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Exploring Schools, Peers, and Prejudice in Adolescence

Exploring Schools, Peers, and Prejudice in Adolescence

Adolescents spend a great deal of time at school, an institution that serves as the central site of peer relations in addition to its central mission of promoting teaching and learning. For this reason, the general social climate of schools (what is going on among students at the school, how students feel in the school) matters for the well-being of young people. Dr. Aprile Benner, an assistant professor in Human Development and Family Sciences, in collaboration with Dr. Robert Crosnoe (professor of sociology at UT Austin) and Dr. Jacquelynne Eccles (professor of education at the University of California, Irvine) investigated one particular aspect of school climate—the pervasiveness of perceived prejudice in students’ schools. Specifically, the research team attempted to characterize school contexts in terms of the degree to which fellow students viewed each other as prejudiced and the repercussions of such views for adolescents’ academic performance and feelings of connections and belonging to their schools. Such work taps into undercurrents of mistrust and suspicion in the student body that represent potentially harmful ecological environments for young people.

Dr. Benner and her colleagues examined these relations using a nationally representative sample of American teenagers: the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. With these data, the research team investigated how students’ individual views of their peers’ prejudice and the schoolwide perceptions of peer prejudice influenced well-being. The team placed special attention in whether such influences varied for youth from traditionally marginalized groups, including those who were racial/ethnic minorities or immigrants, less affluent youth, youth who were overweight or obese, or those who identified as having same-sex attraction. These youth would likely be more vulnerable to social stigmatization. 

This study revealed that school-wide perceptions of peer prejudice, which tap into the interpersonal climate of schools, appeared to be particularly risky for adolescents’ academic achievement. In contrast, adolescents’ own perceptions of peer prejudice at schools were associated with their feelings of alienation in school. This was particularly the case when adolescents’ own perceptions of peer prejudice exceeded those of their schoolmates. Importantly, these patterns did not vary for youth more versus less vulnerable to social stigmatization. This study represents a critical first step in understanding how perceptions of prejudice contribute to the negativity of school cultures and the implications for adolescents’ well-being.

Benner, A.D., Crosnoe, R., & Eccles, J.S. (2015). Schools, peers, and prejudice in adolescence. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 25, 173-188.