High school is weird. There’s no delicate way of saying it, unfortunately. Over the perilous four years, students go through puberty, develop acne and love interests, plant the seeds of their collegiate future, and spend an inordinate amount of time looking in the mirror — all this on top of filling their primary role of student. The truth is, negotiating these influencing factors is difficult. From learning disabilities to physical beauty, new research into the fractured universe that is high school suggests there’s a lot more motivating student performance than simply how hard they study.

The social sciences have a term for performance based on ascribed characteristics. It’s called "stereotype threat." It’s most often assigned to negative outcomes, most famously in 1995 when black students were shown to perform worse on the SAT compared to white students when they were told whites are necessarily smarter. When they weren’t exposed to the stereotype, outcomes equalized. Astonishingly, this phenomenon even works when people don’t subscribe to the particular stereotype. But stereotype activation works both ways, and considering the massive importance of social groups in high school, there is perhaps no context where such stereotypes arise more lucidly.

Lifts And Threats

First, consider the upside of stereotype threat, which has come to be rebranded as stereotype lift. Stereotype lift occurs when one group of people performs better knowing that another group is going to perform worse. It leads to self-efficacy and greater confidence. It’s also what may underlie a recent study conducted by University of Illinois-Chicago researchers that found physically attractive high school students tend to have better GPAs than their average-looking peers.

Sociologist Rachel Gordon, together with her colleagues, collected data on nearly 9,000 high school students beginning in the 1994-1995 school year, comparing their assessed physical attractiveness at the time with their then-GPA. Attractive students had significantly better GPAs than their average-looking peers, and while the best-looking candidates were potentially distracted by their climb on the social ladder — through drinking, sex, and other interactions — Gordon explains this group still “outweighed the negative consequences…of dating, sex, and drinking.”

“The data we used had several relevant measures,” she said, “which we found were associated with looks, including greater self-esteem, less depression, more friends, feeling cared about by teachers, feeling it was easy to get along with students and teachers at school, and sports participation.” She continued, “We used statistical models that suggested that the better looking youths' higher grades were due in part to some of these social advantages.”

Gordon’s research echoes prior findings as far back as the 1970s, which suggested not even teachers are immune to stereotype activation. For example, one 1973 study showed teachers had higher hopes for better-looking students when shown anonymous photos of them than for average-looking kids. This suggested to Gordon a fundamental imbalance in the way beauty is applied to other unrelated traits among teenagers and adults.

“High school cliques also restrict interactions across groups, but one of the most successful strategies for reducing prejudice is cross-group contact,” she explained. “Educators therefore might try bringing students and teachers together for meaningful interactions that cut across social cliques, and assess the extent to which such strategies help level the playing field for youth who are more and less attractive.”

But of course, for every “up” elicited through stereotype lift, there is a “down” conferred by stereotype threat — the most recent example being a new study involving the academic performance of children with learning disabilities.

Published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, the study found that much of the poor academic performance linked to children with learning disabilities (LDs) — currently the most widely represented disorders among special education classes — actually stems indirectly from social pressures. Children with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), underperform because they are told they’re of an inferior intellect, not because they actually are. Like the black students not reaching their potential on the SAT, students who struggle with learning grow to internalize their disability as a sign of dumbness, rather than a handicap.

Researcher Dr. Dara Shifrer looked at roughly 11,470 adolescents from the Education Longitudinal Survey of 2002 in order to assess to what extent parents and teachers viewed certain children as possessing a learning disability. The responses were cross-checked with Shifrer’s designated measures of disability, such as whether parents exited their child from special education because the school hadn’t designated the child as eligible, or if the parents had enrolled the child in special education despite no designation from the school. These and other forms of behavior comprised the researcher’s overall notions of stigma, which appeared most often among teachers.

“Stigma is a product of social relations, rather than distinctive attributes or labels alone,” noted Shifrer. “Findings from this study and an understanding of the processes that produce an LD label suggest that the authority of this label is grounded within schools and that teachers may have more power than parents to enable the LD label to stigmatize.”

Like Gordon’s analysis of high school students’ attractiveness, Shifrer’s findings support teachers’ overall influence as being more weighty than perhaps both parents and peers. Teachers are held to the school’s evaluation standards. They tend to operate from a position of institutional knowledge, rather than more robust forms of LD understanding — imposing expectations on the child that, through no fault of their own, undermine the parents’ efforts to destigmatize the disability. As a result, the child may learn in an environment with lower standards and come to retain the disability as he or she ages.

“A” For Effort

In both cases — the ups and downs, the lifts and threats — one thing remains constant. Stereotypes are often based on self-fulfilling prophecies. They inject tiny, destructive doses of self-doubt in people, causing them to revert back to old habits or manifest new ones. Among children the effect is even more pronounced, as they may spend large chunks of their impressionable youth learning incorrect, unhealthy ideals about who they are and how the world sees them. Self-doubt creeps out of mere academic performance and soon pervades multiple aspects of their personhood, casting them in the very light they were once told was inevitable.

In a commentary on Gordon’s report, the psychologist Dr. Joshua Coleman remarks that the key to deemphasizing looks, or learning disability, as per Shifrer’s study, is the installment of self-discipline. In a world that holds countless opinions, agendas, impressions, biases, and stereotypes about one another, the one thing within a student’s grasp is effort.

“One of the biggest predictors of who succeeds in life, attractive or otherwise, is self-discipline, which involves regulating and managing emotions, learning how to tolerate frustration, maintaining focus without excessive distractibility, and developing the ability to delay gratification,” Coleman explained. “Emphasizing and promoting your child’s good looks can actually undermine the exercise of these skills, as many childhood winners of movie contracts and beauty pageants have found to their costs.”

Source: Gordon R, Crosnoe R, Wang X. Physical Attractiveness and the Accumulation of Social and Human Capital in Adolescence and Young Adulthood: Assets and Distractions. Physical Attractiveness and the Accumulation of Social and Human Capital in Adolescence and Young Adulthood. 2013.

Shifrer D. Stigma of a Label: Educational Expectations for High School Students Labeled with Learning Disabilities. Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 2013.