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Teachers may play an important role in fostering student's interracial friendships

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From kindergarten through high school, I attended schools with pretty racially diverse student populations. I've seen that same diversity reflected in the friendships I've maintained throughout my life.

And it turns out those interracial relationships may have actually helped my development.

According to NPR, there is a growing body of research that points to classroom diversity as an important aspect of childhood development. Kids who make friends with kids of other races tend to be more socially well-adjusted, more academically ambitious and better at interacting with people who are different from them.

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton is a psychology professor at University of California, Berkeley. He wrote for Psychology Today:

…when we make cross-race friends, we begin to integrate them into our own self-concept -- or put simply, we see them as part of ourselves. This happens naturally as we grow closer to others -- their joys and sorrows are literally our own, we feel their pain, we feel proud about their achievements. It's part of a natural process called self-expansion. And it can happen across the racial divide.

But according to a study by researchers at New York University, elementary and middle school students are less likely to have friends of a different race as they progress in school, even from the beginning to the end of a single school year.

Thestudy, published in the Journal of Early Adolescence, also suggests simply putting kids in a diverse classroom may not help with fostering interracial friendships. Study author Elise Cappella said in a press release:

Although research shows that children with greater access to diverse peers are more likely to form interracial friendships, our findings suggest that access to diversity alone is not sufficient for fostering these friendships, and teachers may play a role.

Researchers found the friendships kids maintained were greatly influenced by the environment teachers created in the classroom. There was less of an increase in same-race friendships when students perceived an environment of warmth, respect, and trust. Cappella told NPR:

Teachers who build supportive atmospheres allow students to get to know one another across differences. And when you get to know each other across differences, you see other kinds of similarities that may be more hidden as well.

Jose Luis Vilson teaches math at a public middle school in New York City. He tells NPR he encourages group activities in his classroom in hopes they will help students learn from each other. Vilson said:

I don't really give students a chance to self-select until later on, when I feel like they can pretty much group with anybody. The real world is such that people have to find a way to get along with each other, but also work with each other. There's a lot of value in actually getting to know different people — how they work and what their values are and what their experiences are.

A 2013 Reuters poll found about 40% of white Americans and 25% of non-white Americans only have friends of their own race, so this is not an issue that is ending in adolescence.

Given not only the country's recent racial tensions, but also the ongoing search for ways to fight things like racism and prejudice, maybe we should be looking at this basic concept of childhood friendships.

Paulette is a blogger for Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project, which looks at kids from low-income families and what it takes to get them ahead. She previously interned as a reporter in the Michigan Radio newsroom.
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