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We Achieve What We Believe: How to Encourage African American Students to Believe in Their Academic

This post continues our blog series regarding racial/ethnic socialization practices, programs, and approaches. APA is putting together a clearinghouse of resources to help parents/caregivers to protect youth of color and themselves from the psychological damage of discrimination and racism. For more information regarding APA’s new initiative and to provide feedback as we continue to engage in this series, please visit:

By Giselle Hendy (Special Project Coordinator, APA’s Office of Ethnic Minority Affairs)

For too long educational stakeholders including researchers, administrators, teachers, parents and even students placed value in the notion that African American students have less interest and capacity in education. What is most troubling is that African American students may themselves hold these beliefs.  This could lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, so to speak, contributing to achievement at standards below actual capabilities.  Parents and teachers must be sure that they are instilling positive beliefs around African American students and high levels of academic achievement.

Many years ago, I worked as a third-grade teacher. One of my students, Anya*, was truly a model for all; very helpful, obedient, and always on task. Anya earned straight A’s across subjects, with the exception of math. I couldn’t understand her persistent low scores in math, so, I talked to Anya and her grandmother about this anomaly.  The response I received and the lack of reaction from grandma was absolutely shocking.

Anya told me “I just can’t do math. Black women aren’t good at math.” Appalled, I replied “Who told you that?”   Anya replied, “My mama.”

Consciousness is awareness of reality within the limitations of our minds.”

Or, how about this one “Thoughts become things.”

Or, the classic “What one believes one can achieve.”

However cliché these anecdotes may seem, the underlying message is poignant: we are only limited by what we believe we cannot do. Anya’s mom had the best of intentions for her daughter. She did not realize how her words, probably made in passing, had such a profound effect on Anya’s beliefs about her ability and her academic performance.  The beliefs we hold have power over our behaviors.  Cognitive biases influence our interpretation of and reactions to experiences in our lives.  It is imperative that African American youth are encouraged to develop a positive academic identity, fostering the belief that they can achieve at high levels in school.

So, what can we do about it?

There is much to be done at every level, from a policy level down to the social interactions between educational stakeholders.  Each of us must be mindful of what our foundational beliefs are regarding African-Americans and academic success.  Whether we mean to or not, our implicit beliefs about students influence the ways in which we interact with them and ultimately how students feel about school and their place in it.

  1. Assess your personal attitudes and beliefs. We don’t’ always understand how deep our beliefs may go. Sometimes our behavior may even surprise us. In the same vein, we may not always directly, or verbally express our beliefs; they are oftentimes transmitted through our actions. For this reason, it is important to assess our own beliefs, and examine how those beliefs can be translated to students through our actions. Watch this video on Understanding your Racial Biases, then imagine how your own biases around race may have affected the youth you interact with in positive or negative ways.

  2. Promote a narrative of African American intellectual excellence. Provide African American youth with a counternarrative for their place in education. Beyond Black history month, parents and teacher should seek and provide examples of intellectual excellence displayed by African Americans nationally and globally, currently and historically. The more information students have on examples of other African Americans, people who look like them, exceeding standards for education, the less they will be influenced by negative messages about what they can achieve.

  3. Intelligence and ability are malleable. Being smart is not a fixed trait. Oftentimes we send messages that only some people can do very well in school. The incremental theory of intelligence reveals that intelligence and ability can be improved with persistence and hard work (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007). If students believe their efforts can improve their outcomes, they are likely to persist and be more engaged in school. Encourage your students to have patience and keep trying to see better results.

  4. Provide positive socialization messages with regards to race. It is important to prepare our students for the inequities they may face in society. However, research has shown that preparation for bias messages can have a negative effect on academic outcomes (Howard & Bowman, 1985). More positive messages regarding race can lead to improved academic outcomes for African American students. Such messages celebrate the richness of the culture, or promote notions of basic equality among people. Students who are positively socialized around their culture tend to do better in school.

I made a few of these points during a long discussion with my former student Anya and her grandmother. With some additional tutoring through their church, Anya brought an F to an A in math by the end of the school year.  I recently ran into Anya’s grandmother, and she explained to me how influential that one social exchange was to her family.  The younger grandchildren have not received the same messages about Black women, education and ability as their older sister.  Per grandma, Anya continues to thrive academically, and socially as she makes plans for college!

*The student’s name has been changed to preserve confidentiality.


Blackwell, L.S., Trzesniewski, K.H., & Dweck, C.S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78(1), 246-263.

Bowman, P.J., & Howard, C. (1985). Race-related socialization, motivation, and academic achievement: A study of Black youths in three-generation families. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 24(2), 134-141.


Giselle Hendy is the special project coordinator for APA’s Office of Ethnic Minority Affairs. She is also a professor at Baltimore City Community College and a doctoral student in developmental psychology at Howard University under the supervision of Dr. A. Wade Boykin.  Ms. Hendy focuses her research efforts on improving academic outcomes for African American youth through the incorporation of student cultural resources during instructional pursuits.

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