We all have many social identities—identities derived from our membership in groups, including demographic groups (e.g., race/ethnicity) and institutional groups (e.g., school). These identities can provide us with community and pride, but at the same time, we may face stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination as a result of how our groups are seen by others in society. My research is centered on these social identities, and broadly, I examine:
How and when children develop their social identities
How and when identity contingencies (the conditions that we face in particular settings simply because of our social identities) affect people
How people with marginalized identities maintain resilience in the face of identity contingencies
Given my experience as a public school teacher and as a first-generation college student, my work often takes place in academic settings (e.g., examining how facing negative stereotypes puts students at risk for academic struggles, and how maintaining strong ethnic and school identities might help students be resilient despite academic challenges). Across all of my research, I employ a wide variety of methods. For example, my data sources have included cross-sectional and longitudinal surveys, daily diaries, experiments, and qualitative interviews.
For children to thrive in our increasingly diverse society, they must be prepared to engage with issues of race and racism. Research suggests that two of the best places for children to learn about race and racism are from their teachers and parents (through processes known as ethnic-racial socialization), yet few studies have examined (1) how teachers’ and parents’ influences might interact when predicting children’s racial attitudes or (2) how White families in particular teach their kids about race.
Previous Lines of Research
Daily lives of college students from marginalized backgrounds
Although certain aspects of students’ collective identities (e.g., facing negative stereotypes or discrimination) can increase the risk of academic struggles, it is essential to recognize that many negatively stereotyped students maintain positive academic outcomes in the face of stigmatization. These studies, therefore, examine how college students’ identities are linked to both academic struggles and successes. One study demonstrates that day-to-day levels of school belonging are an important factor associated with all college students’ success, and this is especially true for first-generation college students. Regardless of students’ typical levels of school belonging, if they experience especially high levels of school belonging on a particular day, they tend to have correspondingly high academic engagement (high help-seeking and low procrastination) on that same day. For in-class engagement, however, the daily association with school belonging is only significant among first-generation college students—first-generation students’ daily class attendance and participation rises and falls in conjunction with their daily school belonging, whereas continuing-generation students maintain high levels of attendance and participation regardless of that day’s level of school belonging. Another study (which was co-authored with a Macalester student) demonstrates that family income, alone, is not a predictor of students’ academic behaviors in college—among students who attended low-income high schools, higher family income is associated with more beneficial academic behaviors in college, but among students who attended wealthier high schools, there is no association between family income and academic behaviors. In other words, high school contexts attenuate associations between individual SES and the college experience, suggesting that colleges may need to be especially prepared to support students from lower-SES high schools.
In their own words: Children’s ethnic, national, and social class identities
The transition from middle childhood to adolescence is a critical, yet understudied, stage in identity development—this is when children are developing new cognitive abilities and social awareness that facilitate corresponding changes in identity. In a trio of studies, my coauthors and I examined 10- to 14-year-old children’s identification with and beliefs about various social groups. These studies addressed several gaps in the developmental literature: we interviewed multiracial children about their racial identity and what race means to them, we examined whether children’s conceptions of the term “American” reflect the increasing diversity of the U.S. population, and we asked children about their social class identities and which markers they used to determine these identities.
School identity is a protective factor for all ages
I have found school identities—students’ sense of social and emotional connection at school—to be consistently associated with benefits for students of all ages. For elementary school students, maintaining identification with school is associated with intrinsic motivation in the face of racial stigma. In high school, there is a within-person association between school identity and motivation—years in which students feel a particularly strong school identity tend to be the same years in which they are particularly motivated. What’s more, this association holds across various subgroups of students, including students who are often deemed “at risk” (e.g., ethnic-minority students, students from immigrant backgrounds, and students who struggle academically). Also in high school, although experiences with discrimination are associated with worse sleep quality, this association is attenuated among students who have strong school identities. Finally, community college students have significantly lower school identities than their peers attending four-year college students (despite no difference between these students when they were in 12th grade). This college-type difference in school identity is explained by the relatively fewer social experiences (e.g., study groups and extracurricular activities) that are available at community versus four-year colleges, suggesting that increasing opportunities for community college social experiences may help close the persistence gap that exists between community and four-year colleges.
Grab bag of academic success!
In addition to the research described above, I have examined other factors that are associated with academic success. Get enough sleep! Have supportive friends who are achievement-oriented! Have supportive parents!
Development of Social Identities Lab
Undergraduate research assistants are essential for my research! They support all aspects of the studies I conduct, from background research and idea generation to data collection, and from analyses to presentation. When possible, I encourage students to develop their own projects using the data the lab has collected and to present their results at conferences. If you are interested in joining the lab, contact me to see if there are any available positions!