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Can diverse classrooms boost brain development?

Research shows diversity promotes emotional health and complex thinking skills

July 11, 2019

Psychology Today recently featured an article by Christina Rucinski, a Psychological and Brain Sciences alumna, explaining the results from her research studying the relationship between diversity and early education.  


From “What Can Integrated Schools Do for Your Child?”: 

As children enter school, how does exposure to racial/ethnic diversity relate to their individual development? Developmental psychology theory suggests that interacting with diverse peers challenges children to recognize, understand, and integrate differences in experiences and ideas between themselves and others, which may then promote complex thinking skills and social abilities. I sought to test this theory through my doctoral dissertation. Using a nationally representative dataset and including over 6,700 children in my statistical analyses, I examined how children’s cumulative exposure to racial/ethnic diversity in their kindergarten, first grade, and second-grade classrooms predicted their outcomes in third grade. 

Controlling for a host of other child and classroom characteristics, I found that higher exposure to classroom diversity was associated with lower levels of depression, anxiety, and problematic interactions with peers (think aggression and exclusion) by third grade, according to teacher reports. Additionally, higher diversity exposure was related to higher scores on a cognitive flexibility task, suggesting that interacting with diverse peers helps children develop the ability to flexibly shift their focus from one concept to another, which could underlie other problem solving or emotion regulation abilities. 

While the school-age population is becoming increasingly multicultural, we have witnessed a resurgence of segregated schools within the past few decades. A second question I tackled in my dissertation was the extent to which young children in the U.S. have the opportunity to interact with peers from different backgrounds in their daily school experiences. The same nationally representative sample showed that, on average, the level of classroom diversity a child encounters upon entering school is far lower than would be expected based on population demographics. Children ranged widely the amount of racial/ethnic diversity they experienced in their early elementary classrooms, from completely homogenous to highly heterogeneous. If we consider exposure to diversity a potentially beneficial educational resource, it is clear that this resource is not being distributed evenly. 

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