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The Four Keys to Helping At-Risk Kids

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service
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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 But your recommendations for other sources of ingredients will be just as helpful to readers. Bon appétit!

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service

Comments (104)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Stacey Washer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with all of your four points. When I read your blog I found a word that showed up frequently and that word was caring. I believe that in order to meet those last three points you have to care for your students. These children are coming from broken homes where mom or dads have to work two jobs. I teach fifth grade and I know that some of my students are going to an empty home because their parents are working. Where do these children have people to tell them that they are special and that they are loved? We need to show these kids that someone does care about them. One item that you could add to the list is going to the activities that they are involved with. It is normal for teachers to care about students during school but if we take that extra step and show them we care outside of school hours then we have made their day. I showed up to many different activities that my students were involved in and that topped anything I could have done in the classroom. They want to know that they are supported by someone. If they feel that they are cared about then they will have enough strength to go the extra step and meet their goals.

Monica Avalos's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My name is Monica Avalos. I teach bilingual 1st grade in an elementary school in Lake County, IL. I couldn't agree more with your article. One thing that was not mentioned in your article and that I feel is equally important is forming a positive relationship with our students' parents. We, as educators, have the knowledge of how children learn but parents don't and many times this becomes a roadblock to how supportive they can be to their children at home.
For the past 3 years or so, I have been sharing my cell phone number with parents to call me if there are any questions about homework or events that have occurred at school, or concerns that they may have about their child. I set rules and boundaries about calling me and until now this privilege has not been abused. The conversations that I have with parents by phone after school hours tend to be more relaxing and productive than when the parent has to call me on a lunch break or has to leave work early, or be absent all together to see me in school, and it doesn't interfere with teaching time. Parents are still expected to attend school scheduled parent conferences and school events.

The pattern I have noticed is that the parents that call are those whose students need the most support in school and at home and they often succeed to the best of their abilities because their parents were proactive enough to use this resource and reach out.

Xee Her's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello there,

I am teaching at a Title 1 school where 90 percent of the students receives free or reduce lunch, and I have my share of working with at-risk students ever since I started teaching.I truly agree with the 4 keys mentioned above that would help these students. It is so important that we help guide these students to feel a sense of self and empowerment to be a successful student. These students need us as Teachers to care for them and nurture them because most of them may not receive this at home.

Katherine Rich's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Coming from a Title 1 School where a majority of the students receive free lunches and deal with poverty on a daily-basis, I know the importance of a caring environment for students. When a student comes into your classroom, they need to feel comfortable and understand that you have their best interest in mind. All of your students come from different backgrounds and you never truly know what circumstances they undergo outside of the classroom. To be able to allow your students time where they can feel special, intellegiant, successful, and loved is important for their success.
I am often greeted with the remark, "Why should I do this work because I am never going to amount to anything?" As a teacher, my job is to erase this ideal from their minds and make them realize their true potential. I agree with the points mentioned above and feel that they can truly help at-risk students succeed. Setting goals for these students gives them something to strive for, and guiding them through this process to ensure their success is what dedicated teachers do.

Amnda Alliss's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

HI! I enjoyed reading your article. I teach in a rural community and have many ESL students who struggle with the english language. We currently have a intervention team that pulls the students out for thirty minutes each day to work with them. I feel that setting small reachable goals for these students will help them feel successful. We need to give them as much motiviation as we can in order to make them feel cared for.

I am wondering where the parents come into the four keys? I have learned that parents are just as important as teacher are when it comes to positive influences on their lives. When parents and teachers work as a team, a successful outcome is usually reached.

Charles Harrington's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would like to work with more at risk kids . I have been volunteering in the non profit sector for about 15 years now. Please contact at (727) 898-4139 "ASAP". Thanks for the work you are doing .

PS: Don,t stop the world needs you.
And GOD loves you for it.

Charles Harrington's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would like to work with more at risk kids . I have been volunteering in the non profit sector for about 15 years now. Please contact at (727) 898-4139 "ASAP". Thanks for the work you are doing .

PS: Don,t stop the world needs you.
And GOD loves you for it.

Jennifer Meeks's picture

I am currently teaching 12 "at risk" 2nd graders. I really found your article to be very enlightening. I think part of my success comes from the fact that I try hard to create a "no failure" classrrom. I tell my kids from the beginning that I will not allow themt to fail, I care too much. They are allowed to re do assignments until they have earned a passing grade. So many of these students don't have anybody at home who cares if they fail or not. Because all of my students are in the same situation they don't feel pressure from the high achieving students. In my classroom I also try to incorporate activities that most kids get to do at home that most of my students have never done. For example, I get down on the ground and play board games, cards, crossword puzzles, etc. This allows me to create such a positive relationship with my students. If I can get them on my side and build that trust and caring environment than the students respond academically.

jennifer leslie's picture

Anna, Do you think at risk students shouldn't be required to meet the same goals as regular classroom students? I'm just curious because in my masters program we did an article on it. I get that we shouldn't lower our standards, but some people learn at different levels.

Kirsten Olson's picture

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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