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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

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

Anna Cuneo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi! My name is Anna Cuneo and I am a high school math teacher at High Point Regional High School.

I was very intrigued by this article because I teach 3 lower level classes. It is very hard to teach the at-risk students because you never know who is having a bad day and who is going to want to be there on any particular day. While I am in the classroom, I try very hard to gain my students' trust. I talk about my life and what I have done with it in hopes of finding a common interest between us. I also try to talk to my students about their lives to find out what they are interested in and I try to incorporate that in my everyday lessons.

When I set goals for my students, I always seem to have a problem either setting them too high and unattainable, or too low. A lot of the times, I have students who are less than motivated and it is very difficult to get them motivated when math is not a great subject for them. Most of my students have been told at least once in their life that they are not good at math and it makes my job that much harder. Their lack of confidence is terrible to watch while in the classroom.

I really enjoyed this article. It gave me some ideas and perspectives to think about when teaching the lower level classes.

M Walker's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Greetings, my name is Morgan. I am a first grade teacher, in South Carolina.

I'm working with at risk students for the first time in a rural environment. This article does a nice job of highlighting four of the many key elements in making At-risk situations, manageable for the students and teacher.
The goal setting is a perfect example. I often find my self getting caught up in the day to day routine and forget how important it is to set reachable goals. The students need to feel the natural feeling of conquering a task.
Furthermore, I like the specific point about getting involved outside of school. I was fortunate enough to coach soccer at my school. I got to work with students that I knew from school and some I had in my class. This gave me a fresh perspective on the students. In terms of seeing the student outside of school and learning what motivates him or her. Not everyone is motivated by the same thing. However, we are all motivated by something. Getting to know the students on the soccer field helped me find their motivation, which I could then use in classroom.
Great read!! Thanks.

Myra Pitts's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello, my name is Myra Pitts. I teach fourth grade in Englewood, New Jersey.

This article hit some really important points. Students need to have that relationship of trust and respect. They need to know that someone really cares about them and their education. This will allow them to dream. When they feel that support around them their confidence will come alive. That support acts like a safety net. This safety net will make it ok to try, because if they fail you will be there to guide and help them. They also know that when they succeed they will have someone there to acknowledge their achievements.

Based on my standards I set goals that I want my students to reach. After reading this article I feel that I need to change how I set these goals. My students need to be heard. What are their hopes and dreams for their education/future. If we establish goals together maybe they will have a more personal connection to them.

Hopefully I will be able to motivate my students by finding out what matters to them. Thanks!

Elizabeth Wilson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi, my name is Elizabeth Wilson. I taught middle and high school math in a small rural town in New York.

This article summarized the most important ways to help at risk students. I agree that setting realistic, attainable goals is a critical component of helping these students. If a student doesn't believe that they succeed they won't try. If students see you at activities outside of the classroom and school day, they may be more likely to feel like they have something in common with you. So, becoming and maintaining a positive role in the community can only benefit the student teacher relationship. Helping at risk students is an obstacle that must be overcome. How it is accomplished by each individual teacher depends on the strategy they choose.

This article was very well written and very informative.

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