With its goal to educate tolerant and mature citizens, schools have been described as an important socialization context in youth (Neundorf & Smets, 2017
). While school experiences were shown to be related to youth’s intergroup attitudes (e.g., Barber et al., 2013
), the empirical evidence for that is still limited, especially with respect to longitudinal designs. Moreover, although school experiences accompany young people from late childhood into late adolescence, age-specific effects have rarely been considered to date. The present 3-wave study from Germany aimed to contribute to the literature by accounting for the effects of perceived multicultural education, supportive peer relations in class, and democratic classroom climate on German youth’s negative attitudes toward immigrants. Due to the data’s multilevel and cohort-sequential nature, processes at the individual and classroom level could be compared over a wide age span ranging from 12 to18 years. Although the results revealed few effects at the individual level (i.e., only for democratic classroom climate), all three school indicators were cross-sectionally related to less negative attitudes toward immigrants at the classroom level (for perceived multicultural education, however, only after controlling for the effects of socio-demographic covariates). Moreover, age-related patterns were found for the effect of democratic climate at the classroom level, pointing to stronger effects among older than among younger students.
School Experiences and Attitudes toward Immigrants
The results for the first research question can be summarized in three patterns: First, perceived multicultural education was not related to youth’s negative attitudes toward immigrants at the individual level (neither cross-sectionally at Time 1 nor longitudinally across time). This is not in line with previous research showing significant effects of multicultural education on intergroup attitudes (e.g., Verkuyten & Thijs, 2013
) and might be related to the characteristics of the sample. Data were collected in a region of Germany where only around 7% of the population are of immigrant descent (TMMJV, 2019
) and, consequently, the students in the current study experienced culturally homogeneous school environments. Therefore, questions about cultural diversity that usually arise from everyday interactions between class- or schoolmates may either not have developed at all or might have been personally less salient than in culturally heterogeneous school contexts. Consequently, individual perceptions of teachers’ handling of cultural topics might also be less relevant for youth’s intergroup attitudes. Indeed, research has shown that multicultural education is more frequently applied in culturally diverse than in homogeneous classrooms (Thijs & Verkuyten, 2014
However, at the classroom level, the bivariate association between class-average perceptions of multicultural education and youth’s attitudes toward immigrants was significant for male students from higher track classrooms (see Footnote 7 and Supplementary Table S3). One possible explanation for the responsiveness of this particular subgroup might be that at the contextual level, higher track classrooms are characterized by a less negative climate toward immigrants than lower track classrooms (e.g., Schmid & Watermann, 2010
), which could facilitate the discussion of cultural-related topics. In addition - and in line with previous research (Higdon, 2015
)—male students reported more negative attitudes toward immigrants than female students. Like intergroup contact, multicultural education might be particularly beneficial for more prejudiced youth (e.g., Hodson & Dhont, 2015
). Hence, while more prejudiced male students might be more responsive to classroom-level effects of multicultural education, it may require the additional impact of a non-prejudiced classroom environment for multicultural education to unfold its effects. To draw firm conclusions, however, a more nuanced investigation of the interplay between socio-demographic variables and dynamics within the classroom is needed.
Second, no significant effects emerged for supportive peer relations in class at the individual level (neither cross-sectionally nor longitudinally). The absence of a Level 1- effect might be attributed to the fact that the indicator explicitly addressed dynamics within class. Research showed more consistent associations at the individual level by using a measure that focused on personal feelings of social belonging in school (Gniewosz & Noack, 2008
). Future studies could therefore compare the effects of individual- vs. classroom-oriented indicators of peer relations more systematically. However, there was a significant effect of supportive peer relations at the classroom level at Time 1. Thus, irrespective of how students personally perceived their relationships with classmates, there were certain dynamics at the classroom level that mattered. Theoretically, the classroom-level effect is in line with social learning and socialization perspectives (Bandura, 1977
). Being surrounded by supportive peers seems to set an example of how to relate to other people inside or outside of school (Dessel, 2010
). While this finding is consistent with previous research showing associations between cooperative peer relations and youth’s attitudes toward immigrants (Miklikowska et al., 2021
), it further adds to these studies by showing that supportive relations with classmates do matter in culturally homogeneous school settings where opportunities for cross-cultural contact are limited.
Third, while students’ individual perception of a democratic classroom climate had no significant effect at Time 1, it predicted a decline in negative attitudes toward immigrants across time at the individual level. At the classroom level, class-average perceptions of a democratic classroom climate were also associated with less negative attitudes toward immigrants at Time 1. These results are generally consistent with previous studies using more narrow and specific indicators of democratic classroom climate (i.e., perceived teacher support and fairness (Miklikowska et al., 2019
), open classroom climate for discussion (Carrasco & Torres Irribarra, 2018
), or participation in decision making processes (Higdon, 2015
). This study therefore replicates the effects found in existing literature with a broader indicator of democratic classroom climate. Together with previous research, and also in line with social learning and socialization perspectives (Bandura, 1977
), these results suggest that experiencing a climate in which people can differ in their opinions and lifestyles, but still treat each other with respect contributes to the development of less prejudiced intergroup attitudes. However, the results also revealed different patterns at the individual and classroom level. Whereas a longitudinal effect was found at the individual level, the dynamics at the classroom level are reflected in a cross-sectional association (yet only among older students). The longitudinal effect at the individual level might be due to the fact that processes related to youth’s individual perception need time to unfold. Thus, perceiving a democratic climate may encourage adolescents to reflect on their own political positions and to compare them to the views and lifestyles of others. While this may eventually shape youth’s attitudes toward diverse groups, such school experiences are often not a matter of conscious decision. Therefore, students may need to personally experience a democratic school climate for some time for its effects to take hold. To better understand the underlying processes, future studies should compare potential mediating variables at the individual and at the classroom level in order to gain insight into the respective mechanism.
In sum, school experiences were found to be related to youth’s negative attitudes toward immigrants. At the same time, the findings underscore that both processes at the individual and contextual level should be considered, supporting the adoption of a multilevel perspective. The most consistent effects of school experiences were identified at the classroom level, which is important from a pedagogical and practical perspective. Tight curricula and a high diversity of students’ individual needs make it difficult for teachers to reach every single student in class. Therefore, a deepened understanding of processes operating at the classroom level could help to provide more general recommendations or guidelines for teachers. Although addressing unfavorable intergroup attitudes within school is a long and challenging task, it is the knowledge about underlying processes that provides a crucial starting point. Raising teachers’ and students’ awareness of the importance of social and democratic processes in class could be a first step. The integration of collaborative learning strategies, interactive and engaging classroom activities, or instructional methods that promote a dialog between teachers and students might then represent some practical and concrete examples of how to foster an open and supportive climate.
The second research question examined whether the effects of school experiences on youth’s negative attitudes toward immigrants would differ according to students’ age (i.e., grade level). While no indication of age-specific effects of school experiences at the individual level was found, the results showed that the dynamics at the classroom level differed by grade level. In particular, class-average perceptions of democratic classroom climate were only associated with less negative attitudes toward immigrants among older (10th grade) but not younger students (6th or 8th grade). This result is in line with the assumptions of the stage-environment fit theory (Eccles & Midgley, 1989
). It suggests that a democratic classroom context may meet students’ growing needs for autonomy and efficacy. It might, however, also mean that a longer exposure to a democratic classroom dynamic is needed to observe its effects. Future studies should therefore examine the processes underlying age-specific patterns in greater detail.
Although there was also a tendency for the effect of supportive peer relations at the classroom level to be stronger among older than among younger students, the moderation by grade level did not reach significance. The attenuated age-related pattern might be explained by the fact that peer relations are—despite changes in structure and dynamics—of high significance throughout the adolescent years (Bowker & Ramsey, 2011
). There was also no indication that the effect of perceived multicultural education on students’ negative attitudes toward immigrants differed by grade level. These results are not in line with the environment fit hypothesis. Students seem to have the necessary cognitive capacity to benefit from the existence of multicultural educational strategies at the outset of adolescence. Correspondingly, a meta-analytical overview found the effects of multicultural education on intergroup attitudes to be stronger among adolescent than among pre-adolescent students, but did not assume the effects to differ within the adolescent group (Okoye-Johnson, 2011
In sum, age-related trends were identified for the classroom-level effect of democratic climate, which was only related to attitudes toward immigrants among older but not among younger students. This indicates that age matters, yet only for certain school indicators. Further research on age-related effects of school experiences is needed to draw more definite conclusions about the generalizability of these findings. Knowing about specific processes depending on students’ or schools’ contextual characteristics can help to provide more tailored advice for schools to create an inclusive environment and to develop strategies to reduce prejudice.
Limitations and Future Research
Some limitations of this research need to be noted. As in most longitudinal studies, not all students participated at all measurement points. Attrition was particularly high among older and lower track students. To account for the potential impact of data attrition, missing values were taken into account in the model estimation. Although this is a highly recommended method to deal with missingness (Jeličič et al., 2009
), a possible bias due to data attrition cannot be completely ruled out. Conceptually, it should be noted that school experiences were examined while drawing on indicators primarily reflecting classroom level processes (i.e., supportive peer relations in class, democratic classroom climate). Since the students in the present study spent most of their time within classrooms, these microlevel dynamics represent an important aspect of their school-based experiences. Yet, to get a more holistic understanding of contextual processes, future studies should further differentiate dynamics at the classroom and school level.
Several limitations concern the adopted measures. First, while the internal consistency of supportive peer relationships at Level 2 was adequate, it was only marginally acceptable at the individual level. To account for measurement error, latent measurement models could, for example, be specified at the individual level in future studies. Second, the measure of perceived multicultural education, which was based on a single-item indicator, poses another limitation (e.g., Loo, 2002
). Reliability estimates of class-average ratings [i.e., ICC(2)] furthermore remained clearly below the recommended threshold. Besides these psychometric limitations, conceptually broader indicators should be applied in future studies. Apart from addressing cultural topics, educational strategies that foster students’ critical thinking or discuss discrimination and racism could be included as well (for an overview see Verkuyten & Thijs, 2013
). Third, negative attitudes toward immigrants were assessed with an explicit measure and might therefore underlie a certain bias due to students’ external or internal motivation to respond without prejudice (Plant & Devine, 1998
). Although similar indicators were used in previous studies (e.g., Miklikowska et al., 2021
), more research comparing explicit and implicit measures of intergroup attitudes among adolescents is needed to gain a thorough understanding of processes causing and maintaining negative attitudes toward immigrants (see, for example, Ewoldsen, 2020
Finally, several characteristics of the data set need to be pointed out: The study was conducted in the federal state of Thuringia in Germany, which is culturally a rather homogenous region (with currently approx. 7% of the population being of immigrant descent). Although this shows that school experiences matter for adolescents’ intergroup attitudes even in the absence of cultural diversity, research from other regions is needed to test for the generalizability of these findings. Another limitation relates to the year of data collection, which dates back to 2003–2005. Although the considered region in Germany is still characterized by low levels of cultural diversity, immigration has increased in recent years. While a general trend toward more tolerant attitudes toward diversity could be observed over the past decades, political polarization rose at the same time (Follmer et al., 2018
). Voices critical of immigration, for example, became distinctively louder in the aftermath of swiftly increased numbers of refugees across Europe in 2015 and, concurrently, right-wing populist parties experienced a significant rise in support (Steinmayr, 2021
). To better understand such macrocontextual processes, it would be interesting for future studies to account for the potential workings of societal processes, such as the salience of migration-related issues, and its impact on youth’s attitudes toward immigrants.