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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

katy wallace's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you so much for your insight on how to help at-risk students. I currently have 3 kids in my class that would be considered "at-risk." Lately I have really been wondering if I am doing all that I can for these kids. Reading your four key ingrediants helps to reassure me that I am doing what I need to be doing, but also that I need to improve what I am doing in some areas.
What I find really challenging about these students is not the students themselves, but the constant wondering, "am I making a difference?" I think it is really easy to believe that in 180 days you can't change an entire life's worth of experiences. Sometimes we as teachers need to remeber why we came into the profession, and use those 180 days alter how those students view the world.

jamillah clare's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This seems like a vicious cycle. We get revved up to start each school year just to be brought down to our original spot. Sometimes we get even lower. Our students see this and respond. Politicians and administrators need to step in classrooms of the new era before making these policies. Most of them taught, but in the 80's. Things have completely changed since then. What worked then doesn't work for all now. There has to be middle ground.

Erin 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This article caught my eye because I teach at a Title 1 school and I have several students that are considered "at-risk". This article was a good guideline for me and it showed me what I need to be doing to help these students. After reading this article, I feel I am doing my best in some areas but I also saw where I need to work harder at to help these students. I care about my students and everyday I think about the things they have gone through in their life. I want to be there for them and I want them to trust me. Having these meaningful relationships with my students is very important to me and I think that is also important for my students to have a successful school experience. I am always there for my students giving them guidance and reassurance. I need to look at all of my students to see what goals we have set for each of them. Are these reachable goals? Maybe the reason some of my students aren't trying their best, is because they aren't motivated by an attainable goal. Reading this article went along with books and articles I am reading for Masters degree. We have been reading about the characteristics of an effective teacher and what is the difference between a novice and an expert teacher. The 4 keys to helping at-risk students, I believe are characteristics of an expert teacher.

Alicia Young's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I work with at-risk students and I found this article to be helpful. It is very important for us to build relationships with our students in order to help them set and reach attainable goals. These goals must present a pathway to students that is hopeful. I agree with your statement, "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." I am in the process of starting a mentoring program at my school for our students. Through this program, I believe that they will learn skills that will better equip them for success in school.

Melanie Yoder's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really appreciated the reminders given in this article. I work with many students considered to be at risk. I teach Title 1 Reading in two elementary schools in rural Ohio. My students are in kindergarten, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grades. This article has also lined up with what I have been learning about in my masters courses. I definitely agree with the importance of building the strong, caring, supportive relationships with students. It is sad to think that some children are not receiving care and support at home, but it is reality sometimes. Sometimes a child's teacher is the only positive role model they have. The realization of this makes me strive to build that kind of relationship with my students and to create a safe, comfortable learning environment for them. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

Loubna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This article caught my attention because I am interested in Exceptional education field (I'm working on my degree), I agree that it is important to build a strong, and supporting relationship with students. Students always need someone positive to push them and encourage them.i've enjoyed reading this blog, please keep up the good work, and good luck to all the teachers

Damaris Garcia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed reading your blog. I completely agree with your point-of-view on the importance of having a caring relationship with students that are at risk. It is very important that the student knows that his or her teacher cares about him or her. Sadly, there are teachers that get frustrated and give up on some students, but a good relationship with a student can allow the student to trust the teacher and, in turn, their attitude towards learning will change. Children know when someone really cares about them.

jennifer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

From previous experience I have realized the importance of creating a caring relationship while working with at risk students. Once they realize that you truly care about their success they seem more willing to cooperate and are motivated to succeed.

Maurice J. Elias's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Amanda, I am pleased you enjoyed the video. Allow me to thank you for pointing out the incredible importance of self-reflection on the part of our students. When we cram them so full of information-- regardless of how wonderful and valid- without time to reflect it, we are violating what we know about brain learning and cognitive psychology. That is, children need time to integrate what they have learned if they are to retain it and bring it into everyday use. The Responsive Classroom is an example of an SECD program that understands and integrates reflection into everyday classroom use, and of course the video uses that same practice. Taking a few minutes to allow for reflection will do far more for learning than will those same few moments devoted to additional direct instruction.

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.

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