Building Inter-Ethnic Cohesion in Schools: An Intervention on Perspective-Taking

Sule Alan, Ceren Baysan, Mert Gumren, Elif Kubilay

Human Capital and Economic Opportunity Global Working Group (HCEO), Working Paper, January 2020


Research has shown that perspective-taking (a cognitive process of viewing a situation from the perspective of another person) is associated with lower social aggression, higher trust, and social cooperation. It is also related to being able to analyze social situations through slow deliberations (weighing pros and cons before action), which has been shown to reduce crime and violent behavior in various contexts. This paper presents an experimental evaluation of an educational program in southeastern Turkey that aims to build social cohesion in schools by developing perspective-taking ability in children. The program was implemented in schools where the ethnic composition has changed rapidly due to the influx of refugee children, which is perceived by host communities to have had a detrimental effect on schools by increasing peer violence, and creating visible ethnic segregation in schools. The program was implemented as a cluster randomized controlled trial covering around 7,000 children (18 percent of whom were refugees), aged 8-12, from 80 elementary schools. 40 schools were randomly selected to implement the program in the 2018-19 academic year, involving a full-year curricular module to be covered by teachers for at least 3 hours per week.

Key results:

  • The program was highly effective in lowering high intensity peer violence and victimization in school grounds, as measured via diary logs completed by school administrators.
  • The program increased the likelihood of forming inter-ethnic friendship ties, thereby reducing ethnic segregation in the classroom. Treated children (refugees and hosts) were significantly less likely to be socially excluded and more likely to receive emotional and academic support from their classmates. These effects were particularly strong for refugee children: refugee children in treated schools were 7 percentage points more likely to form a friendship tie with a host child and 12 and 10 percentage points more likely to receive emotional and academic support from host classmates, compared to refugee children in untreated schools.
  • There were also significant improvements in prosocial behaviors of children, measured by incentivized games. Treated children showed more trust and reciprocity towards their classmates as well as towards anonymous peers outside of their schools. They also showed higher altruistic tendencies towards anonymous recipients and positively discriminated in favor of refugees in donating parts of their endowments in a dictator game. This heightened prosociality was welfare improving in terms of the payoffs children received in incentivized games.
  • Overall, the program appears to have been effective in building a cohesive classroom environment, and refugees were the primary beneficiaries of this environment. In addition to facilitating their social inclusion, treated children achieved better test scores in Turkish language tests.

The analysis suggests that these results emerge because of improvements in children’s perspective-taking abilities. The program also improves children’s ability to self-regulate impulsivity (ability to weigh the pros and cons of a prospective act), which may have also contributed to reductions in peer violence and victimization. The authors conclude that well-targeted educational strategies can go a long way in building social capital, even in socio-politically difficult circumstances. Additionally, developing perspective-taking ability in children is possible through educational tools and teacher training.