Anyone who has ever had the opportunity, and frankly, the honor, of working with Black adolescent boys will tell you: they are a dynamic, agentic, and diverse group of young people focused on thriving in a society that structurally and systematically makes their thriving precarious. As a Black, cis-gender man, I have a grounded, intimate understanding of just how important Black adolescent boys’ thriving is, and a commitment to promoting and protecting it. Unfortunately, negative rhetoric and social imagery about Black adolescent boys is pervasive. Black boys are routinely dehumanized in schools, in communities, and in other social contexts of their youthhood, making teachers’, youth practitioners’ and leaders’ attention to, and promotion of, their thriving all the more crucial.

In order to cultivate Black adolescent boys’ thriving, youth practitioners, teachers, leaders and youth-focused social scientists need a clear, holistic, and socially-relevant understanding of how to do so. We know from research and practitioner wisdom that an essential input into Black adolescent boys’ thriving are humanizing relationships with adults anchored in radical care and mattering. We also know that learning and developmental spaces (e.g., schools, afterschool programs, etc.) with racially and culturally-affirming ethos and equitable practices from adults are integral to Black boys’ thriving. Finally, relationships and equitable processes and practices in schools and youth-serving programs can have profound effects on Black adolescent boys’ developmental outcomes such as their social and emotional development. 

​Search Institute’s Developmental Relationships Survey provides rich data to understand Black boys’ thriving holistically and substantively. In the survey, Black adolescent boys’ (grades 6-12, n = 3768) perceptions were captured on a host of themes in order to understand the extent to which they have access to humanizing, developmental relationships with teachers and youth practitioners in schools and programs; access to equitable practices in these developmental contexts; and, how they feel about their own social and emotional capabilities in these contexts. 

Here are four meaningful and relevant findings from descriptive analyses utilizing the Developmental Survey dataset:

  • Developmental Relationships exist, but not for all Black boys. On average, 7 out of 10 Black adolescent boys reported that their teacher or program staff were likely or often engaged in developmental relational approaches with them. 7 out of 10 Black boys also reported that they were likely or often engaged in healthy social and emotional behaviors. 6 out of 10 reported that their teacher or program staff were likely or often engaged in equitable practices in their schools or programs. While these numbers highlight Black boys’ assets, they also show the need for improvement. All youth deserve to feel as positive as possible (10 out 10!) about adults’ relational and equity practices, as well as about their own social and emotional health and well-being. Of these three aspects of their thriving, Black adolescent boys’ access to equitable schools and programs warrants immediate attention.
  • Black boys in middle schools experience fewer Developmental Relationships and equitable practices. There are differences in Black adolescent boys’ thriving in middle school versus high school. Black boys in high school rated their relationships and access to equitable environments higher than Black boys in middle school. There were no discernable patterns in Black boys' social and emotional capabilities in middle school versus high school.
  • We can do more to affirm Black boys and ensure they know they matter. A sizable portion of Black boys reported that their teachers, program staff or mentors were less likely or less often engaged in developmental relational approaches and equitable practices in their praxis and expressed less enthusiasm about their own social and emotional mindsets and abilities. For example:
    • 21% of Black adolescent boys reported that their teacher or program staff only rarely or sometimes engaged in developmental relational approaches that make them feel like they matter.
    • 40% reported that their teacher or program staff were only a little or somewhat likely to encourage them to share their cultural background in schools or programs.
    • 40% reported that they were only a little or somewhat likely to share their feelings in healthy and expansive ways.

These examples point to key areas in Black adolescent boys’ thriving in schools and programs that teachers, youth practitioners, and leaders need to pay closer attention to and address. While many Black adolescent boys are indeed thriving in these spaces – something we should celebrate in a society that too often negates Black boys’ thriving, these findings also show that schools and programs are not ideal conditions for thriving among far too many Black adolescents boys. 

  • Equitable practices and Developmental Relationships support thriving. Black adolescent boys who had more positive relationships with adults and who had access to more equitable adult practices, showed higher social and emotional competencies. These findings suggest that, as a holistic system of thriving, relationships, equitable practices and social and emotional capabilities are connected.

Help cultivate Black adolescent boys' thriving

These findings show that Black adolescent boys are thriving in important ways, such as in their access to humanizing relationships with youth practitioners and teachers. Yet, this exploration also highlights areas where teachers, youth practitioners and leaders should devote more attention in order to help cultivate Black adolescent boys’ thriving. Here are four recommendations that schools and youth-serving organizations can explore to promote the thriving of Black adolescent boys in their care: 

  1. Create space for Black adolescent boys to share what thriving means for them. Giving youth time and space to make meaning of their daily experiences can have positive impacts. Additionally, youth meaning-making can also help practitioners uncover troubling or positive trends in Black adolescent boys’ thriving that need to be addressed or built upon. For example, you can create a club at school or provide regular opportunities in program spaces for Black boys to collectively reflect on and talk about relationships that bring them joy or policies and practices that make them feel unwelcome or unseen. Not only can intentionally-crafted time and space help Black boys get in tune with their own experiences, this space can also help them imagine their own thriving and use their agency to pursue it.

  2. Cultivate an ethic of “mattering” in relationships with Black adolescent boys. Mentors, youth practitioners, teachers, and leaders should engage in training to learn how relational approaches can support elements especially important to Black adolescent boys’ thriving, such as mattering. For example, learning specific words, actions and ways of being that adults can use or embody that create a sense of mattering within the Black boys in your care can have a profound effect on their thriving. You might even consider creating a Black Boy Mattering Project in your school or program as a way to both learn about how your school or program is doing in making Black boys matter, and messaging to Black boys that their mattering to adults, and in the space, is important.

  3. Learn and utilize equitable and just practices that make Black adolescent boys’ thriving possible in schools and programs. We know that many educators still have deep-seated biases and stereotypes about Black boys, which can make their thriving in schools and programs challenging. One way to design an equitable learning and development environment for Black boys is for teachers, youth practitioners and leaders to engage in training and development that unearths their own knowledge gaps around equity, as well as their implicit biases and prejudices about Black boys. Unearthing and unlearning these biases and prejudices is an essential first step in promoting Black boys’ thriving via equitable spaces and practices. Another essential step to creating equitable environments for Black boys’ thriving is for schools and programs to root out policies and practices that disproportionately target or “other” Black boys. For example, are there practices that send a message to Black boys that they can’t fully lean into their identity and culture in your school or program?  Are there institutional practices and policies that produce visible inequitable outcomes for Black boys, that criminalize them, or that message that there is something inherently wrong about who and how they are? Rooting out such policies and practices are sure to help support Black boys’ thriving in your program or school.

  4. Create culturally-relevant spaces for Black adolescent boys to reflect on their feelings and emotions. Like all youth, Black adolescent boys desire opportunities and spaces for emotional freedom and expression, but often lack the safe spaces to do so.  Promising initiatives like Black Boys Heal: See Me, Hear Me are creating opportunities for Black adolescent boys in their care to explore their own emotionality in creative, purposeful ways. Importantly, these spaces should provide Black boys with racially and culturally relevant and affirming socialization on expressing feelings and emotions, and what cultivating one’s emotional well-being can look like. And these spaces should offer Black boys’ fun and diverse ways to explore their emotions beyond just talking. Journaling, art, music, books, and dance are all forms of expression that can help Black boys connect to their own emotions. 

Navigating societal and institutional systems of oppression and receiving messages that their thriving does not matter contributes to the reality that Black boys transition into young adulthood with lower well-being than their peers. Youth practitioners, teachers, and leaders can play a crucial role in disrupting this trajectory. But it starts by first imagining Black boys’ thriving, and is followed by relentlessly cultivating, promoting and protecting their thriving. Nurturing a more holistic idea of Black boys’ thriving, and using affirming and meaningful practices to promote it can put them on a more beautiful trajectory towards long-term thriving in adolescence and beyond. 



Wallace Grace is a PhD candidate in Educational Policy Studies in the School of Education at University of Wisconsin – Madison. Prior to pursuing a doctoral degree, he spent many years in education in a variety of capacities in schools, districts, and nonprofits around the country. Wallace’s research aims to support marginalized children and youth’s thriving within social contexts of their childhood and youthhood. Wallace is  one of Search Institute’s 2023 Summer Scholars.

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