How Parents Can Support Teens of Color in School

Center for Parent and Teen Communication faculty affiliate Dr. Joanna Lee Williams spoke to Latisha Ross, Ph.D., a research associate with Youth-Nex: The University of Virginia Center to Promote Effective Youth Development. Dr. Ross shared her knowledge of Black families and education, ranging from cultural strengths that exist within the Black community to how Black families can support their teens in school, to how to navigate their teen’s education in the time of COVID-19. Here’s what she had to say. 

Latisha Ross, Ph.D.

Joanna Lee Williams: What are the challenges and opportunities for Black parents in supporting their teens in the education system?

Latisha Ross: The biggest challenge for Black parents in the U.S. education system is that the system was not designed with Black parents and families in mind. There’s a concept in the sociology of education called cultural capital, which are the skills, networks, and resources that families bring to the table. The cultural capital valued in schools are things that privileged white and wealthy families can bring to the table, like fundraising, the ability to bring resources to the classroom, being present in classrooms, helping with school events, and things that require quite a lot of time and different kinds of efforts and skillsets. Black families face stereotypes (e.g., being absent, less caring) and are not necessarily valued or welcomed in school spaces. Despite this, Black parents use a variety of strategies to engage with schools, maintain knowledge of their child’s experiences at school, and support the learning and school experiences of their Black children. 

Schools often lack understanding of Black cultural norms, styles, and traditions. As unoffending as some actions may be, others may make assumptions. Everyday ways of speaking and moving through the world are read as intentionally combative behavior when this is not the case. For example, teachers are more likely to rate students with culturally Black styles of walking as more aggressive, lower in achievement, and more in need of special education services. 

This lack of knowledge of Black culture shows up in misinterpretations of Black children’s behavior and poses unique challenges for Black families.  There are cultural styles that Black people engage in that primarily white education staff may not understand. It’s not uncommon for Black parent advocacy and involvement to be interpreted by schools as angry or hostile when working towards creating learning spaces beneficial for Black children. I think the onus is on schools to try to open their minds further and take the time to read and learn about Black culture and gain a greater understanding of the legacy of institutional racism in schools that Black families are dealing with. We can do better with helping educators recognize when they are making assumptions and how those assumptions are swaying the ways in which they receive their students and their families.  

JLW: What strengths do Black families draw  from when they’re engaging in conversations about education with their adolescents?

LR: Knowing their child’s strengths and really relying on those. If your child has a very strong interest in a particular area, you should definitely hone that as much as you can and have conversations about how they can expand upon that. Another huge strength is maintaining a connection with your community, with your religious affiliation, which has been one of the critical areas for supporting engagement and keeping your youth connected as well. That is key for success because when parents feel supported and have resources, they can show up and be their full selves without stress. Everybody wins. Also, Black parents have a legacy of advocating for their children’s education. They are aware of the systemic inequities faced by Black students, and through their advocacy and involvement, they work to protect their children from harm and create nourishing spaces for them. Drawing from and building upon this legacy is another great strength of Black parents.

JLW: Can you suggest some strategies and tips to help ensure parents play a positive role in their teen’s education?

LR: Create an environment where open communication is welcome so that your teen knows they can come to you and talk about what’s going on at school. Check in with your teen regularly about their experiences and needs when it comes to education. Ask, ‘How are things going this week?’ ‘Was there something you were struggling with?’ or ‘How are you advocating for yourself? Do you need me to advocate for you?’ Those lines of communication with your teen can be very helpful. Tell them, ‘You have a voice, and you can use it!’ Let’s empower our teens. Offer ways your child can be an advocate for themselves. In my research, I have found that support and encouragement go a long way. When parents are supportive and encouraging, adolescents persist more. They’re more engaged, have higher grades, and a higher sense of well-being.

JLW: Over the past several months, there has been increased national attention towards issues of racism. How do you think that has impacted the role that parents play in supporting their children’s educational experiences? Should parents be doing anything differently?

LR: There are things that parents can be doing differently to help their children understand this moment and help them reckon with the legacy of slavery and imperialism in the United States and how it’s showing up in things like the Black Lives Matter movement. We are finally opening our eyes as a country to these injustices and the indifference that this system has shown towards these groups.  At this moment, families of privileged status can work towards gaining an understanding of the ways slavery and imperialism have played a role in setting up some people in our society for success and others for hardship.

There are decades of research describing the ways in which families of color have engaged in such conversations about race and oppression. However, discussions of racial oppression in families of racial privilege are less commonly noted. Parents of racial privilege can learn about themselves, what these legacies are and have conversations with their children about what that means. Parents of privilege can check-in with themselves. Consider how they and their children interact with neighbors and how they build friendships and relationships with People of Color and identities different from their own at school and in their communities. This is a moment to build upon, gain understanding, and end a culture of denialism and colorblindness (e.g., “I don’t see race.”).

JLW: Another moment we’re all currently living through is the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s brought a whole different set of stressors related to supporting our children’s education. What practices should parents consider as they’re navigating this period?

LR:First, we need to acknowledge that this is a traumatic time for a lot of people. People are very sick, and many are struggling financially. Parents should take whatever steps they can to alleviate stress, whether that’s connecting with their communities, knowing what their resources are to support their children and their own well-being. Also, setting up routines and systems that work for your family and allow your family to, as much as possible during this time, survive and thrive.

A lot of parents are concerned that their children just aren’t learning or learning as effectively, and not getting access to high-quality education. I would say to parents with those concerns to maintain an open line of communication with your child and your child’s educator as much as you can. Say, ‘I don’t think this is working, can we figure out another system?’ or ‘This is working really well. How can I get more of this for my child?’ Black parents have tools at their disposal to support their children’s school experiences and create opportunities for success for them. Having a strong and positive relationship with your teen and practicing clear communication goes a long way. 

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity by LaShieka Hunter.  

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About LaShieka Hunter

LaShieka Hunter is a health, parenting, and entertainment writer living on Long Island, NY. Her work has appeared in The New York Times; O, The Oprah Magazine; Essence; Dr. Oz The Good Life; Men’s Health; and Ebony.

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