Educational Advice

How Stereotype Threat Can Harm Your Child’s Academic Performance

“Age is just a number. And maths was never my thing”

– Helen Mirren

Empowering as it may be to hear that Helen Mirren has broken free of the shackles imposed upon her by age (presumably with the help of some pretty powerful skin cream), these words have drawn attention to a key issue: the stereotype that girls are bad at maths. And, crucially, that issue has wider implications. Are various stereotypes holding our children back?

A stereotype: girls are bad at Maths

In 2002, a group of American researchers investigated the effect of stereotypes on females’ maths performance. They showed female volunteers either ‘neutral’ television commercials, or ones that depicted negative female stereotypes. Those who saw the stereotyped commercials not only attempted fewer maths questions in a subsequent pop-quiz, but also reported less interest in maths-based careers relative to the women in the neutral commercial condition. Simply being aware of a negative stereotype – and that it might be relevant to you – is enough to produce a measurable negative effect.

This phenomenon is better known in the world of psychology as stereotype threat, defined loosely as the risk of confirming a negative stereotype due to awareness of the stereotype itself, and it applies to much more than gender. Most famously, researchers Claude Steele and Joshua Aaronson were able to manipulate African-American students to perform worse than their Caucasian peers, simply by asking them to indicate their race before completing an exam. When race wasn’t a salient factor, everybody performed the same.

Other stereotypes can have a dramatic impact too

Since these initial observations, stereotype threat has been observed in people from other groups, many much more specific and ill-defined than gender or race. This indicates that if, for example, your child is good at art, and believes that book smarts and creativity are mutually exclusive, they may be subconsciously self-limiting in more academic subjects. Although the actual mechanism of this effect is as yet unknown, researchers believe that a combination of anxiety, self-consciousness and distraction can cause students to under-perform, put less effort into school work and spend less time engaging in self-study.

How to beat the stereotype

So what can we do to protect students from subconsciously undermining their own academic performance and losing motivation? Dispelling negative stereotypes in the first place seems obvious, but is notoriously difficult. Avoiding discussing such phenomena at home doesn’t guarantee that your child wont be exposed to them in the classroom or the playground, but more importantly, multiple studies have indicated that even the most liberal and pro-active advocates of gender, race and socio-economic equality still show subconscious biases. Of course, downplaying negative stereotypes where possible is one option, but several other practices can also be beneficial:

  • Encourage your child to see himself or herself as an individual, rather than the central intersection of a complex Venn diagram. If they feel less associated with a certain group, they’ll be less aware and less subject to threats from any negative stereotypes associated with that group.
  • Highlight exceptional achievements in more threatened subjects. Overcoming stereotype threat is cyclical: if your sporty child is doing well in science, let them know! The more aware they are of their own high achievement, the more they can refute the stereotype that brains and brawn are mutually exclusive, which reduces the effects of stereotype threat, so they’ll do even better next time… you get the idea.
  • Emphasise the possibility of improvement. Children and adults alike tend to view ability as static – we have a habit of saying, “I am good at physics” rather than, “I scored well in that test”. As experts in personal tuition, we’re all too aware of how drastically a student can improve with the right assistance, but if your child thoroughly believes their academic potential is a fait acomplis, this may well become the truth.
  • Don’t place blame. It’s useful for schoolchildren to take responsibility for paying attention in class, completing homework and keeping revision up to date so they’re in control of their own education and achievements. However, if they believe that all failures are due to some intrinsic property of themselves, the resulting anxiety can be detrimental to both academic and personal prosperity. Once in a while, it’s okay to say, “Hey, that was a hard test, don’t worry about it too much. Let’s smash the next one”.

Although the effects of stereotype threat on academic performance can be subtle, employing the above practices can, at the very least, help improve your child’s confidence, and at the most, maybe push their final result one grade boundary up. Then, hopefully, regardless of whether they’re academic, creative or sporty, you’ll never hear them say that maths “isn’t really their thing”.

Written by Sophie Valentine

A MyTutorWeb Chemistry Tutor

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