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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

jamillah clare's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I also teach at risk kids who are 2-3 years behind grade level. Each child has a tragic story whether they realize it or not. The communities where they live do nothing but foster their delinquency. So many of my current and former students were convinced they could be that one rapper who makes it. Parents are dressing their children as little adults instead of children. By the time they enter kindergarten, students today are exposed to far too much by the media and their own families. The future is not emphasized, just the present. One thing that I have found my student's respond to is genuine love. Most of these low risk kids have given up because they feel no one cares. When we reach out to them, they will probably reach back out. However, we must be genuine. Many teachers act scornfully toward these kids. Children can detect when someone authentically cares for their well being. We must reach out to families also. When a child's family buys into their education, it makes our jobs easier. Teachers, administrators, and districts have to start looking at children as humans with human problems. We must find ways to educate them despite these things.

Amanda Marrs's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Maurice that was a wonderful video, thank you for sharing! I try to incorporate many of these same things that Chris did into my own classroom. Two years ago I took a class that was based on building group interactions in math class. When students learn to talk to each other, it really is amazing how much they learn. I feel like I have been so pressured these past few months to get the kids ready for more standardized tests that I have been plugging away at the lessons and not giving time for self-reflection in class. It just seems like there is so little time and so much that we have to cover that the most important things are being forgotten. Watching this video and reading the articles has reminded me of what kind of teacher I am and want to continue to be. I want that type of discourse in my class because then students are able to find new ways to think about math. This type of environment allows for relationships to build not only between the students, but between myself and my students and that is key. Thank you again for reminding me that I need to allow them to discuss more amongst themselves and not just "school" them on the topics that will be covered on the tests!

Kristine Elrod's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for the reminder to all of us teachers. In order to teach a child, one must develop a relationship with that child. I have seen this work for me in the classroom over and over again. As the demands on teachers and students increase I am finding it harder to do. The governor in our state just approved for the 2009-2010 school year raising class sizes. It seems like decisions in education are based on dollars.

Cathy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Kris,
I completely agree that tackling these challenges can be a hefty task. One thing I have found to be completely helpful is to take on one thing at a time. I feel that if I have made a difference in just one student's life, I am helping to make progress in improving our education system. Although it seems like a lot to take on a mentoring program, maybe work with other teachers in your school to get it up and running. Start small, and then let it grow. Teaching is a very challenging career, but I have found it is necessary to find a balance between school and your own life. Often times I try to leave school at school. This has helped me to keep my sanity, and remain happy in my choice of profession. I wish you the best of luck. Teaching is a life changing career because you have the ability to help so many.

Jennie Kuehl's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Jamiliah's comment that "many teachers act scornfully toward these kids" is too true. I see teachers reacting with disgust and mean-heartedness to students from challenging, underprivileged backgrounds every day. Unfortunately, I don't think this is just the teachers' fault, since there is so much to contend with, so much piling up on these teachers shoulders. Even though I am in a school that has vowed to "turn around" the culture of the building by hiring committed, engaging teachers, these same teachers are run-down by the paperwork, protocol, and poor management around them. As a result of the poorly maintained school environment the students are responding as they did in previous years - they "run the school." Even though the building is full of caring, dedicated teachers, many are losing the love that they brought in because of everything that comes with being a teacher in an underprivileged school. It is unfortunate that our at-risk students struggle on so many fronts. If only a bigger picture could be taken of what really needs to be done to improve a school full of at-risk students, and then implemented successfully, everything would start feeling a little easier and a little more loving.

Ashley Millerd's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed what you said about how important caring and stable relationships are to at risk students. I work in a class with several students who are at risk. At the beginning of the school year they were not cooperative and refused to do their class work. Throughout the year, I have developed great relationships with these students and their attitude towards school has completely changed. I learned their likes and dislikes and created lessons that I knew they would be interested in. They now have a motivation to do their work and succeed because they know that I truly care about them and their future. I have also worked with them creating goals that are reachable, making them have more confidence when they acheive them!

Brandi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with this comment but I am going to take it a step further "Students often have unrealistic career and personal goals based on what they learn from the mass culture. I work with children who may not technically be in a at risk category, but they are preschoolers with disabilities (most on the autistic spectrum) which to me says they are at risk in many ways. As teachers we need to make sure they have realistic goals also, so that they can be successful in their lives even if it is with their daily living skills. Having unrealistic goals only helps them. As with your older students, I have also seen the ones who want to be professional athletes. I don't think that it is harmful to express the importance of having a back-up plan just incase it doesn't work out. As many of us adults know that life doesn't always take us in the direction we wanted to go, someone is always throwing us a curve ball.

dewanna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a 4th grade teacher and I teach at risk students. I have to agree with the article "Four Keys to Helping At- Risk Kids". I believe we have to teach attainable goals but also teach kids to dream. A dream and hard work is what got us in our position. I see so many teacher take dreams away from kids just by mere words. I teach my 4th graders to dream big but here in the classroom is where the work starts and it won't be easy. My children write about their dreams for me as a writng prompt. I grade by only saying "How will you attain this dream of yours?"

Sita M. Preston's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

At-risk kids became at risk because of a combination of factors and circumstances. It's hard to say what exactly made a kid At-Risk but the fact of the matter is they all need love. They all need someone to love and care about them and push them to succeed. To get through to these kids you must earn their trust. Many teachers have no idea what these kids go through or have been through. Instead they just get frustrated with them and give up on them. I teach at-risk kids and I know how frustrating and trying it can be but my kids know that I care about them and I will not accept failure from them. I enjoyed reading this blog because we all need a reminder of what it is we are doing and how to do it better.

Stefani Boam's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for your comments and ideas for helping at-risk students. I teach at a title one school with a high population of at risk students, ESL students, and refugee students. I had a student in my class a few years ago who is a refugee from the Somalia. He had a very low IQ, he was extremely delayed and socially had a difficult time. I am extremely concerned about his impending promotion from sixth grade and moving onto Jr. High. I am worried about his integration to JR. High and most importantly I am worried about his lack of personal connection/interaction with caring adults. I agree with the importance of having a personal connection with an adult. I am frustrated at the prospect of him not having that in the future. Something he really needs.

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