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Dressed and Groomed for Success in Elementary School: Student Appearance and Academic Adjustment


Teacher judgments of student competence can influence student achievement. Clothes, behavior, and physical appearance may all be used to infer student competence. We examined how fourth-grade teacher ratings of student physical appearance (e.g., appropriateness of clothing) relate to concurrent academic adjustment in terms of achievement, classroom engagement, teacher-child relations, parent-teacher partnership, and student academic self-concept and motivation, controlling for academic competence, ethnicity, and family characteristics. We followed 1,311 children from birth to grade 4. Children described by teachers more negatively in terms of their appearance had worse academic adjustment. Student physical appearance was also related to self-reported intrinsic motivation and academic self-concept, as well as to directly assessed math scores. Our results are consistent with social psychological and cognitive theories of stereotyping and classroom expectations, and suggest that school disengagement experienced by disadvantaged students may be partially rooted in elementary classroom dynamics.

Research suggests that individuals are prone to automatically make assessments about the competence and social status of others based on features of their physical appearance. These features may include facial cues, ethnicity, clothes, and body language (Ballew & Todorov, 2007; Macrae & Bodenhausen, 2000; Rist, 1970; Rooth, 2010). According to the “what you see is all there is” hypothesis, individuals are likely to base their impression of others on limited information and then fill in the rest accordingly (Kahneman, 2011). Consequently, if a student is well dressed, teachers may conclude that this student is also academically talented and kind, creating a “halo effect.” In contrast, a disheveled student that is often late may be more likely to be perceived as less competent, talented, and kind. Perceiving others as having a lower social status can also influence judgments of competence (Fiske, Cuddy, Xu, & Glick, 2002). Work in sociology has suggested that individuals are likely to infer social status on the basis of visual cues such as dress and demeanor (Lareau, 2000). Grooming, cultural manners, and language can all function as indicators of social class for students (Ready & Wright, 2011). Lastly, real-life associations between low socioeconomic status and food insufficiency, and between poverty and unhealthy child sleep patterns, could also lead people to assume that children who appear hungry or tired are also disadvantaged (Alaimo, Olson, Frongillo, & Briefel, 2001; Stein, Mendelsohn, Obermeyer, Amromin, & Benca, 2001). Because student appearance is likely to represent a primary cue for judging social status and competence, these perceptions may ultimately influence student academic performance.

Our attitudes and actions toward others are highly influenced by how successful, talented, or otherwise competent we perceive them to be (Cuddy, Fiske, & Glick, 2008). These perceptions are formed quickly and can exercise meaningful influences on others through processes such as stereotyping, implicit biases, and the creation of self-fulfilling prophecies (Jussim & Harber, 2005). In the classroom context, teacher inferences of overall student competence may influence classroom dynamics and place some children at risk of poorer academic adjustment (Jussim & Harber, 2005; Ready & Wright, 2011). Children from disadvantaged and lower social class backgrounds may be particularly vulnerable to the influence of unfavorable self-fulfilling prophecies (Jussim, Eccles, & Madon, 1996). For example, teachers may provide these students with less challenging instructions and fewer opportunities to respond to questions. They may also be criticized more often (Hughes, Gleason, & Zhang, 2005). Evidence also suggests that students perceived as being disadvantaged by teachers also report more conflict and negative interactions with teachers (Fitzpatrick, Côté-Lussier, Pagani, & Blair, 2013). Over the long term, student perceptions of their own competence and their experience of negative classroom experiences and interactions can undermine academic adjustment and success (Ryan & Deci, 2000; Sabol & Pianta, 2012).

Many teachers report being overly stressed, depressed, or burned out (Hamre & Pianta, 2004; Hastings & Bham, 2003). Consequently, they may be prone to using heuristics such as student appearance when forming perceptions and expectations of student competence. Individuals are especially likely to use stereotypes when faced with complex situations during which their cognitive resources have been depleted (Gailliot, Michelle Peruche, Plant, & Baumeister, 2009; Hagger, Wood, Stiff, & Chatzisarantis, 2010; Kahneman, 2011; McIntosh, Girvan, Horner, & Smolkowski, 2015). Research suggests that it is unlikely that teachers are immune from biases in how they perceive students. For example, teachers are likely to hold in higher regard children who are from a high-status social group as opposed to a lower-status minority group (Bradshaw, Mitchell, O’Brennan, & Leaf; 2010; Fitzpatrick et al., 2013; McIntosh et al., 2015; Tenenbaum & Ruck, 2007).

Taken together, theory and research suggest that students' academic experiences are likely to be associated with their general appearance and demeanor (e.g., appearing hungry or tired, being poorly dressed). Although most research on the influence of teacher expectations has examined achievement as an outcome, in the present study we are interested in examining several domains of academic adjustment including classroom engagement, academic self-concept and motivation, teacher-child relationship, and parent-teacher partnership. These measures range from objective standardized achievement tests to more subjective teacher ratings of their relationships with students. This study therefore examines multiple indicators of academic functioning that are important for understanding holistic student adaptation. To be successful, youth must develop strong learning skills involving autonomy, cooperation, and task orientation in the classroom (Bowles, Gintis, & Osborne, 2001; Duckworth & Seligman, 2005; Li-Grining, Votruba-Drzal, Maldonado-Carreño, & Haas, 2010). The ability to develop positive relations with teachers and maintain a positive self-concept and strong academic motivation are also important components of academic adjustment toward the end of elementary school (Archambault, Eccles, & Vida, 2010; Hughes, Luo, Kwok, & Loyd, 2008). Finally, academic adjustment can be enhanced by parental involvement and partnership with teachers (Hughes & Kwok, 2007).

Our main hypothesis is that fourth-grade student general appearance, as reported by fourth-grade teachers, will be concurrently associated with academic adjustment. We examine this association while controlling for family socioeconomic status, which has a well establish influence on academic outcomes (Duncan & Brooks-Gunn, 1997; Noble, McCandliss, & Farah, 2007; Ready & Wright, 2011). Teacher ratings of student appearance may also capture meaningful differences in parenting practices that vary among parents with the same socioeconomic status and directly contribute to academic outcomes. Both maternal hostility and family functioning have been shown to hold strong influences on youth academic success and adjustment (Melby & Conger, 1996; Repetti, Taylor, & Seeman, 2002). To address this possibility, we control for maternal hostility (i.e., maternal coercive parenting with the child) and family functioning (i.e., effective communication and organization within the household).

We also control for two indicators of kindergarten school readiness, classroom engagement and number knowledge, because these skills have been shown to represent robust predictors of children’s eventual academic potential (Duncan et al., 2007; Li-Grining et al., 2010). Children’s school readiness is largely determined by individual characteristics and early environmental experiences (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000). As a result, controlling for school readiness helps us remove variance associated with children’s early developmental experiences. Last, we control for the sex and ethnicity of pupils because these characteristics have been shown to influence teachers’ perceptions of students as well as their achievement (Duncan et al., 2007; Razza, Martin, & Brooks-Gunn, 2010; van den Bergh, Denessen, Hornstra, Voeten, & Holland, 2010).



Children were studied in the context of the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development (QLSCD), which was conducted by the Quebec Institute of Statistics to help document how children’s developmental context and trajectories contribute to eventual academic adjustment and failure ( Only singleton births were considered. Furthermore, to be included, mothers had to be residing in the province of Quebec between 1997 and 1998. Mothers residing in the northern administrative regions or First Nations reserves were excluded from the study. In total 2,837 infants born between 1997 and 1998 in the province of Quebec, Canada, were randomly selected from a stratified sample of the population. At the inception of this longitudinal study, 93 children were deemed ineligible and 172 were untraceable due to incorrect coordinates. Of the 2,572 remaining children, 14 were unreachable and 438 refused participation. For the early childhood phase, 2,120 5-month-old infants were thus deemed eligible for follow-up, representing 82% of the eligible target population defined by the birth cohort. Of these, 39% were firstborn. From school entry onward, informed consent was obtained from the child, parents, and teachers. Our sample consisted of 1,311 children from the 11th survey wave with complete data on student appearance. Questionnaires were administered predominantly in French, reflecting the linguistic distribution of the province of Quebec. The majority of children reported being Canadian (71%), 9% European, 6% African/Haitian or Native, and 14% reported belonging to the category “Other.” These proportions reflect the demographics of the province of Quebec.


For the preschool collection waves, data were collected from children and their families around the date of the child’s birthday. During the school-age waves, data collection occurred in the spring. Families, teachers, and school principals received informed consent forms by mail at each data-collection wave. Teachers and families also received and returned questionnaires by mail. Parents were interviewed by phone or in person by a research assistant trained by the government-operated Direction of Social Services. Parents were compensated in the amount of $25 and were informed that their child would receive a small present at each wave. Measures were developed or adapted for the QLSCD unless otherwise noted (

Measures: Outcome Variables

Math achievement (direct assessment)

Children completed the Canadian Achievement Test CAT/2 with a trained examiner at the end of grade 4. This test evaluates the four basic mathematical operations—Addition, Subtraction, Multiplication, and Division—performed on whole numbers (Dahinten, Shapka, & Willms, 2007; Pagani & Fitzpatrick, 2013). During the assessment, the examiner sat beside the child and read each question out loud. Children then selected the correct answer. A calculation sheet was provided if needed. The Canadian Test Centre initially developed the abridged version of this test for the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth (NLSCY).

Classroom engagement (teacher rated)

Fourth-grade teachers rated classroom engagement after having observed children for approximately 6 months using a seven-item scale (e.g., “Follows rules and instructions”). Potential responses ranged from 1 (never) to 5 (always) in fourth grade. Higher scores indicate a higher degree of classroom engagement. The internal consistency score for this measure was high (Cronbach’s alpha = .94). A confirmatory factor analysis was performed to examine how well a one-factor model accounted for our seven-item classroom engagement scale. Model fit was very good, suggesting that the items capture a single latent factor (CFI = .98; TLI = .97; RMSEA = .07; SRMR = .03). The concurrent and predictive validity of this classroom engagement measure has been shown in prior publications (Fitzpatrick & Pagani, 2012, 2013; Pagani, Fitzpatrick, Archambault, & Janosz, 2010).

Global achievement (teacher rated)

Fourth-grade teachers rated child success in Math, Reading, and Spelling. Students were rated as near the top of the class (scored as 2), above the middle of the class (scored as 1), in the middle of the class (scored as 0), below the middle of the class (scored as −1), or near the bottom of the class (scored as −2). An overall mean was computed across all subjects (Chronbach’s alpha = .89). These measures of academic achievement have been shown to be as sensitive as direct assessments (Duncan et al., 2007; Pagani et al., 2010).

Teacher-child relations (teacher rated)

Teachers rated their relationship with the child in terms of (1) Conflict (e.g., “This child and I always seem to be struggling with each other” [Chronbach’s alpha = .83]) and (2) Warmth (e.g., “I share a close and warm relationship with this child” [Chronbach’s alpha = .78]). All items were rated on a scale from 1 (definitely does not apply) to 5 (definitely applies). Scores were then converted to a mean ranging from 0 to 10 (Pianta, 1992).

Some measures were obtained through child self-reports to corroborate the teacher measures. Academic Self-Concept reflects child perceptions of their academic ability (e.g., “I have always done well in reading/writing/math” [Chronbach’s alpha = .72]). Intrinsic Motivation refers to child enthusiasm toward school (e.g., “I Like math/reading/writing” [Chronbach’s alpha = .81]). Items were rated on a Likert scale from 1 (never) to 5 (always) and means were used in the analyses.

Teacher-parent partnership (teacher rated)

Teachers rated the quality of their collaborative relations with parents (e.g., “When a child goes through a difficult time in my class, I feel at ease to share it with his/her parents”). Items were rated from 1 (strongly agree) to 4 (totally disagree) (Chronbach’s alpha = .76). Mean scores were then converted to a scale ranging from 0 to 10, with higher scores reflecting better relationship quality.

Measures: Independent Variable

General appearance (teacher rated)

At the end of the fourth grade, teachers reported how often the child had attended class: over- or underdressed for school activities, too tired for schoolwork, late, and hungry. Items were rated from 1 (never) to 5 (always) (Chronbach’s alpha = .60). This measure has been use in a prior study to predict student reports of the quality of their relationships with teachers (Fitzpatrick et al., 2013).

Measures: Control Variables

Classroom engagement (teacher rated)

Kindergarten teachers rated seven items of classroom engagement using the same scale as in the fourth-grade assessment.

Number knowledge (direct assessment)

Math ability was measured using the Number Knowledge Test (NKT; Okamoto & Case, 1996) adjusted for 5-year-olds. This assessment was designed to measure children’s conceptual understanding of numbers in terms of knowledge of the number sequence, understanding the cardinal value of each number, understanding the generative rule which relates adjacent cardinal values, and understanding that each successive number represents a set which contains more objects. Scores on the Number Knowledge Test are highly correlated with general intellectual ability and have been shown to be robust predictors of elementary school achievement (Duncan et al., 2007; Pagani et al., 2010).

Socioeconomic status (parent report)

Socioeconomic status was measured when children were in the fourth grade and was derived from mother and father reports of income, occupational prestige, and level of education. This variable was measured based on the procedures developed by Whilms and Shields (1996).

Family characteristics (parent report)

When children were in the fourth grade, mothers reported hostile parenting and family functioning. Hostile parenting included the following items: “I have grabbed my child firmly or shaken him/her”; “I have raised my voice, scolded, or shouted at my child when he/she misbehaved”; “I have used corporal punishment when my child misbehaved”; and “I have hit my child when they were particularly difficult” (Chronbach’s alpha = .74). Items were rated on a five-point scale. Mothers reported family functioning based on 12 items designed to measure family communication, problem solving, control of disruptive behavior, and demonstrations of affection (Chronbach’s alpha = .98). Both measure scores were converted to a scale ranging from 0 to 10.

Student characteristics

Student gender was scored as 1 for boys and 2 for girls. Ethnicity was coded as 1 for Black or Native (e.g., European descent, European, Other) and 0 for non-Black or non-Native.

Data-Analytic Strategy

To test our hypotheses, we conducted a series of multiple regressions. We estimated the contribution of student general appearance in the fourth grade to concurrent teacher, student, and objectively measured academic outcomes. Our models simultaneously adjusted for kindergarten school readiness, ethnicity, and child sex, as well as concurrent socioeconomic status and family characteristics. The Quebec Institute of Statistics collected the data and indicated that there was no statistical basis for analyses to take into account clustering by schools. Furthermore, a recent study suggests little school-level clustering in the QLSCD data (Côté-Lussier, Barnett, Kestens, Tu, & Séguin, 2014).


To retain statistical power and reduce bias occasioned by selective attrition and missing data, which routinely occurs in longitudinal panel studies, we followed the recommendations of Graham (2009). Incomplete data were therefore imputed for covariates and outcome variable using the NORM multiple imputations program (Schafer, 1999). The main advantage of NORM is that it draws values from the conditional distribution of the variables using an iterative method based on an EM algorithm to impute incomplete data. This iterative process depends on the available and valid observations from the original data set.

Descriptive statistics for outcome, predictor, and control variables are presented in Table 1. Our sample equally represented genders. Girls generally showed a more favorable pattern of academic adjustment, performing better than boys on classroom engagement (M = .27 vs. −.32) and global achievement (M = .51 vs. .23), t(1,251) = −10.95, p < .001, and t(1,251) = −4.42 p < .001, respectively. Girls also had less conflictual (M = .77 vs. 1.55) and warmer (M = 7.81 vs. 7.30) relationships with teachers, t(1,251) = 7.37, p < .001, and t(1,251) = −4.46, p < .001, respectively, and reported higher intrinsic motivation (M = 7.63 vs. 7.25), t(1,251) = −5.37, p < .001. Teacher ratings of general appearance and socioeconomic status were significantly correlated, r = −.20, p < . 001.

Table 1.

Descriptive Statistics for Outcomes, Predictor, and Control Variables

 M (SD)MinMax
Outcomes (grade 4):   
 Math achievement (direct assessment)14.87 (3.26)020
 Classroom engagement (teacher report)4.04 (.69)14.00
 Global achievement (teacher report).39 (1.15)−2.002.00
 Teacher warmth (teacher report)7.62 (2.06).0010.00
 Teacher conflict (teacher report)1.11 (1.89).009.40
 Intrinsic motivation (child report)7.44 (1.33)2.8010.00
 Academic self-concept (child report)8.04 (1.23)2.8010.00
 Teacher-parent interaction (teacher report)8.19 (1.52)3.3010.00
 General appearance (grade 4)1.44 (.54).004.00
Control variables:   
 Socioeconomic status (grade 4)−.01 (1.00)−3.152.95
 Classroom engagement (kindergarten)2.68 (.37)13.00
 Number knowledge (kindergarten)13.37 (3.30)325
  % males47  
 Family functioning (grade 4)1.87 (1.43)09.52
 Hostile parenting (grade 4)1.57 (.91)05
 % Black or Native4.5  

Preliminary analyses investigated associations between each indicator of general appearance and outcomes, adjusting for concurrent socioeconomic status, maternal hostility, and family functioning. Overall, we found consistent associations across all scale items within the same general range (see Table 2). Appearing tired was most strongly associated with the grade 4 academic outcomes, although other indicators were at times more important (e.g., having inappropriate clothing had the strongest association with fourth-grade classroom engagement). We therefore proceeded with the more parsimonious approach of measuring the association between general student appearance and academic outcomes.

Table 2.

Adjusted Standardized Regression Coefficients Depicting Associations Between Items of General Appearance and Grade 4 Outcomes

 Teacher ReportsChild ReportsDirect Assessment
ItemClassroom EngagementGlobal AchievementTeacher WarmthTeacher ConflictTeacher-Parent PartnershipIntrinsic MotivationAcademic Self-ConceptMath Achievement
1. Clothing−.32***−.13***−.11**.28***−.15***−.07−.11**−.13***
2. Late−.29***−.13***−.12**.17***−.13***−.10**−.14***−.09**
3. Hungry−.22***−.12**−.03.28***−.05−.07−.07−.13***
4. Tired−.54***−.29***−.17***.38***−.16***−.17***−.18***−.19***

Note. All models are adjusted for concurrent SES, family functioning, and parental hostility.

*. p ≤ .05.

**. p ≤ .01

***. p ≤ .001

View Table Image

Table 3 shows standardized regression coefficients depicting the relationships between teacher ratings of student appearance and academic adjustment, adjusting for confounders. Fourth-grade teacher ratings of student appearance were associated with all of the examined academic outcomes. More specifically, unfavorable fourth-grade general appearance was associated with 58%, 29%, and 22% of a standard deviation unit negative difference on fourth-grade teacher ratings of classroom engagement, global achievement, and teacher warmth, respectively. More unfavorable student appearance also accounted for 42% of a standard deviation unit positive difference in teacher reports of teacher-child conflict and 15% of a standard deviation unit negative difference on a direct assessment of math ability. Finally, more unfavorable general appearance predicted negative differences of 9%, 11%, and 21% of a standard deviation unit in child self-reported intrinsic motivation and academic self-concept, and teacher reports of the quality of teacher-parent relations, respectively.

Table 3.

Standardized Regression Coefficients Depicting the Relation Between Objectively Measured Socioeconomic Status, Signs of Disadvantage, and Academic Outcomes

Independent VariablesClassroom Engagement
(Teacher Rated)
Global Achievement
(Teacher Rated)
Teacher Warmth
(Teacher Rated)
Teacher Conflict
(Teacher Rated)
General appearance (grade 4)−.58***−.29***−.22***.42***
Socioeconomic status (grade 4).01.10***.04−.01
Classroom engagement (kindergarten).17***.18***.05−.21***
Number knowledge (kindergarten).10***.23***−.01.02
Family functioning (grade 4)−.03.09***−.02.06*
Maternal hostility (grade 4)−.03−.04.03.02
Sex (boy = 1, girl = 2).16***.02.07**−.09***
 Intrinsic Motivation
(Child Report)
Academic Self-Concept
(Child Report)
Teacher-Parent Partnership
(Teacher Report)
Math Achievement
(Direct Assessment)
General appearance (grade 4)−.09**−.11***−.21***−.15***
Socioeconomic status (grade 4)−.03.04−.05.12***
Classroom engagement (kindergarten).07*.12***.00.15***
Number knowledge (kindergarten).04.17***..06*.25***
Family functioning (grade 4)−.03−.01−.02.01
Maternal hostility (grade 4)−.05−.07−.06*−.02

*. p ≤ .05.

**. p ≤ .01.

***. p ≤ .001.

View Table Image

Concurrent socioeconomic status was a significant predictor of achievement outcomes, with each standard deviation unit increase accounting for a 10% and 12% standard deviation unit positive difference in teacher-rated global achievement and directly assessed math achievement, respectively. In addition, compared to boys (scored as 1), girls (scored as 2) showed a positive difference of 16% and 7% of a standard deviation unit on classroom engagement and teacher-student warmth, respectively, and a negative difference of 9% of a standard deviation unit on teacher-student conflict. Girls also scored better on self-report motivation, showing a positive difference of 11% of a standard deviation unit. In contrast, girls scored worse than boys on self-reported academic self-concept and an objective assessment of math, showing negative differences of 8% of a standard deviation on each of these measures. There were no gender differences in teacher-rated global achievement or teacher ratings of relationships with parents.


In the present study, we found that a broad range of academic adjustment indicators were related to features of student appearance that may lead to inferences of low socioeconomic status and lack of competence. Students described by teachers as appearing poorly dressed, tired, sleepy, or hungry were rated by teachers as being less competent academically, less engaged, and as having a poorer relationship with these teachers. Corroborating these findings from the student perspective, appearance was related to self-report of academic self-concept and intrinsic motivation to succeed in school. Student appearance was also related to directly assessed math scores in the fourth grade. Finally, teachers also reported having less positive interactions and less effective communication with the parents of students they rated less favorably in terms of their physical appearance and demeanor. These associations were strongest for teacher reports of student-teacher conflict and classroom engagement, and were moderate for student self-reports of adjustment and objective assessments of math performance. These results suggest that some students may be experiencing difficulties in school because they appear inadequately physically prepared for the classroom.

According to our results, unfavorable concurrent parental and family contexts did not account for the associations between student appearance and academic adjustment. Though previous findings have shown that parenting and family characteristics contribute to academic outcomes (Melby & Conger, 1996; Repetti, Taylor, & Seeman, 2002), the present findings suggest that student appearance may be independently associated with performance in school. As a result, it is unlikely that family-based differences alone are entirely responsible for the observed link between student adjustment and teacher perceptions of appearance. These associations were also observed above and beyond student kindergarten school readiness measured by number knowledge and classroom engagement. Ample evidence has supported the importance of starting school on the right foot for helping students achieve future success (Duncan et al., 2007; Grissmer, Grimm, Aiyer, Murrah, & Steele, 2010; Pagani & Fitzpatrick, 2013; Pagani et al., 2010; Romano, Babchishin, Pagani, & Kohen, 2010). Our results suggest that regardless of kindergarten readiness, current appearance may represent a proximal influence on student classroom outcomes.

Children with the same level of parental income, occupational status, and education may nonetheless vary in their access to resources. As a result, the observed associations may have been due to a direct link between more specific material disadvantage and both the predictor and outcome variables. Nevertheless, although our appearance measure may appear to be capturing material disadvantage, our control for concurrent parental socioeconomic status, in terms of parental education, income, and occupational prestige, is likely to largely capture variance association with most aspects of material disadvantage. In addition, we also control for parenting and family variables that are likely to capture risk for parental neglect, which could also contribute to both student appearance and academic adjustment. Furthermore, we examined bivariate correlations between individual items of general appearance and the academic outcomes and have found that items more reflective of material disadvantage (e.g., being “inappropriately dressed”) were not consistently more strongly related to adjustment indicators, suggesting a more general effect of appearance.

Disadvantaged individuals continue to be overrepresented among high school dropouts and convicted criminals (Bowlby, 2008; Ludwig, Duncan, & Hirschfield, 2001). They are also underrepresented in high-prestige, high-paying professions, which often require many years of commitment and engagement in studies (Bowles & Gintis, 2002). Previous research suggests that perceived student competence is associated with poorer academic achievement (Jussim & Harber, 2005; Ready & Wright, 2011). The present study suggests that visual cues indicative of low social status and competence may additionally contribute to this process. In this light, our results are consistent with theoretical perspectives suggesting that physical appearance plays an important role in inferences of social class and competence and in eliciting responses from others (Ballew & Todorov, 2007; Cuddy et al., 2008; Rooth, 2010).

Future research should examine additional mechanisms linking the appearance of disadvantage to poorer academic outcomes. For one, student appearance may influence relationships with peers (Horowitz et al., 2004; Thornberg, 2010). Students that appear more disheveled and less competent may experience more rejection by their classmates. In turn, these students may experience more emotional distress, which may interfere with classroom learning (Inderbitzen, Walters, & Bukowski, 1997). Children who are poorly groomed or inadequately physically prepared for the classroom may also be aware of their appearance relative to other students. This awareness may also lead students to experience emotional distress and disrupt classroom learning. Finally, another possibility is that students that appear less competent may be more likely to be disciplined by teachers (McIntosh et al., 2015). For example, such children may be more likely to receive detention or be sent to the principal’s office than other students. An increase in the experience of disciplinary measures is then likely to decrease student motivation and engagement toward school. Future research should consider these mediational pathways.

In terms of limitations, our study assessed cross-sectional associations between predictor and outcome variables. This design therefore precludes us from inferring causal relationships between these variables. Despite this limitation, we have attempted to account for important child and family characteristics (e.g., early academic competence, family functioning) that may have confounded the observed associations. Furthermore, the study may also have been limited by biases introduced from using teacher reports for our predictor and many of the outcome variables. That is, teacher ratings of student academic adjustment may have been influenced by their perceptions of students’ physical appearance, making observed associations appear stronger than they are in reality. For example, relationships with student appearance were stronger for teacher reports of classroom engagement and teacher-student conflict than they were for the objectively measured math outcome. Differences in effect sizes across outcomes may therefore represent measurement error due to reporter bias rather than actual differences in the effect of stereotypes across indicators of academic adjustment. Future research may seek to replicate these findings with objective indicators of academic outcomes.

Still, observed associations between teacher-rated student appearance, student self-reports, and an independent assessment of math performance increase the credibility of our findings. In the present study, it was also not possible to examine the potential moderating role of teacher socioeconomic status or ethnicity on associations between student appearance and academic outcomes. Examining these teacher characteristics would be useful for generalizing the present findings to more diverse samples of students. Furthermore, the present study was based on a sample of children growing up in the province of Quebec, Canada, which tends to show a more generous pattern of investment in social programming when compared to other Canadian provinces and the United States. Consequently, it is possible that the importance of student appearance may be different in samples facing greater socioeconomic disparity.

This study presents several strengths. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first investigation of associations between student physical appearance and academic outcomes in a large population-based sample of typically developing children. Furthermore, this study was able to inform us of several indicators of student adjustment to school from different sources simultaneously, providing a more detailed picture of student academic functioning. Finally, our study suggests that academic adjustment is concurrently associated with modifiable aspects of children’s appearance and teacher perceptions. As a result, these findings have the potential to help inform school-based interventions and policies. In particular, since academic trajectories tend to stabilize in early elementary school, it may be especially promising for interventions to target these processes with elementary school students and teachers (Alexander, Entwisle, & Horsey, 1997; Entwisle, Alexander, Olson, 2005).

In terms of practical implications, our results suggest that school policies that mandate the use of uniforms may help reduce differential treatment on the basis of student clothing. However, such policies may fail to successfully address other individual differences in appearance in terms of student demeanor. Our findings also suggest that larger classes or classes with a higher proportion of challenging students are likely to foster environments that set the stage for more stereotype use. In these contexts, teachers may experience higher demands on their cognitive resources and may be especially susceptible to relying on the appearance of students to derive perceptions of competence. Unfortunately, information on class size and classroom configuration was not available in our data set. In the province of Quebec, class sizes tend to be rather homogenous, with transfer payments from governments helping to ensure that teacher-student ratios are smallest in more disadvantaged schools (e.g., 18–20 students). As such, it is likely that teachers who work elsewhere, in under-resourced schools and communities, may be especially likely to employ negative stereotypes toward students, which may then undermine the achievement of these students.

Because individuals are generally not aware of their own tendencies to stereotype (Pronin, Gilovich, & Ross, 2004), training that improves teacher awareness and sensitivity by promoting cognitive restructuring may also help reduce the negative influence of stereotypes in the classroom. Although some interventions have been developed to help reduce the negative influence of stereotypes in the classroom, ongoing, ecologically informed efforts are likely to provide the most benefit (McKown, 2005). For example, effective interventions could simultaneously target individual cognitive processes, the context of dyadic student-teacher interactions, as well as critical consciousness regarding social class inequalities in a manner that is suitable given different school contexts.

As social institutions, schools are unparalleled in the extent of contact they have with children. The findings of the present study suggest that inequalities in general appearance may lead to social stereotype use that could send students on a course of academic underachievement. There is no doubt that material and contextual disadvantage predisposes youth to increased academic risks. The present study focuses on how teacher perceptions of students may further contribute to these risks. Children who appear disadvantaged may have school experiences that are characterized by more negative relationships with teachers and lower levels of academic motivation, adjustment, and achievement. Although observed in elementary school, these differences in experiences and adjustment may have enduring consequences. Better understanding these associations can help us reduce the effects of disadvantage on the gradual school disengagement process observed in many at-risk youth.


Caroline Fitzpatrick is assistant professor at Université Sainte-Anne, Nova Scotia, Canada; Carolyn Côté-Lussier is assistant professor at the University of Ottawa; Clancy Blair is a professor at New York University. Address all correspondence to Caroline Fitzpatrick at Université Sainte-Anne, 1695 Route 1, Pointe-de-l’Église, NS BOW 1 MO; e-mail: .


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