Middle school students are more likely to feel safer, less bullied and less lonely in ethnically diverse schools, psychologists from UCLA and UC Davis report in a new study of more than 70 sixth-grade classrooms in 11 Los Angeles public middle schools with predominantly minority and low-income students.
"Bullying happens in every school, and many students are concerned about their safety," said Jaana Juvonen, UCLA professor of psychology, chair of developmental psychology and lead author of the study. "However, our analysis shows students feel safer in ethnically diverse classrooms and schools."
Juvonen and her colleagues studied classrooms with lower and higher diversity among African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and Caucasians. The researchers classified classrooms as diverse when multiple ethnic groups were represented in relatively similar proportions. The findings of the study held even when classroom differences in academic performance were taken into account.
The researchers were able to examine the effects of diversity on African American and Latino students - the two ethnic groups that were represented across all the classrooms in this sample of public middle school youth in the Los Angels area. However, co-author Adrienne Nishina, an assistant professor of human development at UC Davis, said she expects that students from other ethnic backgrounds would experience similar benefits from ethnically diverse schools.
"Other research at the college level has found that students from all ethnic backgrounds may benefit from ethnically diverse environments," Nishina noted.
The researchers said 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," Nishina said.
Citing a recent Supreme Court decision on ethnic diversity on college campuses, another co author, Sandra Graham, principal investigator of the current project, professor and chair of the UCLA Department of Education, 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."
The research is published in the May issue of the journal Psychological Science, and is funded federally by the National Science Foundation and privately by the William T. Grant Foundation. Graham and colleagues are in the sixth year of their long-term school bullying study of more than 1,900 sixth graders, and their teachers, in 11 Los Angeles-area public middle schools with predominantly minority and low-income students; the new research is part of this long-term project. Nishina conducted bullying research as a postdoctoral scholar at UCLA.
A "balance of power" among ethic groups may be the reason that students in ethnically diverse schools feel safer and less vulnerable, the authors say. When ethnic groups are fairly equally represented, bullying and harassment may decrease, they hypothesize. In addition, an ethnic balance of power may have other benefits, including opportunities for cross-ethnic friendships, the researchers noted.
More than 50 years after the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, most students in the United States continue to be educated largely in ethnically segregated schools, the authors noted.
Students filled out written surveys about their perceptions of bullying and school safety.
In earlier research in the school bullying project, Graham, Juvonen and Nishina reported that school bullying is pervasive, that middle school students who are bullied in school are likely to feel depressed and lonely, that harassment at school interferes with the ability to learn, that bullies are often popular and do not suffer from low self-esteem, that bullying occurs in one form or another across ethnic groups and income brackets, that the most common types of harassment were name calling and physical aggression such as kicking and shoving, and that schools can take effective actions to reduce bullying.
Bullying includes name-calling, making fun of others, spreading nasty rumors and physical aggression.
"Bullying is a problem that large numbers of kids confront on a daily basis at school; it's not just an issue for the few unfortunate ones," Juvonen said.