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Defiant or Depressed? Working with Black Girls in the School Setting

Updated: Aug 4, 2021

By Kaela Farrise, CEI Intern

Because children spend more time with teachers and other school personnel during a typical school year than almost anyone else, teachers have a huge opportunity to lift students up. Teachers can also have a negative impact on students’ overall development because of their own unaddressed biases and assumptions. The distinction happens during challenging moments when teachers make a choice in how to respond to a student. In high-stress situations or when confronted with unfamiliar behavior, we often rely on our personal knowledge and experience to understand what is happening and how we should respond. Unfortunately, the unconscious bias we carry can influence our responses and create disparate outcomes for some groups, no matter how well intentioned we are.

Bias Impacts Black Girls in Schools

When bias is left unacknowledged, it can lead to long-term negative outcomes. A 2017 study by Georgetown Law faculty found that “adults think Black girls as young as 5 need less protection and nurturing than their White peers,” a phenomenon they call adultification bias (Georgetown Law, 2017). In other words, they see Black children as adults. Adultification bias is linked to harsher treatment and higher standards for Black girls in schools (Georgetown Law, 2017). A 2019 follow-up study also found that because of this bias, educators and other authorities “treat Black girls in developmentally inappropriate ways,” and are less empathetic towards Black girls than their White peers (Georgetown Law, 2019).

The executive director of the Center on Poverty and Inequality at Georgetown University Law Center and lead author Rebecca Epstein, stated that the effects of adultification start early on for Black girls: the “trickle- down effect starts from the beginning” of Black girls’ lives where adults do not see them as children. Adults are “…not seeing the childhood or the child-like features in them. So, dropping a pencil is seen as doing it on purpose and being malicious, or a child having tantrums is not being seen as maybe depressed, but just acting out for no reason or attention-seeking. And so, it’s that initial stage where they’re told that their symptoms aren’t clinical symptoms, but bad behaviors” (Georgetown Law, 2017). In the school setting, this disparate treatment can have lasting effects.

In 2014, the Department of Education reported that the rates of suspension and expulsion for Black students are three times higher compared to White students “Black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than White students” and that “Black girls are suspended at higher rates (12%) than girls of any other race or ethnicity and most boys” (U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 2014). These are alarming statistics considering that Black girls and boys made up only 16% of enrolled students during the data collection period (U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 2014).

Unchecked Bias Can Lead to Huge Consequences

Not only does the adultification of Black girls have consequences leading towards tactics that push students out of school, it can also preclude children from getting the mental health support they need.

  1. A 2016 study published in the International Journal of Health Services found that Black children and young adults are about half as likely as their White counterparts to get mental health care despite having similar rates of mental health problems.

  2. Black girls got even less mental health care than boys (Physicians for a National Health Program, 2016).

  3. A study by James Price, professor emeritus of health education and public health at the University of Toledo found that the number of deaths by suicide of Black girls aged 13 to 19 years old rose 182% from 2001 to 2017 (Predit, 2019). Price went on to say that the research shows that these adolescents “…report their attempt to suicide is a cry for help. Two-thirds of the kids didn’t really want to die, but they’re using the most lethal form of attempting suicide” (Preidt, 2019).

As educators and others who interact with children daily, it is important to know the signs of distress and have the training to assist all students in getting support before escalation to more harmful behaviors occurs.

Even accounting for adultification and other bias, recognizing symptoms for depression and other mental disorders takes cultural competency training, as symptoms can show up differently for children with diverse cultural backgrounds. For instance, one study found that Black teens express depressive symptoms by complaining about physical pain or interpersonal conflict (Rutgers University, 2018). Research also shows that some forms of treatment better address symptoms in different populations of color than others.


Understanding that responses to hurt and pain may look different in marginalized populations is the first step to culturally competent handling of difficult situations, but there are other things school leaders should do to create a safe and nurturing environment for all students. For more information on steps educators can take including how to address one’s own bias, stay tuned for part 2 of this blog series.

For more information on creating equitable education spaces, check out CEI’s series on Equity in Education.

References Asby, D. and Shah, Z. (2019, August 13). Equity in education: A strengths-based approach. Center for Educational Improvement. Georgetown Law. (2017, June 27). Black girls viewed as less innocent than white girls, Georgetown Law research finds. Georgetown Law. (2019, May 15). Research confirms that black girls feel the sting of adultification bias identified in earlier Georgetown Law study. Preidt, R. (2019, June 26). Suicide rates soaring among black teens. WebMD News. Rutgers University. (2018, January 8). Depression in black adolescents requires different treatment: Rutgers University-Camden scholar studies how black teens express depression. ScienceDaily. Physicians for a National Health Program. (2016, August 12). Black, Hispanic children, youth rarely get help for mental health problems: Minorities’ psychiatric, behavioral problems often result in school punishment or incarceration, but rarely mental health care, according to nationwide study. ScienceDaily. U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 2014. Civil rights data collection data snapshot: school discipline.


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