Lessons learned in kindergarten

Two nurse practitioner graduate students at the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing at UC Davis discuss their professional and personal connection to their research on implicit bias in kindergarten.

According to the National Education Association, kindergarten is the bridge between early childhood care and elementary school. But research suggests it may also be fertile ground for implicit bias that unfairly targets African-American boys and feeds America’s school-to-prison pipeline. The problem prompted two nurse practitioner graduate students at the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing at UC Davis to relive personal experiences with enhanced perspective as researchers.

Implicit bias, as defined by the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect one’s understanding, actions and decisions in an unconscious manner. Existing research insinuates that implicit racial bias may influence a teacher’s expectations for academic success and how a teacher disciplines non-Caucasian children differently.

“We focused on kindergarten for our research because, as mothers of African-American boys, both of us have experienced implicit bias with our sons,” said Arnecia Lewis-Smith, a dialysis nurse and mother of a 16-year-old son. “When the research demonstrated how these attitudes affect health in the long-term, we knew we must address the problem.”

“I thought it was bad from a mother’s perspective, as I recognized how teachers treated children of different races differently, but the school-to-prison pipeline research blew me away,” added Gloretha Wilcots, a community-health nurse and mother of 5-year-old son. “Seemingly little things, such as disciplining African-American boys faster and having lower expectations of these students, all contribute to their imprisonment at a rate six times that of Caucasians.”

For their master’s-degree scholarly project, Lewis-Smith and Wilcots looked at implicit bias and racial discrimination as a public-health issue and its long-term implications on children and adults in terms of education and the criminal justice system. After an extensive literature review, they narrowed down the research into five categories: implicit bias, racial disparities in education, impact of negative stereotypes, implementation strategies and teacher training. They interviewed an early childhood educator at Head Start, their academic adviser and a current kindergarten teacher.

“This teacher felt confident at the beginning of the school year about her cultural awareness and the atmosphere in her classroom, but an incident in December on the playground changed that perception,” Wilcots explained. “A 5-year-old girl told an African-American classmate that she would not play with him because he is ‘brown.’ It was a humbling moment for the teacher and pointed out how the problem exists, even when we’re not aware of it.”

Confronting implicit biasNurse practitioner students Arnecia Lewis-Smith, left, and Gloretha Wilcots examined the problem of implicit bias for their scholarly project at the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing at UC Davis.

Using reputable internet sites, recommendations from literature and personal experiences, the nurses developed an educational tool to assist in decreasing implicit bias toward African-American boys by kindergarten teachers. The five-day module features videos, vignettes, journaling activities and information intended to highlight manifestations of implicit bias and resources to address it.

Jann Murray-García, an assistant adjunct professor at the School of Nursing and co-developer of the concept of Cultural Humility, said the research and this project underscore the need for health practitioners to understand the increased needs of marginalized children.

“The work of these students on implicit bias is critically needed in California, the nation's largest and most diverse state,” Murray-Garcia said. “Pediatric providers need to understand that children from socially marginalized groups have extra developmental tasks they have to master to achieve healthy identities. Parents should be assured of classrooms and playgrounds that are emotionally safe arenas for their children's development, especially since children are legally mandated to be in school for over half their waking hours.”

“Our goal is to increase self-awareness and equip teachers with a tool that will assist in their interactions with children of other races,” Lewis-Smith said. “The stage is set in kindergarten. If African-American boys suffer from repeated biases, they feel they no longer matter. As a health care provider, I want society to recognize and change the bias, so limits of achievement are not put on people because of their skin color.”

Both students expect to graduate in summer 2016 from the Master of Science ― Nurse Practitioner Degree Program with advanced nursing skills and newfound knowledge that extends beyond the clinical environment.

“I felt limited in my ability to address patient health issues and wanted to expand my knowledge,” Lewis-Smith said. “The School of Nursing encouraged me to examine the underlying causes of problems and has given me the tools to make a difference.”

“UC Davis instilled in me the ideas of being a teacher and a life-long learner,” Wilcots added. “This education connected me to the community and showed me I can be a change agent. It’s an awesome feeling.”