Middle-school students are more likely to feel safer, less bullied and less lonely when they are in ethnically diverse schools, says a new study by UC Davis and UCLA psychologists.
The study offers new empirical evidence for the psychological benefits of integrated schools, say the researchers, Adrienne Nishina of the UC Davis Department of Human and Community Development, Jaana Juvonen of the UCLA Department of Psychology and Sandra Graham of the UCLA Department of Education.
In a survey of more than 70 sixth-grade classrooms in 11 public middle schools serving poorer communities in Southern California, the researchers compared classrooms with lower and higher classroom diversity among African Americans, Asian and Pacific Islanders, Caucasians and Latinos.
"Our study focused on the effects of ethnic diversity on Latino and African-American students," said Nishina, an assistant professor of human development at UC Davis.
"However, we expect that students from other ethnic backgrounds would experience similar benefits. Other research at the college level has found that students from all ethnic backgrounds may benefit from ethnically diverse environments."
Latino and African-American were the two ethnic groups represented across all the classrooms in this sample of public middle school youth in the Los Angeles area.
The study also has implications for student harassment.
"Bullying happens in every school, and many students are concerned about their safety," said Juvonen, lead author of the study. "However, our analysis shows students feel safer in ethnically diverse classrooms and schools."
Nishina says that the study has wider implications beyond the psychological benefits for students.
"We know that when students have positive social and psychological experiences at school, they do better academically," she said.
Citing a recent Supreme Court decision on ethnic diversity on college campuses, the other co-author, Graham, underscored the role of ethnic diversity on college campuses as a way to promote better learning.
"The skills needed for young people to successfully negotiate today's increasingly global economy can best be developed through exposure to very diverse people, cultures, and points of view," Graham said. "Diversity benefits everyone; in fact, it is critical in contemporary America and especially in states like California, where the population is changing dramatically."
In an article about the study published in a recent issue of Psychological Science, the three authors write, "The 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education in 2004 and recent Supreme Court cases affirming the significance of race in higher-education admissions have sparked public discourse on the benefits of ethnic diversity in the nation's schools, colleges, and universities."
Yet students continue to be educated largely in ethnically segregated schools, despite the fact that in the past 30 years, the nation has seen a quadrupling of the number of 5- through 17-year-old children who come from ethnic backgrounds other than Caucasian, the authors point out.
The psychologists found in their study that the more ethnically diverse classrooms were, African American and Latino students felt safer in school, less harassed by peers and less lonely. They also had higher self-worth.
Beyond the classroom, at the school level, the researchers saw similar findings about the positive psychological advantages of a diverse student population for the individual students.
"The diversity effect was found at the beginning of the sixth-grade year when students had just started middle school," Nishina said. "We found that by the end of the school year, the benefits of ethnically diverse environments still remained."
Power relations may be the reason that ethnic diversity protects students who feel vulnerable to bullying, the authors say. When a number of ethnic groups are fairly equally represented, the balance of power remains stable. That, in turn, may reduce harassment that leads to students feeling unsafe.
"We know that some schools are not very ethnically diverse," Nishina said. "For these schools, our findings suggest that it is important to make sure that policies and practices do not further segregate students in certain classrooms or tracks."