Accentuate the Positive

With an unsettling year drawing to a close, many educators are increasingly aware of race: how it impacts student achievement and how it obstructs connections between people. But as we hope for a new year filled with equity and kindness in schools and beyond, research offers some encouraging insights.

Confronting racial tensions, biases, and microaggressions can have powerful effects. But schools may also benefit from widening the lens. Behavioral psychologist Todd Pittinsky has found that when white teachers encourage and model overtly welcominginteractions between students of different races, ethnicities, genders, and abilities, student achievement increases.

These “microaffirmations,” as Pittinsky calls them, can be transformative — not only for academic work, but for broader school climate and even for life outcomes.

THE RESEARCH

In a recent study, Pittinsky, who teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, tested whether positive attitudes of predominantly white teachers could augment the learning outcomes of mostly minority students. The results suggest that simply being welcoming and inclusive can help students not only feel comfortable in school, but also grow academically.

The study looked at more than 1,200 teachers in predominantly minority schools in 14 states across the country. Of them, 80 percent were white and the rest nearly all Latino or African American.

It examined two characteristics of welcoming interactions: what Pittinsky calls “empathic joy,” or the happiness that comes from taking the perspective of another person, and “allophilia,” a term he coined as an antonym to prejudice, meaning “love or like of the other.”

To determine teachers’ levels of empathy and allophilia, the researchers asked them to rate their agreement to statements such as “When my students celebrate things, I am happy for them” and “In general, I have positive attitudes about my students.” The researchers then measured these scores alongside assessments of the teachers’ positive engagement with their students, and against end-of-year tests measuring students’ academic growth.

The results? A chain of good effects.

Teachers’ empathic joy was associated with allophilia. Allophilia, in turn, was associated with positive engagements between students and teachers, which were then associated with greater student learning. The research suggests that these positive interactions can make students more optimistic at school and more committed to continuing their education.

MICROAFFIRMATIONS IN THE CLASSROOM

Many teachers already recognize and promote positive interactions — microaffirmations — in their classrooms, though perhaps without fully realizing its measurable impact. In a recent Phi Delta Kappan article, Pittinsky gives several examples:

  • Nodding and making eye contact with students while they’re talking
  • Making sure to call on students of different races and genders equally
  • Referring to every student by his or her name
  • Using inclusive language — for instance, talk about “families” instead of “parents”
  • Openly giving praise for a wide-range of actions, from answering a question right to sitting still during a lesson
  • Staying enthusiastic when interacting with students

“Focusing on microaffirmations can create a virtuous cycle,” writes Pittinsky. “Over time, they can redefine the normative behavior in a classroom — or in a school — not only to avoid exclusion and insult, but also to embrace inclusion and affirmation.”