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Supporting African American Boys in School
Supporting African American Boys in School

Geoffrey Borman
Jeffrey Lewis

July 2009

Low educational achievement contributes to and perpetuates socioeconomic, health, and other inequalities for African Americans. And for males in particular, educational and employment outcomes have declined, even over the past two decades.

Research into low academic achievement for African American children shows that the culture of children and their teachers affects student engagement and learning, and that parental involvement and social networks are important.

Many African American children do not live in nuclear families; they live in a variety of adaptive family structures. This is especially true for low-income and working class Black families. Researchers and teachers know relatively little about how these adaptive family systems support African American children, beyond the fact that they have historically helped African American families survive and meet their psychosocial, cultural, and material needs.

To gain insight from children’s lived experiences, and to map networks of social support, UW-Madison professor of Human Ecology Jeffrey Lewis and colleague Amy Hilgendorf  interviewed 28 African American boys in grades 4-6 from two elementary schools and a middle school in Beloit, Wisconsin.

Lewis and Hilgendorf  asked the boys who helped them be a “good student” and how these acquaintances provide this support. The support the boys discussed was often complex and multidimensional and worked in at least four layers (see sidebar).

Four layers of support

  1. Instrumental support for African American boys’ academic achievement includes help with homework, enrichment and extra skill practice.

  2. Accountability, informational, and moral support.  Boys mentioned being held accountable for their behaviors and help with managing their emotions, and their parents’ meeting with school staff.

  3. Developing school-oriented attitudes, behaviors, and habits.  Boys mentioned encouragement and expectations to “do good” and some extended conversations about the importance of “getting your education” to have a happy life.

  4. Support for basic needs.  Boys appreciated people’s efforts to keep them fed, clothed, and supplied for school. Many said they valued emotional closeness and security as an important form of school-related support. Parents and grandparents often fulfilled these emotional needs.

Friends and siblings made up 26% of the supportive individuals the boys identified. Adding cousins, children accounted for slightly more than one-third of the boys’ identified support networks.

As anticipated, the boys viewed women as providing substantial school-related support. Mothers grandmothers, and aunts accounted for slightly over 30% of all responses.  Adult males also played a significant role for nearly all the boys. Fathers, grandfathers, uncles, mothers’ boyfriends, and others accounted for nearly one quarter of those identified as providing homework support. When one considers the number of times the boys named their peers as providing support, males made up about 38 percent of the supportive individuals reported.

Many adult males mentioned were “non-residential” fathers who were nevertheless involved in the boys' lives. Some of the men were surrogate fathers—their mothers’ boyfriends and unmarried partners. Brothers, cousins, and friends also played significant roles in support networks. They were particularly important when the boys were in trouble.

Two boys said the majority of their support came from households in other communities. This agrees with reports from many that their families made regular trips to visit relatives in other cities up to 3 hours away, and that they had regular phone conversations with supportive adults in other cities, including calls to discuss school. Thirteen of the twenty boys reported receiving most of their support from one location. However, six reported support networks that were spread over two locations.

Mentoring programs represent a common approach to securing support for African American boys. Yet regardless of their effect, formal mentoring programs have reached a relatively small percentage of these children. Many boys who want mentors must wait a year or more and many cannot meet the criteria necessary for success. Moreover, Lewis says, these approaches often fail to identify or tap into support already available within the boys’ social networks.

Most boys identified supportive adults in addition to their primary caregivers, most often members of their extended and social families. Their support parallels many functions of mentors, including encouragement and reinforcement. These adults told the boys “to do the right thing” in school, voiced clear expectations for academic achievement, and celebrated the boys’ successes.

Some boys also mentioned ways these adults modeled positive school-related behavior. Some recalled personal stories that conveyed lessons relevant to school and their education. Many adults provided instrumental help with schoolwork, paralleling the tutoring function of some mentoring programs.

Lewis argues for the importance of finding ways to connect African American boys’ natural mentors to their school lives. While the important individuals the boys identified already serve many mentor functions, these adults may not be well equipped to provide other functions, for example, providing “bridging” social capital. Natural mentors have few opportunities to connect boys with more advantaged individuals or with employers or institutions of higher education institutions, Lewis says. But school staff are likely to have access to bridging capital. When made aware of the boys’ support networks, school staff could provide this service to the boys and to their mentors. The entire social network as well would be strengthened.

Boys expressed some ambivalence about school—they did not always view it as “safe and familiar.” However, the sixth graders named at least one teacher with whom they felt comfortable. Most of the sixth grade teachers had at least one African American boy that experienced their classroom as a good place to be. Lewis says he views this as a hopeful sign that productive and caring relationships can be established between the boys and their teachers.

Lewis is still gathering data on the boys’ experiences of not having support, and he cautions that his analysis in this are preliminary and suggestive. However, the data revealed two issues to consider:

  1. When the boys described situation in which they did not have support or help they needed, most often they described situations when the individual commonly available for support was simply not around (e.g., a parent is not at home or a teacher has left the classroom). These were generally short term situations and preliminary data suggest  these are not chronic or serious problems.
  2. Boys described situations in which they needed assistance with homework, and an adult was available who could help, but the boys did not seek help from that person because the supportive adult had previously responded with anger or frustration with a request for help from the child. When this individual is the only person available, the boys report dealing with the need for help their own, sometime with frustration and anger.


Lewis recommends a number of ways to improve school-related support for African American boys.

  1. Educators should view African American boys and their families more consistently as resource-rich and full partners in support of their education. Start by creating opportunities for boys to share this information and by showing interest in the boys’ lives.
  2. Educators should develop a broader concept of family support for school that goes beyond what is typically called “parent involvement. ” Find ways to partner with these support systems: (a) Look beyond “parents” and identify any adults who provide school-related instrumental and emotional support, and (b) Expand our undersanding what constitutes support. Identify how parents actually support their child’s education, as well as what the boys experience as supportive.
  3. Men matter to these boys. Educators should find ways to partner with them and connect them with boys’ schools.  Men regularly appear in support networks, even when they live in separate households and separate cities.
  4. Peers play an important role in boys’ support networks and can provide positive influence. Educators should identify and engage boys’ peer relations that provide school-related support.