALL students they are capable of hard work, imagination, and persistence–“smart” doesn’t matter nearly as much as “tenacious.” Don’t stereotype any sex, gender, race, religion, etc. as likely to do better or worse on any assignment.

BELIEVE these things, too. Kids can tell when we’re just going through the motions.

Works Cited

Glenn, David. “Carol Dweck’s Attitude.” The Chronicle Review. The Chronicle of Higeher Education, 9 May 2010. Web. 3 Oct. 2011. <>.

Steele, Claude. “Thin Ice: Stereotype Threat and Black College Students.” The Atlantic Aug. 1999. The Atlantic Monthly Group. Web. 3 Oct. 2011 <>.


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