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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Four Keys to Helping At-Risk Kids

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger

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!

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger
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Comments (103)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Nikeeta Maddox's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with the fact that these students need love and so much more attention that an average student may need. Furthermore, when your students feel like you care about them, they try to harder to please you. I think what we all must remember when we go home to our relatively peaceful existances, that these students go home to something totally different. School is a safe haven for many of them despite how they may carry on. It is easy for us to get frustrated when they don't behave like we want them to. However, we must continue to remind ourselves that these students are dealing with so much more than one could even imagine. As a result, they need more time, patience, and dedication than usual.

Amber Byrne's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think it is important that the article discussed the importance of making attainable goals for the children. It is important to help them realize what thier future can hold. Many at Risk students I have worked with have low expectations as a career but high expectaions about the material items they will be able to earn with their income. I think it is important to work with children to set a goal for thier future so that they have something to work towards. Also it is very important to build a relationship. I feel that after I have built a relationship with my students they are more eager to perform for me and do thier best.

Deborah Schildbach's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I need some ideas for Making Inferences for a group of summer school students. I am teaching third grade summer school. These are students that didn't pass the 3rd grade CRCT in Reading. I have a 21 students ( 7 with EIP's, some with 504's, two ESOL, and several that are IEP) I am wanting lessons that are catchy and fun, not the typical worksheet.
Can anyone assist me with this?
Thanks,
Deborah Schildbach

Erica Warren's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Deborah:

I'm a learning specialist in Ossining, New York and I can remember when I too had trouble finding engaging lessons that would teach students about inferences and implications. Over the years, I have done a lot of research and testing with my own students. In fact, I have just published a workbook entitled Making Inferences: A Fun and Easy Way to Understand & Practice Implied Meaning. Students begin by examining images with implied meaning and slowly work their way up to short phrases and then sentences.

The purpose of this workbook is actually two fold. On the one hand, fun, multisensory activities help students understand and master the complexities of inferences or implied meaning. On the other hand, this workbook also offers hidden messages or inferences which are embedded in the exercises. Images and slogans, for example, are presented that uncover topics that can help to guide our children/students towards healthy living, benevolent actions and awareness of some of the many injustices and challenges we face around the globe. The ultimate inference is social consciousness and healthy living.

Throughout education much of our childrens' energy is funneled into projects that do not go beyond the classroom or their literal meaning. However, by encouraging assignments that inspire action and weaving in a positive message, learning can be both exciting and enlightening. Children love to be recognized, so let's teach them how to "pay it forward."

At the end of the book, some of the contributing organizations provided statements regarding what people can do to make a difference. I hope that teachers, parents and students will be inspired to select an organization or two and do some research about how they can make a difference in our world.

I also have some other products that you might find helpful. I have two workbooks, of instance, that strengthen students abilities to follow directions. Following Directions: The Fun and Easy Way (A Beginners Workbook 1) and Learning to Follow Directions: The Fun and Easy Way (An Intermediate Workbook 1).

You can learn more about my products at http://learningtolearn.biz/GoodSensoryLearning.html.

I hope this helps.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Erica Warren, Learning Specialist, Educational Therapist and Publisher
www.learning tolearn.biz
erica@learningtolearn.biz

Erica Warren's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Deborah:

I'm a learning specialist in Ossining, New York and I can remember when I too had trouble finding engaging lessons that would teach students about inferences and implications. Over the years, I have done a lot of research and testing with my own students. In fact, I have just published a workbook entitled Making Inferences: A Fun and Easy Way to Understand & Practice Implied Meaning. Students begin by examining images with implied meaning and slowly work their way up to short phrases and then sentences.

The purpose of this workbook is actually two fold. On the one hand, fun, multisensory activities help students understand and master the complexities of inferences or implied meaning. On the other hand, this workbook also offers hidden messages or inferences which are embedded in the exercises. Images and slogans, for example, are presented that uncover topics that can help to guide our children/students towards healthy living, benevolent actions and awareness of some of the many injustices and challenges we face around the globe. The ultimate inference is social consciousness and healthy living.

Throughout education much of our childrens' energy is funneled into projects that do not go beyond the classroom or their literal meaning. However, by encouraging assignments that inspire action and weaving in a positive message, learning can be both exciting and enlightening. Children love to be recognized, so let's teach them how to "pay it forward."

At the end of the book, some of the contributing organizations provided statements regarding what people can do to make a difference. I hope that teachers, parents and students will be inspired to select an organization or two and do some research about how they can make a difference in our world.

I also have some other products that you might find helpful. I have two workbooks, of instance, that strengthen students abilities to follow directions. Following Directions: The Fun and Easy Way (A Beginners Workbook 1) and Learning to Follow Directions: The Fun and Easy Way (An Intermediate Workbook 1).

You can learn more about my products at http://learningtolearn.biz/GoodSensoryLearning.html.

I hope this helps.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Erica Warren, Learning Specialist, Educational Therapist and Publisher
www.learning tolearn.biz
erica@learningtolearn.biz

Erica Warren's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Deborah:

I'm a learning specialist in Ossining, New York and I can remember when I too had trouble finding engaging lessons that would teach students about inferences and implications. Over the years, I have done a lot of research and testing with my own students. In fact, I have just published a workbook entitled Making Inferences: A Fun and Easy Way to Understand & Practice Implied Meaning. Students begin by examining images with implied meaning and slowly work their way up to short phrases and then sentences.

The purpose of this workbook is actually two fold. On the one hand, fun, multisensory activities help students understand and master the complexities of inferences or implied meaning. On the other hand, this workbook also offers hidden messages or inferences which are embedded in the exercises. Images and slogans, for example, are presented that uncover topics that can help to guide our children/students towards healthy living, benevolent actions and awareness of some of the many injustices and challenges we face around the globe. The ultimate inference is social consciousness and healthy living.

Throughout education much of our childrens' energy is funneled into projects that do not go beyond the classroom or their literal meaning. However, by encouraging assignments that inspire action and weaving in a positive message, learning can be both exciting and enlightening. Children love to be recognized, so let's teach them how to "pay it forward."

At the end of the book, some of the contributing organizations provided statements regarding what people can do to make a difference. I hope that teachers, parents and students will be inspired to select an organization or two and do some research about how they can make a difference in our world.

I also have some other products that you might find helpful. I have two workbooks, of instance, that strengthen students abilities to follow directions. Following Directions: The Fun and Easy Way (A Beginners Workbook 1) and Learning to Follow Directions: The Fun and Easy Way (An Intermediate Workbook 1).

You can learn more about my products at http://learningtolearn.biz/GoodSensoryLearning.html.

I hope this helps.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Erica Warren, Learning Specialist, Educational Therapist and Publisher
www.learning tolearn.biz
erica@learningtolearn.biz

Julie Sorg's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also teach in a Title 1 school but mine is in the inner-city. I agree that students are starving for adult attention and love. For my students, the role models portrayed on TV and living in their neighborhoods leave a lot to be desired in the caring and trust category. I try to draw attentions to positive role models that have careers outside of sports and music.

Julie Sorg's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you sharing an all to familiar theme!

As a pre-k teacher of at-risk children, I couldn't agree more that these children need a stable environment where adults can be trusted to keep their best interest at heart. One of the best things my school system ever did was to impose a dress code. These children see inappropriately role models everyday. This gives them a chance at getting an education instead of who is dressed as the latest rapper or diva.

Establishing trust with students is challenging and can take many months of day after day interactions. I feel introducing them to positive role models from the community is vital. Once they see others from there own culture doing truly amazing things, they can then see themselves achieving too.

Traci Cowdin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with Erin that despite our efforts with at-risk students there are those that refuse our help and "go unaffected." My advice is to be relentless in your efforts! Do not give up. Attempts you make now are likely to affect students eventually, maybe not even until adulthood. I taught in a small school for several years and had students return well after graduating to thank me for believing in them and assisting them in success. Some were quite surprising as I felt I had no influence on them while they were attending high school. Continue to exhaust all interventions you know; eventually differences you are making will appear!

Cherie Bergeron's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello, my name is Cherie Bergeron, and I work at an elementary school in southern Vermont. Having worked with many at-risk elementary-aged children, I definitely agree that these components are important in helping them to do better in school. Following are some insights on two of the components.

In my own experience, I have found that establishing caring relationships is probably the most significant factor. When working with students, my interactions are characterized by kindness, humor, and respect. I try to let them know that I care about them, that I value their interests and opinions, and that I have belief in their potential to succeed. I know that when a student is smiling and laughing because of a positive interaction we have had, our relationship has become a motivating factor for that student. The best thing about this is that I know that I can be a positive role model for such students, which is what so many of them need.

I also agree that setting realistic goals is important, and this is part of what differentiation is all about. Just as how students learn is not always the same, so the knowledge and skills they come away with might not always be the same. An example: I taught first grade this past school year. Several of my students were reading at what would be considered a beginning-of-first-grade level two months before the end of the school year. With this in mind, would it be reasonable to expect them to meet the goal for the end-of-first-grade reading level? No, because it would just lead to feelings of disappointment, frustration, and failure. And that would be completely counterproductive. So a different goal was created, one that was realistic given the circumstances of these particular students.

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