Implicit Bias in Early Education and What it Means for Children and Teachers

A recent post by Kaiser and Rasminsky on children with challenging behavior examined the issue of implicit bias, and its role in the suspension, expulsion, and other potentially unfair treatment of very young children. We wanted to dig a little deeper. What is implicit bias? Why does it matter? What can we do to address it?

The Kirwan Institute describes implicit bias as the “attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.” With such a broad definition, it is easy to understand that implicit biases affect us all—including young children—whether we are conscious of them or not. (You can test yourself for implicit bias here.) While evidence for implicit bias has been shown across the judicial, criminal justice, and health fields (among others), this brief post focuses on implicit bias in early education. It is particularly important because it stands to substantially impact children’s lifespan outcomes, and may play a role in shaping their own development of biases, both implicit and explicit. We present below a few studies, selected from a broad and growing body of literature on implicit bias in education, that may help us better understand what it means, which students may be most impacted by it, and what factors (e.g., teacher race) may influence implicit bias. 

Because this content only scratches the surface of the complex and intertwined issues of implicit bias, explicit bias, and social determinants of health and related outcomes (see, for example, disparities in preschool suspension), we encourage you to explore the resources listed at the bottom of the page and continue to learn about how implicit bias affects young children’s educational experiences.

In a seminal study in 1968, Rosenthal and Jacobson told elementary school teachers that a random set of students they had selected were likely to show significant intellectual gains. These students--although no different from their peers at the outset--showed significantly greater gains on test scores, particularly the students in grades one and two. This study was one of the first to suggest that teacher expectations influence student outcomes.  

A 2015 nationally representative survey by Gershenson, Holt, and Papageorge, collected data on teachers’ expectations for their students’ future success. The authors looked at pairs of teachers who provided their expectations for the same student, and looked at differences in expectations based on the interaction between teachers’ and students’ races. Nonblack teachers had significantly lower expectations for black students than did black teachers.

In 2016, Gilliam, Maupin, Reyes, Accavitti, and Shic, conducted two tests to assess biases in early care and education teachers. In the first test, teachers were told to expect challenging behaviors (although none were present), and then viewed a video of mixed race and sex preschoolers engaged in normal activities; teachers’ eye movements were tracked as they watched the video. Teachers gazed longer at boys than girls, especially black boys. In the second test, teachers read vignettes about a child with challenging behavior--you can read more about that in the study itself. Articles in The Atlantic, and YaleNews, and on NPR were among many reporting on the study—it is shocking to think about children as young as preschoolers facing bias, and considering the implications for their long-term school and life outcomes as a result.

There are some potential policies that may help to mitigate racial biases in ECE, according to a paper from the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, including: 

  • Using data to identify disparate treatment based on student demographic features, and employing data-informed decision making processes to limit judgment calls for issues such as discipline and class placement;

  • Creating school cultures that are culturally representative and do not perpetuate stereotypes such as male-math associations; Hiring a diverse staff that reflects the experiences of the student body;

  • Providing professional development around implicit biases and cultural competencies;

  • Discussing race and bias with young students by using story-telling or perspective-sharing activities; Using representative classroom artwork and materials to include students of various backgrounds in varied roles and activities;

  • Providing clear definitions of appropriate and inappropriate behaviors and standardizing evaluation and punitive processes to reduce the influence of personal biases.

In their blog, Kaiser and Rasminsky suggest more personal practices that teachers and providers can adopt:

  • “It’s extremely important to build strong relationships with all the children we teach and use every interaction to show how much we care about them and believe in their ability to succeed. Little things mean a lot, for example, saying their names correctly. Mispronouncing or changing a child’s name insults the child, the family, and their culture and can have a lasting effect on a child’s self-image and world view.

  • Get to know the children’s families and learn about their lives and culture, paying special attention to those whose beliefs and experiences are different from yours. Head Start has shown us that family involvement and home-school collaboration improve children’s behavior at school. Home visits open doors, both literally and figuratively.

  • Make a point of connecting with people who are different from you. This can be hard because many of our neighborhoods are segregated, so use your ingenuity. Invite guest speakers into your classroom, attend a service at an unfamiliar church, or follow the example of Justin Minkel, 2007 Arkansas Teacher of the Year, and arrange a meet-up for families in a park or playground.”

Additional resources include:

Physical Activity and Nutrition Practices in Early Childhood Programs in Philadelphia

Good nutrition, physical activity and smoke-free living from the start are the foundation for long term health. It is clear that the impact of healthy environments in the earliest years of a child’s life have ongoing implications for their health and achievement throughout their lives.  Since many children spend time in care outside the home, it is important to understand what their nutrition and activity experiences are like in care. Along with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health’s Get Healthy Philly (GHP), The Health Promotion Council (HPC), Public Health Management Corporation’s Research & Evaluation Group are looking into nutrition and physical activity practices of programs serving young children (from birth to age 5) in the city. They have started by distributing surveys to more than 600 childcare providers, to understand more about their practices related to nutrition breastfeeding, and physical activity. 

This will be a first look at the nutrition and physical environment for the early childcare population in Philadelphia. Informing this work is the Nutrition and Physical Activity Self-Assessment for Child Care, GO NAP SACC.  GO NAP SACC works to identify and encourage best practices around nutrition and fitness for young children, and provides professional development and technical assistance to programs to support them in implementing those practices.

 Nutrition-related questions on the survey include topics such as whether snacks and meals are provided for students, what those snack or meals might include, activities supporting mothers in breastfeeding, use of food vendors, availability and quality of kitchen resources and other elements of early childhood well-being. The physical activity questions include some about screen time for children, as well as several about time and space allocated for indoor and outdoor physical play activities. 

There also asks about existing program policies, education, and professional development for staff related to nutrition and activity issues; funding sources; licensing; and accreditations/affiliations, including enrollment in Keystone STARS, or PHLpreK.

Results of the survey will provide baseline information about what licensed providers (of all ranges of quality care) are doing currently. That knowledge will indicate whether there are steps city agencies can take to provide education or other supports for physical activity or healthy nutrition practices to local providers. 

If you are a licensed Philadelphia-based provider of early childhood services for children ages 0 to 5, you may have received an online or hard copy survey to complete. If you did, please respond to the survey until February 15th. If you have not, but would like to share your information, please email

More resources, including Physical Activity Patterns of Inner-city Elementary School Children, and a Data Brief on obesity among Philly schools children, are available on the Get Healthy Philly website. Resources are also available on the HPC website, and at NAP SACC.


Homelessness in Early Childhood in Philadelphia

Homelessness is a serious and unfortunately common challenge impacting thousands of children and youth in Pennsylvania. In Philadelphia alone, there were 5,761 public school-enrolled students who experienced homelessness in school year (SY) 2014-2015, of whom 1,590 were under age five/in pre-K. 


While children and youth of all ages who experience homelessness are at significantly higher risk for physical, mental, and behavioral health diagnoses compared to their stably housed peers, young children are particularly vulnerable. Early care and education (ECE) stands to play a critical role in buffering these children from the risks associated with homelessness, yet only 49 of the 1,146 (4.28%) Philadelphia children who were age eligible received pre-K services in SY 2014-2015. No data is available for children 0-3.

It is incumbent upon the City of Philadelphia, as well as other agencies involved in the provision and financing of ECE, such as Early Head Start, Head Start, and the Office of Child Development and Early Learning, to expand and prioritize funding to serve these highest-risk children. The City of Philadelphia has ample opportunity to incorporate effective policies as it continues to refine and implement its new pre-K program, PHLpreK; proactive steps might including prioritizing children experiencing homelessness, as well as targeting outreach to identify and enroll age-eligible children in high-prevalence locations, such as at shelters and in low-income, minority-majority neighborhoods.

Going forward, relevant agencies need to better address homelessness among young children through expanded identification efforts, and by reporting data that specifically describes the features of young child homelessness in Pennsylvania. Reporting age/grade categories at the school district level would represent a significant improvement; for larger school districts, such as those in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, data should be disaggregated to the individual school level, with appropriate safeguards to protect individuals’ confidentiality. This would allow for more accurate allocations of support and prevention resources; for example, PHLpreK could prioritize service providers located in high-burden neighborhoods. Since many young children experience homelessness prior to entering the public school system, alternate identification and reporting processes are needed to best serve these children. The Commonwealth’s Education for Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness (ECYEH) program facilitates identification and services across the eight regions of the Commonwealth, and reports on regional-level homelessness. While ECYEH reports on children enrolled in public pre-K, it does not report on ECE services for children who are too young for pre-K. Additional funding would support ECYEH in better identifying and serving young children who have yet to enter the public education system, and could increase the number of age-eligible children experiencing homelessness who are enrolled in high quality ECE. 

For more information on student homelessness in Pennsylvania, see “Student Homelessness in Pennsylvania—School Year 2014-2015.” For information on early childhood homelessness and ECE, see “Best Practices in Early Care and Education for Young Children Experiencing Homelessness”—coming soon. Other high-quality resources include the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) and the National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE). 

Source: Pennsylvania Department of Education. Pennsylvania’s Education for Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness Program: 2014-15 State Evaluation Report. 2016;

Available from:

Read more about school-age children here


Transitions . . .

On this day of transition, it seemed a good time to look at where we’ve come over the past few years in terms of early childhood education, and what we might expect in the future. Close to home, Philadelphia launched its new public preschool program, PHLpreK, earlier this month, adding 2,000 high-quality, free slots for 3- and 4-year-olds.

 Nationally, there have been changes too. The Brookings Institution discusses a range of research reports and findings from 2016 in an op-ed entitled Early Childhood Investments Are Vital. From NPR this month, we hear that child care is hard to find and expensive, which has profound (and detrimental) implications for working families. The incoming administration is apparently already meeting to address the issue, considering child care and maternity leave policies. 

US News & World Report summarized the Obama’s Early Childhood Education Legacy, noting: 

“The legacy starts early, with an infusion of funding for early childhood programs in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. When the administration took office in early 2009, the economic crisis had decimated many state budgets, imperiling child care and preschool funding for hundreds of thousands of children. The stimulus provided $2 billion over two years for the Child Care and Development Fund, supplementing child care funding to preserve access as states experienced fiscal challenges. It also provided $2 billion over two years in additional Head Start funding, roughly half of which was used to expand access to Early Head Start programs for infants and toddlers.”

The First Five Years Fund has outlined Obama’s Top 10 Early Childhood Achievements, including the “Invest in US challenge, which has resulted in over $340 million in new private funding to support early childhood education.” Also included are the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program (MIECHV) program, the Race to the Top—Early Learning Challenge grants, and the Preschool Development Grant program.

In the past month, the Department of Education has funded several Pay for Success Early Learning Feasibility Pilots in California, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, and South Carolina. “These feasibility studies will help the communities determine what outcomes they're looking for, identify what interventions are most likely to lead to those outcomes, and identify stakeholders who would be willing to participate in such a program.”

A comprehensive report from the Department of Education examines past progress, but emphasizes work remaining to be done, noting that “investments in early learning are not meeting the needs of families across the nation and many eligible families are not receiving services.” The report highlights “that only eight programs have the primary purpose of promoting early learning for children from birth to age six:


These programs receive significantly less funding than is necessary to fully support all income-eligible children who need them.

CLASP developed a fact sheet on the Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG), outlining declining numbers of child care supporters receiving CCDBG funds. The fact sheet discusses changing circumstances and regulations for providers, concluding; “If the current trend continues and CCDBG serves fewer children and reaches fewer providers, we lose the opportunities of the reauthorization to improve the health, safety, and quality of care for low-income children and to support families and providers.”

An NPR article by Claudio Sanchez outlining 5 Education Stories to Watch in 2017 ominously predicts: 

“one of the casualties of a leaner federal education budget will be early childhood education. Remember that the Obama administration supported the expansion of quality preschool because of the social and academic benefits that the research is pointing to. This created incentives in many states to invest more of their own money in preschool programs by matching federal funds for programs targeting low-income children. I predict that money for early childhood education is going to shrink, or worse, we could see cuts across the board that will result in a drop in pre-K enrollment in 2017.”

Stay tuned for 2017.