nyu | “Friendships provide opportunities to build empathy and practice social skills,” said Cappella. “Being friends with racially or ethnically diverse peers can create opportunities for academic and social learning different from the opportunities afforded by same-race friendships.”
The current study looked at student and classroom factors that affect the likelihood of children forming friendships across race. Cappella and her colleagues used data from the Early Adolescent Development Study, a longitudinal study of elementary and middle school children in a racially diverse middle-class suburban school district. Surveys were collected in the fall and spring of the 1996-7 school year in 53 third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade classrooms, with a total of 553 African American and white students participating in the study.
On an individual or student level, the researchers looked at age, race, and psychosocial factors, including sociability, internalizing behavior (such as worrying or feeling sad) and externalizing behavior (such as acting out or getting in trouble). They also examined factors related to classroom context, including teacher support, whether teachers treat students with varying levels of academic achievement differently, and competition among students.
Results suggest that same-race friendships increase over the school year, with greater increases among white and older children. Externalizing behavior predicted a greater increase in same-race friendships, particularly among white students.
Teachers and classroom context influenced student friendships in two different ways. Classroom support – measured by student perceptions of teachers’ warmth, respect, and trust – predicted less of an increase in same-race friendships from fall to spring. In addition, African American students who perceived that their teachers treated students differently were more likely to have friendships with white peers over time.
“Teachers’ differential treatment sends messages regarding the value of different groups. We don’t know if the teachers in this study favored white students over African American students, as other studies have shown. But if this is the case, it’s not surprising that African American students formed more friendships with white peers as they began to internalize the higher value their teachers placed on white students,” said Cappella.
The researchers said their study points to the need not just for diverse schools, but also for teachers to foster classrooms where students and teachers support one another, and social and academic hierarchies are not dominant, which could increase the likelihood of students developing and maintaining interracial friendships.