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The Four Keys to Helping At-Risk Kids

| Maurice Elias

There's more than one way to make a delicious bread, soup, or stew. Similarly, there is not just one recipe for reducing risk in students' lives. But there do seem to be some essential ingredients to the process.

Drawing from recent studies on the topic, I've come up with four basic ingredients that seem to match well with the stories and observations people have shared with me based on earlier blog posts I have written. See what you think.

Caring, Sustained Relationships

One of the shortcomings of our educational structure is that relationships with teachers, especially in secondary school, may be caring, but they are not easy to sustain. Yet at-risk youth need relationships that are both caring and stable. They need to build a sense of trust and have the time to communicate the complexity, frustrations, and positive aspects of their lives in and out of school. Only after creating a strong relational base will an adult have the platform to be a source of enduring and cherished advice to a student. Students won't confer trust to an adult based on his or her role as a counselor, psychologist, or social worker. We have to earn it by building a relationship.

Reachable Goals

Students often have unrealistic career and personal goals based on what they learn from the mass culture. Kids see sensationalistic media portrayals of exceptionalism as normative and, often, desirable and attainable. From the base of a caring relationship, we can help students form realistic and reachable career, personal, and educational goals. This does not imply that the goals are not challenging. The most motivating goals are those that are within our reach if we exercise some effort. Only someone who knows a student well and cares deeply about his or her well-being will be able to help that student form reachable goals.

Realistic, Hopeful Pathways

Students do not attain reachable goals on their own. Like any of us, students are more likely to move ahead when they know that there is a path to get there. Imagine how useless MapQuest or similar services would be if they allowed you to enter the starting point and the destination but did not give you a road map to travel from one to the other.

So it is with students. They need adult help to create realistic pathways, ideally with guardrails. They also need someone to reassure them that they have what the Character Education Partnership's Merle Schwartz describes as "leeway and forgiveness" -- that is, the knowledge that going off the path does not destroy the dream.

We must recognize the difficulty of trying a new path and both prepare students for obstacles and support them when they run into problems. This can be highly challenging, as some of the students' erroneous actions will violate school rules or perhaps even legal boundaries. We must handle such cases individually and with discerning judgment rather than with the kind of formulaic justice that has led the United States to have the largest school dropout rates and, proportionately, the greatest prison population of any developed country, according to recent reports in the New York Times. This is how, all too often, promising lives get discarded.

Engaging School and Community Settings

With all the talk about the importance of engagement, it's possible to lose sight of exactly what leads students to have a feeling of being engaged. The feeling of being engaged in a setting or group happens when students have opportunities to receive positive recognition and to make positive contributions, can spend time in environments in which teamwork is encouraged, and get help learning new skills that they find valuable and helpful in their lives. Engaging settings in the school and the community have logos, mottos, missions, and other tangible things that allow students to experience a sense of belonging and pride.

Particularly for students who are in disadvantaged circumstances, spending time in engaging settings both in school and after school is important. After-school settings linked to the school as well as community programs -- such as Boys and Girls Clubs, 4-H, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and faith-based youth groups -- provide more chances for students to build positive relationships with caring adults and, potentially, supportive peers.

One unique feature of mentors in nonschool settings is that they can often help students learn the rules of the game for success in school. Mentors in after-school and community settings are often better positioned to communicate clearly to students about the potential consequences of their actions and the behaviors that they need to change, and how to change them. Also, they can give feedback about how students are progressing so they can operate in a spirit of improvement. Caring adults outside the formal school system often have a better understanding of students' lives outside of school and can help them find safe havens within the school day.

Now that you have read this, I invite you to share your own recipe variations. What's missing that seems essential in your experience? Do you have any thoughts about how best to get your hands on these ingredients? Certainly, many are already present in the best evidence-based programs about social and emotional learning and character education, project learning, and other concepts featured at Edutopia.org. But your recommendations for other sources of ingredients will be just as helpful to readers. Bon appétit!

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Gain their hearts and they will be more likely to learn

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I agree with many of the great points made through all the comments. However, what really stands out to my eyes and what I have seen in my years of experience (11) is that the personal connection we make with our students is critical. I always try to get to know them well; their likes, issues going on with their families, their own expectations, etc. Knowing our students and making that personal connection, plus some strategic planning based on targeted needs of our students go a long way. Data collection has also shown great effectiveness in my school. We follow our students’ progress closely and conference with them to provide feedback; which in return is great because they end up taking ownership over their learning and progress.

Host and Co-Creator of Virtual Science University

My Work With Special Populations Subgroups

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Thanks Maurice for your blog here on eduTopia. My recent work confirms your four main points you posted here. The way kids learn today is different, so the way we teach and approach them, must also change. Our task is to circumvent what they are learning from some of our negatively oriented news feeds, our morally perverse video feeds and websites, our politicians that are more focused on getting votes than educating our children. We must reach these students and parents in their homes before they reach the classrooms.

I am very interested in helping students of all socioeconomic status learn Biology. But as you know, learning goes deeper than the current educational structure takes you. This is why they must have caring adults in the education setting with which underprivileged youth can build a strong relationship. We must empower students and their families to foster an environment that supports scientific curiosity and educational achievement as the building blocks for tomorrow. We must help parents become more interested in helping their children learn than to let the multimedia platforms of video and social networking, that have made our children falsely believe that a materialistic world of fast cars, drugs, and fame is within reach. We must use community based outreach to let these students realize that our prisons are full of these people who infected our communities. We must fight against these barriers and instead return to the cultural teaching of our parents and grandparents who suffered the persecution of being undereducated or poorly educated, teaching our children that a return to the basic premise that you go to school to learn, you go to college to achieve, and you climb the corporate ladder to excel ---and this will take sacrifice and dedication.

Here is the link to my research that confirms Maurice points on this post: http://www.virtualscienceuniversity.com/blog.aspx?id=65decd65-8a48-474a-...
Thank you for giving me an opportunity to share my comments about this post. For more info contact me at www.virtualscienceuniversity.com

I have 19 years of professional experience with students.

The Role of Adult Relationships in Reaching At-Risk Kids

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In order to reach kids who at-risk, the role of forming significant, sustained and positive relationships with these kids cannot be overstated. From my experince, I will go as far as to say this route maybe the only way to "save" one of these young people from following the path that their parents, peers, and "role models" have set before them. Kudos to your article!

Ninth - welfth grade english teacher Govt girls school Jabalpur India

I had been working as an ESOL

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I had been working as an ESOL teacher for last 25 years,in my school when we compare subject wise the biggest At-Risk children list comes from the ESL subject,as the language spoken at home and in other subject periods differ the students try to avoid the ESOL and study those subjects that is being done in their mother tongue.So now I have to compensate them twice.First I work hard to create interest about the content and then I make them learn the language.So I go on from caring to setting reachable goals and build strong relationships with them.Really what you said is the only way though with every student the recipe differs.

Ninth - welfth grade english teacher Govt girls school Jabalpur India

I had been working as an ESOL

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I had been working as an ESOL teacher for last 25 years,in my school when we compare subject wise the biggest At-Risk children list comes from the ESL subject,as the language spoken at home and in other subject periods differ the students try to avoid the ESOL and study those subjects that is being done in their mother tongue.So now I have to compensate them twice.First I work hard to create interest about the content and then I make them learn the language.So I go on from caring to setting reachable goals and build strong relationships with them.Really what you said is the only way though with every student the recipe differs.

Russlynn Ali says "the

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Russlynn Ali says "the investigation of the Los Angeles Unified School District will reveal reasons for their low academic performance". Who is accountable educational documentary shows how the achievement gap lead our urban youth straight into incarceration and destitution.  See why Russlynn Ali chose LAUSD to be first on the List of schools that need to be investigated. Please go to www.whoisaccountable.net 

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Russlynn Ali says "the investigation of the Los Angeles Unified School District will reveal reasons for their low academic performance". Who is accountable educational documentary shows how the achievement gap lead our urban youth straight into incarceration and destitution.  See why Russlynn Ali chose LAUSD to be first on the List of schools that need to be investigated. Please go to www.whoisaccountable.net 

Up until spring, 2007, I

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Up until spring, 2007, I worked at a large urban high school in New England-as an ESL teacher.My Ss had double period English with me, & often a 3rd period of Soc Studies for New English Learners. This extensive time together enabled students & t. to become a tight unit-a "family". But with the pressure to pack in all the latest mandates, topics Ss & T wanted to discuss often had to be put aside. My OPEN DOOR POLICIY on any non-meeting day became HOME AFTER SCHOOL-safe haven, place to meet school-minded friends, homework space w/tool & Teacher help***SHARING INFORMATION ABOUT OPPORTUNITIES IN THE SCHOOL/ANNOUNCED AT SCHOOL that were often UNKNOWN to New Eng Learners-new in building-this became key to Ss become active members of school community (sports, clubs, field trips, tutorial programs & other after school/weekend opportunities. Students who came regularly became official members of our FUTURE PLANNERS CLUB...a consistently welcoming place to embrace caring peers & adults, to find positive learning/hw environment, to talk about life-essentials on mind/inevitalbe in future, & a place to get important information on current events/opportunities. As new Ss came, veteran Ss met them after school & became their connections to adjusting. In short, I agree that AFTER SCHOOL CONNECTIONS with Students are 1 of the most important educational experiences for both ( S & T) learners!

Intervention Specialist- Students with multiple disabilities

Last year I taught Life

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Last year I taught Life Skills to adolescents and young adults with special needs. Unfortunately, so many of my students came from rough backgrounds of abuse, neglect, and a revolving door of foster homes. So many of them didn't have anyone they could trust. To them, it was normal when someone let them down, even family. I had a student who often brought up her mother who abandoned her many years back. She would ask people if they were going to "leave" like her mom did, or would immediately accuse people of being the same way stating "you'll just leave". That is just one example, though they all had their own story. Another student I had was abused, but her family didn't believe her. She felt she couldn't tell anyone when something was bothering her, for the fact that they wouldn't believe her. So based on your posting, I strongly believe you have to build a relationship FIRST, when working with at-risk students. Maybe I had the advantage of being a younger teacher when I worked with these students that they were able to open up to me and felt comfortable talking to me.
If I had to add an "ingredient" to your recipe, I would add commitment and honesty. To not make promises or say you're going to do something, and then not. I feel that kids, who are at-risk, are let down so often. They are let down with relationships from home and school, also at school. I feel many are use to feeling like teachers have given up on them.
With my previous group of students, we focused greatly on team-work and character development. They were engaged at least once a week, in team-building activities as well as social skills activities. The activities ranged from cooking a meal together as a group, to opening up on feelings, what they've been through, and the advice they could give to each other.
All of the posting I've read have been very interesting and helpful. I enjoy reading the similarities in my teaching/classroom to those who have posted.

Maurice, I just discovered

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Maurice, I just discovered your blog and what a treasure trove! Thank you so much for this fine, essential-points post about working with at risk kids and those who are "school reluctant." My point, in all my work, is that kids are reluctant and underperforming in school often for very good reasons. We as teachers need to hone our skills in understanding those reasons. I look forward to getting to know you more through the SEL group and your blog.

Kirsten (author of Wounded By School)

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Maurice Elias Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger