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Study: Strong Engagement Reduces Mistrust and Boosts Success

Is trust the key to student success?

A new study out of the University of Texas at Austin finds that students are less likely to attend college if they feel mistreated by school leaders during middle school, according to UT News.

The study also finds that minority students are much more likely to experience feelings of mistreatment.

This so-called “trust gap” between minority students and their counterparts is, in part, a product of how discipline is approached in schools, the researchers found.

As one of the study’s authors, UT Austin assistant professor, David Yeager told UT News:

“Perceived bias and mistrust reinforce each other. And like a stone rolling down a hill that triggers an avalanche, the loss of trust could accumulate behavioral consequences over time. Seeing and expecting injustice and disrespect, negatively stereotyped ethnic minority adolescents may disengage, defy authorities, underperform and act out.”

Despite these findings, there may be a silver lining. Though preliminary, there is evidence that active engagement from teachers stands to improve the trust deficit reported by minority students.

Let’s dive deeper into the findings to see if there are steps your school or district can take to reduce mistrust among minority students.

The research

The UT Austin study examined school survey responses from 483 middle school students.

Researchers focused on students’ perceptions of how they were treated by teachers and administrators. They then compared student responses with school discipline records and college enrollment information, reports UT News.

While all students became less trusting of authority figures between sixth and eighth grades, African-American and Latino students’ trust dissipated at a quicker rate, UT News notes.

Minority students’ mistrust wasn’t unfounded, researchers said. School records show that African-American middle school students were disciplined more often than their white peers. And, as UT News reports, African-American students were also punished for “defiance” or “disobedience” at nearly three times the rate of their white counterparts.

While this might not be the sole reason for the trust gap, the disparity in discipline contributes to minority students’ feelings of mistrust. These feelings often pit these students in a self-fulfilling prophecy of disengagement and bad behavior, Yeager told UT News.

Regaining student trust

If you’re looking to improve trust with your students, it might be time to take a hard look at your discipline strategies.

How do students, especially minority students, perceive your disciplinary practices? How big is the trust gap in your schools? If you don’t know the answer, you need to start having these conversations with students and staff.

The research also gives school leaders a few ideas about how to tackle the trust gap.

As UT News reports, during the study researchers did a small experiment on 88 students. Teachers gave half the students feedback on an essay draft with a note that said: “I’m giving you this note because I have high expectations, and I know you can reach them.”

While white students’ trust in their teachers remained unchanged after receiving the note, African-American students who received the note had less discipline issues in the following school year. African-Americans who received the note were also more likely to enroll in a university, UT News notes.

While this study represents only a small subset of students, the findings suggest that even a simple acknowledgement from teachers can go a long way toward changing students’ perceptions and outcomes.

What steps are you taking to close the trust gap in your schools? Tell us in the comments.

Want more on inspiring self-worth in your students? Read National superintendent of the year: ‘Engage every student.’