We all learn better when we feel understood, and quite a bit of research has found that students’ academic achievement from the third grade on improves when they have a teacher who shares the same racial and ethnic background. For example, students taught by teachers who are like them ethnically or racially, something known as ethnoracial matching, tend to earn higher scores in reading and math.

But what about younger students? Does a teacher’s ethnic or racial background matter to them?

The findings of a new study suggest they do. Six- and seven-year-olds taught by someone who shares their racial and ethnic background scored higher on reading and math tests than those taught by a teacher of a different background.

Data came from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study - Kindergarten Class of 2011 which followed a representative sample of more than 18,000 children enrolled in the study across the U.S. through elementary school.

Students of the same race and ethnicity as their teacher also showed improvement in one aspect of executive function, cognitive flexibility, which predicts academic success. Both of these effects were greater in Black and Latinx students.

Observing the teaching methods used by different groups of teachers may reveal why some methods are more culturally responsive, and therefore more successful, than others.

Executive function involves a range of thought processes. It encompasses the ability to navigate thinking about different concepts or cognitive flexibility, working memory — being able to pull stored information from memory, and the ability to wait for a reward or inhibitory control.

To measure cognitive flexibility, kids had to sort cards according to shape, color and border. The six- and seven-year old students who matched the ethnic and racial background of their teachers showed greater cognitive flexibility than those taught by someone of a different background.

Working memory was measured by having children repeat a dictated series of numbers, with one digit added to the series each time they remembered the previous sequence correctly. Ethnoracial matching had no effect on working memory; the study did not look at inhibitory control.

Though the size of these effects in individual students was relatively small, the researchers believe that when scaled up to a population level and across many years of education, matching students and teachers along ethnic or racial lines could make a big difference in the academic success of minority students.

Of course, the findings also underscore the need for more diversity in teaching. “Diversifying the educator workforce is a key step toward promoting greater equity in schools across the U.S.,” Michael Gottfried, the lead author on the study, told TheDoctor.

“It is really interesting that ethnoracial matching only affected one component of executive function,” Gottfried, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, said. Having an ethnically or racially matched teacher might particularly help students when they work on complex tasks, he added.

Going forward, Gottfried hopes to look at the role teachers play in the association between ethnoracial matching and academic success. It’s possible that teacher expectations change when students share their racial and ethnic identity, and these expectations might affect teaching methods and the way teachers nurture and develop their students.

Michael Little, a co-author on the study, told TheDoctor, “It is relatively easy to observe when an effect is happening, but it is a lot harder to understand why it is happening.” In the future, classroom observations to see what teaching methods are used by different groups of teachers may reveal why some methods are more culturally responsive, and therefore more successful, than others, Little, an assistant professor at North Carolina State University College of Education, said. In-depth teacher interviews could also help reveal more about what is behind the current study’s findings.

The study is published in Early Education and Development.