Virginia Commonwealth University VCU Make it real. Virginia Commonwealth University
VCU Psychology Department

Can people have a "relationship" with the natural world?

Human behavior is at the root of the rapid pace of climate change. What leads people to perceive greater interdependence with the environment? How does their commitment to the environment predict pro-environmental behavior? read more...


What increases emergency visits in children with asthma?

How are family/culturally-based beliefs about asthma, caregiver quality of life, and emergency department use associated in pediatric asthma? read more...


Can we train students' brains to work more effectively?

Direct cognitive training in a school setting represents an important innovation for developing the underlying thinking skills needed for educational success. Can we make computers better "trainers"? read more...


Can you strengthen your character in six hours?

Religious and secular self-help experts have long helped people build character strengths. But can people achieve as much—or even more!—benefit by working through six-hour workbooks at home? read more...


Dr. Zewelanji Serpell

Associate Professor (tenured)

Developmental Psychology


PhD (2002), Howard University

Contact Information

Phone: 804-828-6364

Office: 808 W Franklin, rm 308


Research Interests

Broadly defined, my research interests center on school-based interventions for underperforming students. Specifically, I am interested in harnessing advances in cognitive science to develop and test interventions that target students' executive functioning. I have a collaborative project with Drs. Michelle Ellefson and Teresa Parr, funded by IES, exploring whether cognitive activities associated with playing chess improve executive functions, and whether these improvements boost academic performance in African American elementary school students. With funding from NSF, and in collaboration with faculty at Virginia State University and University of California San Diego, I have also been testing the efficacy of computer-based cognitive training with minority students from middle school to college. We study student engagement, motivation and affect during training, and use our discoveries to improve computer-based programs. In addition, I have an overarching commitment to promoting school mental health, particularly among students with disruptive behavior problems. I have co-edited two seminal books on school mental health, including Advances in School-Based Mental Health Interventions (2010) and the Handbook of Culturally Responsive School Mental Health: Advancing Research, Training, Practice, and Policy (2013).

Selected Publications

Graves, S. L., & Serpell, Z. (2013). Racial differences in medication use in a national sample of children with ADHD enrolled in special education. School Mental Health, 5, 2.

Harris, T., Sideris, J, Serpell, Z., Burchinal, P., & Pickett, C.  (in press). Domain specific cognitive stimulation and maternal sensitivity as predictors of early academic outcomes among low-income African American preschoolers. Journal of Negro Education.

Serpell, Z., & Mashburn, A. (2012). Family-school connectedness and children’s early social development. Social Development, 21, 21-46. 

Whitehill, J., Serpell, Z., Foster, A., Lin, Y., Pearson, B., Bartlett, M., & Movellan, J. (2011). Towards an optimal affect-sensitive instructional system of cognitive skills. Computer vision and pattern recognition workshop on human communicative behavior.

Serpell, Z., Hayling, C., Stevenson, H. & Kern, L. (2009). Cultural considerations in the development of school-based interventions for African American males with emotional behavioral concerns. Journal of Negro Education, 78, 321-332.

Recent Course
Recent Grants

Exploring the Malleability of Executive Control. Co-PI (PI: Michelle
Ellefson, University of Cambridge). 7/11 to 6/14. Institute of Education Sciences—R305A110932, $1,049,094.

Broadening Participation Research Grant: Improving Minority Student Mathematics Performance and Persistence in STEM Majors Through Cognitive Training.  Co-PI (PI: Oliver Hill, Jr., Virginia State University). 9/11 to 8/14. National Science Foundation—HRD-1137535, $342,795.

Affect in Socially-Mediated iPad-Based Cognitive Training. PI. 9/11 to 8/13. National Science Foundation through Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center—SMA-1041755. $83,222.