Stereotypes are sets of ideas, beliefs and/or perceptions about specific groups of people. Popular culture influences our attitudes and perspectives and can reinforce or counter cultural and ethnic stereotypes. We unconsciously assimilate messages about social identity, such as, race, gender, and sexuality (MacFarlane et al.,2016) Developing an understanding of how this works is crucial in our steps and efforts towards inclusion.

Stereotypes promote negative connotations of certain groups of people. In turn, this may have severe and/or negative consequences for the individuals and groups who are being stereotyped. Mass media and popular culture both reflect and represent those cultural messages.

Stereotypes can present negative images of people and groups, but they can also be harmful when they present positive ones. For example, idealized Western standards or expectations of beauty can affect the views that many people, including people living with disabilities, have of themselves. When we see these idealized images, we judge others as well as ourselves. The negative effects of this stereotyping leads to objectification, disempowerment, discrimination and the dehumanization of those with disabilities. It is important that as educators, we help our students learn how to critically examine the attitudes and biases that exist in the popular culture they consume.

One key element in the process of perception is that we connect what we are seeing to our pre-existing ideas of the world. These ideas, combined form a schema. A schema consists of the mental structures or frameworks that we use to organize knowledge and guide our cognitive processes and behavior. (Michalak, 2020) Schemas can perpetuate stereotypes and make it challenging for us to absorb new information and to add to our existing knowledge structures. In addition, schemas influence “what we pay attention to, they allow us to think quickly and change how we interpret incoming information.” (Cherry, 2019)

For example, a child may develop a schema of a frog at a young age, and when encountering a lizard, the initial reaction may be that the lizard is a frog. The child may not have yet developed their schema of a lizard, along with its features. A new and adapted schema will form once the child can apply new information and modify their existing schemas to fit into new ones. Schemas can change through processes of assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation happens when “new information is incorporated into pre-existing schemas” and accommodation refers to when “existing schemas might be altered, or new schemas might be formed” as new information is learnt and obtained and new experiences take place. (Cherry, 2019)

In Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory, a schema is both the category of knowledge as well as the process of acquiring that knowledge.” (Cherry, 2019) Piaget’s theory refers to the development of one’s thought processes and how those processes influence understanding of the world one interacts with and lives in. These schemas continue to change and develop throughout one’s gaining of understanding and knowledge.

Gender schemas or an individual’s ideas of gender are influenced by parents, family, culture, friends, and media. Schemas influence our attitudes, perceptions, and/or beliefs about what gender-appropriate behavior might consist of. These attitudes can limit the potential of individuals and society in general. Constructs of gender are complex as they continue to evolve and change as do our perceptions.

From an inclusive lens, it is important to be,”watching carefully for pervasive deficit thinking towards marginalized students,” (Minero, 2020) and the dangers of perpetuating negative stereotypes. Deficit thinking focuses extensively on students’ shortcomings and can reinforce stigma, or negative beliefs educators may have about their students. Stigma relates to the disapproval of and/or the discrimination against people who share certain characteristics. Holding prejudicial beliefs about individuals and groups influences our perception and interpretation of new information, experiences, and information.

Implicit bias, “refers to attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control”. (Kirwan Institute, 2015). Implicit biases or associations shape our interactions with others. ”In addition to early life experience, media and news programming are often-cited origins of these implicit associations.” (Kirwan Institute, 2015) Many of these messages are transmitted by social media, news sources and television which all in all, are an immense part of individuals lives in the 21st century. It is essential that we raise awareness of these implicit biases and that we help our students think critically about the media they are interacting with.

Biases that are left without acknowledgement or challenge, can affect the expectations people have of others and their capabilities, more specifically in this case, educators. Without addressing implicit biases, the dangers of single stories have been present in Western and Eurocentric literature, focusing on ‘difference,’ and deficits and overlooks stories in favour of one, central story. The representation of disability in visual media and pop culture, all contribute to the formation of identity.

Implicit bias, stereotyping and deficit mindsets lead to inequity and undermine the inclusiveness of our classrooms. We need to understand the role we play in supporting our students to be actively engaged in shaping their identity and to see themselves as capable learners who can achieve their potential.  When we can see students as individuals “by focusing on their personal characteristics beyond their group membership & take others’ perspectives in order to better understand their experiences”, a better education for all can be achieved. (MacFarlane et al., 2016)

Negative stereotypes curtail an individual’s chance and opportunity to bring the best version of themselves to the table. It can prevent our students from actively and proactively carefully developing towards the highest academic achievement and success. Therefore, authentic, diverse and balanced representations of our identities (social, cultural, and emotional), where we can see ourselves reflected in positive and diverse ways, is a needed step towards inclusion. Through critical and conscious discourse and the exchange of personal opinions and experiences, individuals can significantly add to an all-inclusive space for talking about disability. As a last note, through the transformation and expansion of knowledge, individuals can continue to acknowledge their biases and their effects, hold those in their surroundings accountable to continually become aware, critical thinkers and conscious observers of the world they interact with and live in.


Key Takeaways

  • Our attitudes, thoughts, perceptions and behaviors are influenced by  representations in mass media, including literature, theater, music and other forms of representations.
  • Unconscious, implicit biases are developed throughout the course of our life and may result in distorted and deficit views of ourselves and others.
  • When certain stories or pieces of information don’t fit in with our available mental frames and structures, we struggle to include new information into our ways of thinking. (Crenshaw, 2016) Schemas that have developed at young ages can be rigid and take years to change.
  • Through critical thought and proactive action, we can establish inclusive, respectful and calm learning that support students’ intersecting identities.
  • One step towards inclusion is for us to move away from the more generic, mainstream or generally accepted representation by transforming and expanding our knowledge structures.


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Inclusive Perspectives in Primary Education Copyright © 2021 by room305 and Inclusive Education Class 2020-2021 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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