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Measuring the effects of isolation

Researcher: Dana Thompson Dorsey


isolated individual
Isolation hurts children.

Across a range of disciplines, studies have documented that social isolation in childhood generates persistent detrimental effects – on individuals’ health, self-perceptions and aspirations, motivation and educational attainment. Adults who were socially isolated as children have been shown to be less resilient when confronting new situations and have less capacity to adapt to different or changing environments.

Evidence of the harm of isolation, drawn from social science research, has played a role in educational policymaking and in the legal landscape surrounding schooling in America. Social science research that demonstrated harms of isolation was at the heart of the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case.

In that decision, justices considered the effects of racial segregation, concluding that isolating children of similar age and qualifications solely based on their race “generates a feeling of inferiority as to the status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”

The Brown decision led to three decades of efforts to desegregate public schools in most of the country. That period has been followed in more recent years by a phase during which schools have re-segregated by race. In fact, schools today are more racially segregated than they were in the late 1960s.

Dana Thompson Dorsey has researched that history, describing the legal landscape of desegregation cases and why desegregation was needed to reduce the impacts of social isolation on black children.

Thompson Dorsey’s work is informed by a background that includes a law degree from the University of Pittsburgh and several years of work as an attorney in racial discrimination issues. She also earned a Ph.D. in Administrative and Policy Studies from the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education.

Compounding effects of rural isolation?

Now Thompson Dorsey is extending her research, examining whether the effects of geographic isolation compound those of racial segregation.

In a Spencer Foundation-supported project, Thompson Dorsey is building on work she has done exploring attitudes among high school students, teachers and principals in rural counties in North Carolina, a state with more rural students than Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma combined.

Using a Diversity Assessment Questionnaire (DAQ) developed at Harvard University to collect survey data, Thompson Dorsey has found that students in racially segregated schools were keenly aware of their inferior schooling conditions, which led to lower academic aspirations. The findings suggested that some rural youth were academically prepared for higher education but were less prepared socially and emotionally to live away from their rural communities and pursue further education.

Thompson Dorsey is working to investigate attitudes among students and school personnel to identify how rurality might compound feelings of isolation among rural students. Her work is aimed at helping to fill a gap in understanding as there has been little research on creating culturally responsive educational policies and practices that promote health, safe, and more equitable schools for racial minority youth in rural settings.