“Friendtor”: The importance of building positive relationships with students

Let’s support and empower students — not just academically, but socially and emotionally as well.

By Alexandra Agiliga, BA

Alexandra AgiligaMovies, news and other media constantly portray people of color, particularly Black men and boys, as deviant, backward or subpar. With pop culture reinforcing these perceptions, it is not surprising that many young, impressionable students of color internalize these portrayals. They may even carry these societal expectations with them to school and into the classroom. This may partially explain why students of color in urban public school systems often struggle to achieve academic success — they are distracted by the largely negative media portrayals of how people of color “should” be and act. Thinking of students of color, and other underrepresented groups, in such limiting terms is inappropriate. Instead, I believe we need to challenge negative internalization and expectations. This has become abundantly clear through my personal and work experiences, especially since early September.

Over the past few months, I have been working in an eighth grade classroom in one of the nation’s lowest performing public school districts. It is easy to look at many of the students in my school and feel sorry for how they have been “left behind.” However, it takes a more discerning eye to see the potential of our students, what lies below the surface of the struggling school system. Each day I enter my classroom and see my students as unique individuals shaping their own identities, not as victims of a broken system. In this framework, I am tasked with finding ways to support and empower them — not just academically, but socially and emotionally, as well.

One way to support our students is to build positive and impactful relationships with them. In my own classroom, I have become a “friendtor” to my students. A friendtor is both a friend and a mentor, someone who has a personal and academic/professional relationship with a mentee. One student in particular has chosen to confide in me about her friends, family, the decisions she is struggling with, her personal joys and everything in between. At the beginning of the year, my interactions with this student revolved around behavior management, trying to minimize her class disruptions and outbursts. Because of our quick check-ins and more in-depth conversations, my relationship with this student has blossomed into one of positive feedback and encouragement, one where she feels comfortable turning to me for help, guidance and a nonjudgmental ear. I have found that our relationship, grounded in open communication and positive reinforcement, has helped my student become more resilient. Rather than feeling limited by her home life, societal expectations, academic challenges and social pressures, my student has steadily improved her academic performance and become more active and responsive during the school day. This “friendtorship” exemplifies how thinking of students of color outside of stereotypical media portrayals and interacting with them on a close personal level can help them rise above the perceived limits of their communities and schools. 

My relationship with this student, and others in my classroom and school, truly makes me wonder what else we — as friendtors, educators and adults — can do to build our students and other young people up, coach them in resiliency and prepare them for their futures.

A Response from the Children, Youth and Families Office

Promoting Healthy Identity Development for African American Children

Alexandra’s article points to some of the challenges African-American children face on a day-to-day basis. It further serves as a good example of the important role adults can play in the life of a child or adolescent to strengthen his resilience in times of adversity and to contribute to the formation of a healthy identity. Every child and adolescent develops her identity as one of the key tasks of growing up. The process of identity development integrates self-concept and self-esteem and includes an awareness of group membership and expectations (Spencer, 1988). Each child learns about himself and others through a variety of processes that draw on information in his immediate and extended environments. The positive and negative information about herself and the groups of which she is a member impact a child’s identity development. 

Negative racial identity in African-Americans, which has been linked to exposure to negative stereotypes in some research, is related to low self-esteem, problems with psychological adjustment, low school achievement, school drop-out, teenage pregnancy, drug use, gang involvement, eating disorders and involvement in crime (American Psychological Association, 2008). Positive racial identity, however, contributes to resilience and strength that can serve as a buffer against racism and discrimination (Sellers, Copeland-Linder, Martin, & Lewis, 2006). An affirmative sense of group membership can serve to buffer against the internalization of negative stereotypes (APA, 2008). How can we foster a positive awareness of racial, ethnic and cultural group membership to support positive racial identity development?  

As Alexandra suggests, mentors can play an important role in helping children and adolescents to construct a positive identity that includes appreciation of their heritage. African-American children who learn that others have negative perspectives of African-Americans but who have these messages mediated by parents and other important adults are less likely to have negative outcomes and more likely to be resilient in adverse conditions (APA, 2008). A supportive, consistently engaged adult can serve to bolster resilience in all children.  

In addition to mentoring, we can engage African-American youth in activities designed to strengthen racial identity and increase understanding of their cultural heritage, as well as helping them to explore and integrate the multiple identities they discovery as they proceed through identity development. In addition, promoting social relationships with others has been shown to increase African-American children’s resilience (APA, 2008). 

Although these activities are helpful when addressing the needs of individual children, much can be done in the community and in our society. The APA Task Force on Resilience and Strength in Black Children and Adolescents (PDF, 1.38MB) included among its recommendations key activities for educating the public about optimal child development (APA, 2008). The recommendations include educating and encouraging the media to portray African-American youth accurately and to highlight their positive attributes, skills and outcomes. The task force also recommends implementing check-in periods or adult support within the school context so that youth can give voice to their experiences and concerns. Alexandra’s work is an example of such a program. Policies should be adopted that recognize the legacy of systemic barriers and that foster active engagement and ownership in communities to implement culturally informed educational strategies that recognize and cultivate the strengths of African-American children. Additionally, communities should be encouraged to promote collaborative decision making among educators and other service providers, parents and to the extent possible, the youth themselves in order to determine which interventions and practices are most likely to support healthy identity development for African-American children.

More information about promoting resilience and healthy cognitive, emotional, social and physical development in African-American children can be found in the Task force’s report (PDF, 1.38MB).


American Psychological Association, Task Force on Resilience and Strength in Black Children and Adolescents. (2008). Resilience in African American children and adolescents: A vision for optimal development. Washington. D.C.: Author.  

Sellers, R.M., Copeland-Linder, N., Martin, P.P., & Lewis, R. L. (2006). Racial identity matters: The relationship between racial discrimination and psychological functioning in African American adolescents. Journal of Research on Adolescents, 16, 187-216. 

Spencer, M.B. (1988). Self-concept development. In D.T. Slaughter (Ed.), Perspectives in black child development: New directions for child development (pp. 59-72). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.