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Interventions Help Latino Students Beat 'Stereotype Threat,' Study Says

Latino middle-school students whose academic performance may have been undermined by "stereotype threat"—an anxiety that can stem from being a member of a racial, ethnic, or gender group associated with negative stereotypes—earned higher grades after participating in classroom assignments meant to help them feel more confident about themselves, a new study has found.

Researchers from Stanford University and the University of California, Santa Barbara had a group of students, both Latino and white, participate in "values-affirmation" classroom assignments throughout the school year. The students were asked to select values that are important to them and write about why and to reflect in a brief essay how those values would be important to them in the near future.

The Latino students who completed the exercises earned higher grades than their Latino peers in a control group who did not, and those positive academic effects persisted for three years. The exercises had little impact on the academic performance of white students. The researchers assigned the exercises at key points during the academic year when students are often stressed: at the start of the new school year, before the winter holiday break, and before exams.

The study was published online this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The exercises were given as interventions against the effects of "stereotype threat," an anxiety people may experience about being judged by a negative stereotype associated with their race, ethnicity, or gender. Numerous studies on stereotype threat have found that stress or discomfort that is brought on by being a member of negatively stereotyped groups affects achievement of minority students when compared to their white peers.

In a second, but related study, the researchers asked students who were given the values-related exercises to reflect on them in regular diary entries and to fill out a survey answering questions that sought to measure their stress levels and feelings of adversity. The Latino students who participated reported feeling less stressed about their identities and sense of belonging at school. They also posted higher grades than their Latino peers who had not participated.

"Self-affirmation exercises provide adolescents from minority groups with a psychological time out," said Geoffrey Cohen, a psychology and education professor at Stanford and co-author of the study, in a press release.

Cohen also noted that great teachers already do what the interventions used in the study were designed to: provide affirmation to students.

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