Applied Psychology OPUS

Reconsidering Parental Involvement: Implications for Black Parents

by Steven O. Roberts

         A preponderance of studies operationally define parental involvement as specific acts of engagement, such as helping children with their homework, volunteering in schools, or attending parent teacher conferences (Jeynes, 2010). These measurements are often based on generalized conceptions that do not account for culturally distinct parenting techniques (see El Nokali, Bachman, & Votruba-Drazl, 2010; Izzo, Weissberg, Kasprow, & Fendrich, 1999). For instance, Black parents may deliberately employ unique behaviors that seek to promote their children’s academic outcomes (Neblett, Chavous, Nguyen, & Sellers, 2009). Unfortunately, culturally distinct behaviors of Black parents are not represented in the current parental involvement literature. As a result, the current literature may suggest that Black parents are less involved in their children’s academic lives that they actually are. In light of this possibility, the purpose of this review is to shed insight into a more culturally sensitive conceptualization of parental involvement by furthering our understanding of how Black parents may seek to promote their children’s academic achievement. Of course, in order to understand parental involvement within the Black community, it is important to understand how experiences with racism can impair the academic achievement of Black students.

Racially Influenced Hindrances of Academic Achievement
        Racism - defined as “the beliefs, attitudes, institutional arrangements, and acts that tend to denigrate individuals or groups because of phenotypic characteristics or ethnic group affiliation” (Clark, Anderson, Clark, Williams, 1999, p. 805) - is commonly experienced by the Black community (Greene, Way, & Pahl, 2006; Seaton, Caldwell, Sellers, & Jackson, 2008). Acts of racial discrimination can take the form of either major events (e.g., being denied a bank loan, being fired because of membership in a racial group) or day-to-day events (e.g., being treated with less courtesy than others, being called names because of membership in a racial group) (Soto, Dawson-Andoh, & BeLue, 2010). Research suggests that individuals who experiences acts of racial discrimination are more likely to experience lower self-esteem and higher rates of depression and behavior problems (Cunningham, Swanson, Spencer, & Dupree, 2003; Neblett, Philip, Nguyen, & Sellers, 2008), which in turn are all negatively related to academic achievement (Ceballo, Dahl, Aretakis, & Ramirez, 2001; Lackeye & Margalit, 2006).

        Another salient form of racial discrimination experienced by Black students is racially biased teacher expectations. Specifically, recent research suggests that teachers often hold lower academic expectations and provide poorer quality instruction to Black students than they do to White students, thus providing Black children with fewer resources to learn from (Bakker, Denessen, & Brus-Laeven, 2007; McKown & Weinstein, 2008). Black students may then internalize the low expectations of their teachers, leading them to experience lower self-esteem (McKown & Weinstein, 2008). As a result of this, Black students may become motivated to achieve according to the perceived low expectations of their teachers, which can result in decreased academic performance (Steele, 1997; Weinstein & Middlestadt, 1979).

        Racially biased teacher expectations are also related to enhanced depression in Blacks (Odom & Vernon-Feagans, 2010). Depressed students are less likely to be behaviorally or emotionally engaged in academic activities, which has negative implications for academic performance (Eccles & Roeser, 2009). Furthermore, children who frequently experience racial biases can develop aggressive or anxious personalities (Copeland-Linder, Lambert, Chen, & Ialongo, 2011), which in turn lower the already low expectations teachers may have for Black students, as teachers are more likely to hold low expectations for children they find difficult to manage (Hinnant, O’Brien, & Ghazarian, 2009; McKown &Weinstein, 2008). In sum, racially biased teacher expectations catalyze various behaviors in Black students which then further lower teacher expectations, resulting in a vicious cycle of discrimination. With these facts in mind, it is no wonder that a large body of literature relates low teacher expectations with poor academic achievement (Hinnant et al., 2009; McKown &Weinstein, 2008). Of course, in addition to Black students’ efforts to combat the negative influence of racially biased teacher expectations, they must also often struggle to remain resilient to the effects of stereotypes.

        Social stereotypes in the U.S. often place Blacks in a negative light relative to members of other racial groups (Chavous, Harris, Rivas, Helaire, & Green, 2004). Some common stereotypes about Blacks are that they are more likely to steal from others, act aggressively, or under perform academically (Beyer, Loeber, Wilkstrom, & Stouthamer-Loeber, 2001; Pauker, Ambady, & Apfelbaum, 2010). Research suggests that stereotypes about an individual’s intellectual ability are likely to have an especially negative influence on academic achievement (Steele & Aronson, 1995). Specifically, Steele and Aronson (1995) posited that the mere thought of a negative stereotype about one’s social group has the influence to lower the academic performance of individuals belonging to that group.

        To test the stereotype theory, Steele and Aronson (1995) recruited college students to complete a test composed of items from the Graduate Record Exam. In the experimental condition, Black participants were exposed to an evaluative component (i.e., they were told that the test diagnosed intellectual ability). Students in the control condition received no such messages. Results of this study revealed that Black students in the experimental condition performed significantly lower than Black students in the control condition, suggesting that being exposed to an evaluative component negatively influenced students’ academic performance. Steele and Aronson (1995) posit that the presence of the evaluative component may have activated awareness of negative stereotypes (e.g., that Blacks are more likely to underperform academically), which may have led to anxiety within the students. Support for this relation is evidenced by the fact that after the experiment, participants were asked to complete word fragments and Black students who were in the experimental group were most likely to use words associated with negative stereotypes (e.g., __mb was filled as “dumb” instead of “numb”). This phenomenon is now understood as stereotype threat (Steele & Aronson, 1995; Aronson & Steele, 2005), and has been empirically validated in multiple studies (e.g., Fischer & Massey, 2007; McKay, Doverspike, & Bowen-Hilton, 2003).

         By examining some of the negative experiences of Black students within academic settings, research shows that there are various ways in which race is related to academic achievement. Therefore, parental involvement in the Black community might involve acts that are aimed specifically towards racial issues (Cooper & Smalls, 2010). However, there exists a preponderance of studies that do not consider race in their conceptualization of parental involvement. As a result of this, parental involvement in the Black community may not be accurately represented in the current literature. It is therefore crucial that researchers reconceptualize parental involvement in order to accurately capture, and moreover, understand, parental involvement in the Black community. In doing so, researchers may develop the knowledge needed to create culturally inclusive parental involvement measures, and more importantly, may be able to measure parental involvement accurately and effectively within Black samples.

Becoming Culturally Inclusive
        In the past two decades, a more thorough conceptualization of parental involvement has emerged beyond the school-based concept (e.g., volunteering in schools, serving on school committees) to include a variety of motivated beliefs and behaviors that can occur in the home, community, or school setting (e.g., helping children with homework, visiting libraries and museums, speaking with other parents and school administrators, believing in a child’s ability) (Epstein, 1995; Fan & Williams, 2010; Grolnick & Slowiaczek, 1994; Hoover-Dempsey & Sandler, 1995; Jeynes, 2010). Although this multidimensional conception of parental involvement is important, it may not accurately capture culturally distinct aspects of parental involvement (Cooper & Smalls, 2010; Manz et al. 2004). Therefore, the current conceptualization of parental involvement may continue to evolve by examining alternative ways in which minority parents, Black parents in particular, seek to ameliorate their children’s academic well-achievement.

         Research shows that children who receive certain types of racial socialization messages from their parents benefit academically (Neblett et al., 2008). More specifically, when parents emphasize enhancing their child’s self-worth (e.g., telling their children they are special no matter what anyone says), and express egalitarian messages (e.g., messages regarding racial equality and coexistence), their children are more likely to experience higher levels of academic curiosity and persist more on difficult school tasks (Neblett, Philip, Cogburn, & Sellers, 2006; Neblett et al., 2009). Neblett et al. (2006) speculates that this might be because self-worth and egalitarian messages enable Black children to feel safe and equally entitled to explore academia and apply themselves in the classroom, even in the presence of messages that suggest otherwise. This has important implications, as it suggests that self-worth and egalitarian messages may buffer the negative effects biased teacher expectations have on academic achievement. In addition, when parents socialize their children to develop knowledge about Black history and traditions, in-group orientations, and racial pride, children develop the necessary tools and characteristics to counteract racist experiences (Chavous, Rivas-Drake, Smalls, Griffin, & Cogburn, 2008; Hughes, Witherspoon, Rivas-Drake, West-Bey, 2009; Neblett et al. 2006; Neblett et al. 2009). Furthermore, specific types of racial socialization may be able to buffer the negative effects of stereotype threat (e.g., decreased academic engagement, decreased motivation) (Steele, 1997). Taken together, it is clear that there are many ways in which Black parents can utilize racial socialization messages to positively impact the academic performance of their children; however, not all forms of racial socialization lead to positive outcomes.

        Research suggests that aspects of racial socialization that prepare children to experience discrimination are negatively associated with self-esteem, ethnic identity, positive behavioral outcomes, and academic well-being (Hughes et al., 2009). At first glance, it is plausible to consider that raising awareness of racial inequities and potential encounters with discrimination may serve as a protective factor. However, being overly attuned to biases may have deleterious effects on Black students. For instance, when children frequently receive messages that prepare them for experiences with discrimination, such as low expectations, children may internalize these messages and become motivated to perform in ways that are academically and behaviorally consistent with the low expectations that others have of them (McKown & Weinstein, 2008; Steele, 1997; Steele & Aronson, 1995; Weinstein & Middlestadt, 1979).

        In light of the potentially positive and negative influences nuances aspects of racial socialization may have on Black students, Neblett et al. (2009) suggests that simultaneously expressing messages about possible negative outcomes Black people commonly experience (i.e., preparation for bias, racial barrier messages), emphasizing pride in Black history and culture (i.e., racial pride messages), affirming Black children’s personal and racial group identities (i.e., self-worth messages), and stressing the importance of positive relations with other racial groups (i.e., egalitarian messages) may be an optimal form of racial socialization. In other words, teaching children about the harmful effects of discrimination and stereotypes, while simultaneously emphasizing the child’s cultural background, self-worth, and equality among all people, may socialize Black children to become resilient to the negative effects of discrimination and stereotypes. In sum, racial socialization looks like a promising type of involvement that Black parents may engage in to enhance their child’s academic achievement. However, with 39% of Black families in the U.S. living below the poverty threshold, (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010), economically disadvantaged Black parents must often work to combat the negative aspects of poverty.

Combating the effects of socioeconomic status
        A disproportionate amount of Black children live in economically disadvantaged single parent households, and have parents with low levels of education and employment status (Castro et al., 2004). These negative aspects of poverty often hinder parents’ ability to be involved in their children’s schooling. For instance, parents with lower education levels may feel less competent to engage with professionals in the school context (Johnson, 2010; Manz, Fantuzzo, & Power, 2004). Furthermore, single parents may not have the time to be actively involved in their child’s school (Manz et al., 2004). In light of these unfortunate circumstances, previous research suggests that Black parents from economically disadvantaged contexts may focus on dimensions of parental involvement that do not depend heavily on school contact (Dauber & Epstein, 1993).

         In a recent investigation, Jeynes (2010) highlights more subtle aspects of parental involvement, which may be the most powerful predictors of children’s academic achievement. Subtle types of parental involvement include believing in a child’s ability, communicating with a child about academia, and holding high expectations for a child’s academic achievement (Jeynes, 2010). Holding high educational expectations for Black children is particularly important, since just as these children are able to internalize the discriminatory expectations of their surroundings, they are able to internalize the positive and potentially uplifting expectations of their parents (Bandura & Walters, 1963; Jeynes, 2010; McKown & Weinstein, 2008). As a result, children whose parents expect them to achieve highly may adapt the qualities and beliefs of their parents, resulting in an increased feeling of competence and academic achievement (Bandura, 1995; Fan & Williams, 2010; Jeynes, 2010). Therefore, when measuring parental involvement within economically disadvantaged populations, it is important to acknowledge that parents with limited resources can still strengthen and support their children’s academic achievement through more subtle aspects of parental involvement (Jeynes, 2010).

Conclusion and Implications for Future Direction
        Black children are often exposed to multiple contextual hindrances that impair their academic achievement. In response to these hindrances, Black parents may become involved in a culturally distinct manner that aims to serve as a protective factor. The current conceptualization of parental involvement does not capture culturally distinct behaviors, which is a methodological shortcoming that needs to be addressed. More specifically, when examining parental involvement within Black populations, researchers should seek to identify the presence of racial socialization and more subtle aspects of parental involvement. By working towards a more culturally sensitive approach to measuring parental involvement, researchers may be able to determine nuanced aspects of parental involvement that may be more relevant to Black students. Potential findings can catalyze policy makers and schools to implement educational initiatives that inform Black parents about the contextual hindrances their children face, and of ways in which they can become involved to combat those hindrances. These policies and interventions would undoubtedly be an important contribution to the ongoing effort of reducing racial educational disparities in the U.S.


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Author's Biography

Steven O. Roberts is a senior in the Applied Psychology program. His main research interests include the contextual factors that hinder or promote the academic development of economically disadvantaged youth. After graduating, he intends to pursue a graduate degree in the field of psychology.