During adolescence, individuals begin to construct a general sense of their identity, or their personal definitions of who they are, what is important to them, and appropriate ways to think and behave. During this period, youth also differentiate their various social identities, the self-constructed definitions of who they are in relation to the social groups to which they belong. A sense of ethnic identity becomes salient for many ethnic minority adolescents as they explore the significance of their ethnic group membership in defining who they are (Spencer & Markstrom-Adams, 1990; Phinney, 1990). Ethnic identity has multiple components, including individuals' views of the importance of their ethnic group to their self-definitions, the meanings they attach to their ethnic group, and their thinking about how their ethnic group affects their position in society. Thus, ethnic identities are descriptive (e.g., “I am a Mexican American”; “I am an African American”), affective (“I feel positively about being an African American”; “I think others regard my ethnic group positively”), as well as prescriptive (“I know how Chinese Americans act”; “I know how African Americans act”). Adolescents' understandings of the meanings of their social identities influence their adaptations and responses within domains in which those identities are salient. Because race and ethnicity often are salient in the domain of education, adolescents' ethnic identities may be particularly relevant in shaping how youth interpret and respond to their social and classroom contexts at school.
Relative to younger children, adolescents have more highly developed cognitive abilities related to understanding themselves and their experiences in more complex, abstract, and indirect ways, and this period also involves intensification of particular social-cognitive attributes, e.g., heightened awareness of how they are viewed by others. Thus, they become more cognizant of the relevance of race and ethnicity in society and have a higher likelihood of perceiving experiences in terms of race and ethnicity (Spencer, Dupree, & Hartmann, 1997).
Academic engagement requires linking one's personal identity to the roles of student and learner (Garcia & Pintrich, 1994), showing sustained curiosity and interest in class, and displaying intense efforts in learning tasks (Connell, Spencer, & Aber, 1994; Skinner & Belmont, 1993). Adolescents' academic engagement has been linked to social identities that are made salient in the academic domain (Garcia & Pintrich, 1994). The academic domain is one in which race often is salient for many ethnic minority adolescents. For instance, entry into secondary schools is associated with increased racial cleavage, social comparison, and heightened salience of racial and ethnic stereotypes (Fisher, Wallace, & Fenton, 2000). Thus, it is likely that minority adolescents' levels of academic engagement are influenced, in part, by their ethnic identity beliefs. Theory and research suggests that ethnic identity may serve as a risk factor for lower academic motivation and achievement as well as promote academic motivation and achievement. The risk and promotion approaches are described below.
Also, there is growing evidence that having a strong, positive sense of ethnic identity may protect minority adolescents from the negative psychological and academic impacts of perceiving ethnic group barriers or experiencing interpersonal discrimination based on their ethnic group. For instance, in a 2006 study, Sellers and colleagues found that Black youth having an ethnic identity characterized by feelings of strong group connection and group pride showed more positive psychological well being when experiencing racial discrimination compared to those adolescents with less strong feelings of connection to and positive attitudes about their ethnic group. Wong and colleagues in their 2003 study found that African American adolescents who held a strong connection to and pride in being Blacks were protected from the negative impact on academic attitudes and performance of experiencing racial discrimination at school relative to those with less of a strong, positive connection with their ethnic group.
Thus, school practitioners must receive training about the development of youth from multicultural backgrounds. This training should not only acknowledge the unique risks associated with membership in ethnic minority groups in the United States but also consider how youths' ethnic identities can serve as cultural assets in relation to their achievement and how to use this information to create inclusive classroom contexts for all students. Without such training, it is likely that teaching approaches and practices will be based on popular views of common sense approaches not supported by empirical research. Additionally teachers should be mindful of endorsing their own ethnic identity beliefs in the class contexts they create.