Self-esteem exercises build more than confidence—they can positively affect and improve the academic performance of African-American students, a new study reports.

During the study, researchers asked seventh-grade suburban students to perform self-affirmation exercises by writing essays about hobbies, personal relationships and other topics of personal value to them. The results showed that while the grades of white students who participated in the study remained unchanged in the fall term, the grades of the African-American students improved.

At the end of eighth grade, black students showed continued improvement. Compared with a control group of students who had neutral writing assignments on topics such as their morning routine, the average grade point average (GPA) of African-American students increased by an average of almost one-quarter point.

“This exercise essentially gives kids the chance to say this is what I believe in, this is what makes me a good person,” said researcher Geoffrey Cohen. “It takes the sting out of potential failure. [Kids think,] ‘Even if I do poorly here on this test or in school, I am still fundamentally a good person. It anchors my sense of self-integrity.’”