How to Help Students of Color Overcome Challenges to Achieve Success in Math

  • Dr. India White

When students of color face struggles outside of school, it can impact their ability to focus on meaningful learning within the classroom. This guide is designed to assist teachers with understanding and effectively navigating these challenges so that students of color can be successful in math.

Across the country, research has shown that students of color are more likely to face lower academic performance than their peers. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, “from 1990 through 2017, the average mathematics scores for White 4th- and 8th-graders were higher than those of their Black and Hispanic peers.”

Although some achievement gaps have narrowed between students of color and their peers, there is still more work to be done. As educators, it is important to understand the challenges – including social-emotional and other issues caused by poverty and lack of resources – that these students face on a daily basis so that we can learn how to help them achieve success. If teachers can break down the walls and address these gaps, then they can reach any child.


Consider this scenario:

Jarrod, a male, African American teenager, sleeps during his Algebra 1 class. In a whirlwind of frustration, the teacher gets up and asks Jarrod to lift his head. Often tapped out, defiant, and unprepared for class, Jarrod refuses to comply. This ends up as a disciplinary report and Jarrod gets a referral.

How is the teacher supposed to help students like Jarrod? Why has Jarrod given up?


Sometimes, there are no clear answers to these questions. Students can face many struggles outside of their classroom learning environment. These can include:


Access to Resources

Often, students of color who struggle in the classroom lack resources such as technology or internet access that are required for them to be successful. According to research conducted by Carnegie Mellon University and MIT based on data from 2018, “if a child is in a family which receives SNAP benefits (food stamps), then they are 15% less likely to have access to high-speed internet, and 9% more likely to have no access to the internet at all.”



According to the National Education Association, “the number of students who have experienced homelessness during the last three school years has risen to 1.5 million – an increase of 15% since 2015-2016.” Many homeless students across the nation, along with learners who qualify for free-and reduced lunch, are struggling in their classroom learning environment. They come to class with hurdles and unstable circumstances that can impact their attitudes and ability to focus on math. Unfortunately, COVID has only amplified this struggle.


Lack of Support

Additionally, not only do students like Jarrod struggle with external factors that hinder their success; they lack a support team. Teachers who are sensitive to this reality can provide opportunities for struggling students to collaborate on different strategies for solving problems. This isn’t a cookie-cutter, one-and-done way of doing math; the path of metacognition is unique for each learner, and teachers should provide a variety of opportunities for the process to take place in their classroom.


Seeing success in students like Jarrod will take time; it will not happen overnight. However, if educators choose to commit to struggling minority learners, they will begin to see academic achievement gaps decrease across society. In a study on traditionally underserved minority students, Amanda Williams found that significant factors in the academic achievement gap amongst minority groups included classroom teachers, student tracking, and student affirmation. By being more patient, motivational and empathetic, teachers can gain their students' trust and boost their interest in math.


Here are some tips to implement into your classroom to help students of color overcome these challenges to achieve success in math.


Build a healthy relationship with the student.

Researchers from Stanford University found that when Black students can affirm their sense of who they are and feel valued in school, their achievement levels increase. Make a conscious effort to learn more about the strengths of the student. Sometimes, struggling learners are still trying to figure out who they are and how they fit in their school and in your classroom. Your students may have past negative school experiences resulting in a mistrust toward educators. Do not take it personally. Instead, find it as an opportunity to cultivate a strong relationship with your students. Struggling learners may need your help to get them to where they need to be academically.


Give the student opportunities to make mistakes.

Sometimes, students come into a math classroom with a broken home and missing pieces to their math knowledge. It can feel intimidating to walk into a classroom with a teacher who is experienced in math and peers who may be more advanced in their learning. This can cause a student to put up guards and use defensive behavior.

Using empathy and compassion, you as the teacher can reach beyond the walls of defense and bring the student to a level of growth where the individual can show gains. This will motivate learners to try again where they have failed previously. If teachers more readily welcome students’ efforts and mistakes, students can be encouraged to take more risks and have a growth mindset that inspires learning.

Carol Dweck, professor of Psychology at Stanford University, validates this perspective as she explains that when students have a growth mindset, they are able to detect, process, and correct mistakes to remain engaged and curious in their learning. Dweck notes that in fact, mistakes build new synapses in a student’s brain.


Encourage the student to continue learning.

Studies also show that students are affected by their environment. Bandura’s Student Learning Theory mentions how students need to be part of an environment that welcomes learning and collaboration. As a teacher, it will take multiple attempts to encourage struggling learners while building a healthy relationship. But by doing so, you can help them to overcome their math anxiety, remain engaged, and persevere to achieve success in math class.

Research conducted by Stanford University found that African American and Latino students who completed self-affirming writing exercises in middle school took more challenging courses and were more likely to enroll in college. When teachers provide affirmation to students of color and make them feel valued, students’ success in math will flourish.


Celebrate students’ small victories.

Creating a classroom of respect and rapport can help students feel included and engaged in a learning environment that they enjoy returning to each school day. Using strategies from Marzano or Harry Wong’s 1st 100 days of School, teachers learn how to connect with their students and proactively establish solid and respectful relationships. Educators and leaders can get to this level by celebrating their students’ small victories along the way.

As mentioned, sometimes students of color are dealing with significant struggles outside of school and, as a result, have difficulty focusing on their small victories. When teachers are intentional about making their learners feel great about their achievements, students can become motivated to come back the next day and do it again. Teachers can do this via prizes, classroom management systems, school-wide incentives, and even through a simple note on the top of their student’s page.

In their article on Five Key Ingredients for Improving Student Motivation, Williams et al. (2011) elaborates on learning systems, stating that by creating variety within a classroom system, it can foster emergent motivation. So, choose to embark upon your students’ journey of success as you cheer them on every step of the way.


By having a positive outlook and taking constructive steps, teachers can feel encouraged as they embark upon their journey of teaching struggling students of color. Once the teacher develops a relationship with their students and convinces them that they are valuable, the guards will drop, and academic achievement will be evident. When you build healthy relationships, give opportunities to make mistakes, encourage learning, and highlight small victories, students will begin to grow and thrive as independent thinkers in your classroom.


"Students do not care about how much you know until they know how much you care." - John Maxwell


Let’s start today. Create a goal to connect with your students of color so that learning gains will become a reality.



Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: Freeman.

Cohen, G. L., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., Master, A. (2006). Reducing the racial achievement gap: A social-psychological intervention. Science, 313(5791), 1307-1310.

National Center for Education Statistics (2017). Homeless Children and Youth in Public Schools.

National Center for Education Statistics (2018). Status and Trends of Racial and Ethnic Groups 2018.

National Center for Education Statistics (2018). The Digital Divide: Differences in Home Internet Access.

Williams, A. (2011). A call for change: Narrowing the achievement gap between white and minority students. Clearing House, 84(2), 65-71.

Williams, K. C., & Williams, C. C. (2011). Five key ingredients for improving student motivation.

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