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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

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

Some comments have implied that there is a need to get more people moving positively toward helping at-risk youth. In another blog post, I discussed ways that each of us can bring a few of our colleagues on board so that our voices are less isolated and, gradually, heard and respected. It's a slow process, but if you are patient and persistent, you will be successful. First, you must believe that social, emotional, and character development (SECD) is the key to reaching at-risk youth and helping them find educational success. (Read my post "Character Development: The Other Side of the Report Card" to learn why teaching students SECD skills is so important.)

Next, the question is how you inspire your colleagues to see things the same way. I recommend four approaches: articulate, exemplify, inspire, and support. To the extent to which you are able to do these things, you will find yourself joined by an ever-increasing number of fellow travelers down a path to educational evolution.

Here are some tips and thoughts on how to do this practically and effectively:


Within thirty seconds, you need to be able to provide someone with a clear, cogent answer to these questions: Why do you believe that at-risk youth can be reached (the 4 Keys), how does SECD fit into that, and how will it help students improve academically? Your answer should be an "elevator speech," a thirty-second delivery given as if you were making your case to a colleague, an administrator, a school board member, or a parent in the short span of an elevator ride.

Being able to briefly articulate a compelling rationale for the reachability of at-risk youth opens the door to future conversations and even someone's willingness to learn more on the topic. If you are unable to provide a solid and concise justification, it is not likely anyone will want to hear much more or come to see what you are doing in your classroom or your school. (You will find some excellent rationales in the Comments to this blog entry. Also, read the essay "Why Champion Social and Emotional Learning?: Because It Helps Students Build Character" for ideas on developing a pitch to share with your school or your school district.)


Folks don't want to hear you talk about something you have not done. They certainly are unlikely to follow you down a path you have not traveled, or at least are not embarking on. To attract attention and interest, you must walk the talk. Find a willing colleague -- or two or three -- and start piloting the SECD activities you would like others to try with at-risk youth. Or just start on your own.

Don't feel you have to have mastery of the activities in order to get started. It's perfectly OK to be more like a driver with a learner's permit than a NASCAR racing star. Many excellent ideas have been suggested in comments to this blog entry.

It's one thing to read or hear about a program or technique and another to see a video, but what's most impressive is to see a colleague putting a program into action. Once you share it by showing it, others are more likely to follow.


By inviting others to observe your classroom or school, you do open yourself to scrutiny. But you are also declaring a willingness to learn in order to succeed. This vulnerability and courage can inspire your colleagues to leave their comfort zones and do the same. We all learn by trying and sharing.


Starting, of course, it not the point. The point is to continue on to successful implementation and results. But this achievement requires support. In fact, before you start down the road, you should be sure you have an SECD buddy from your school or a neighboring one, or someone with whom you can network through such SECD organizations as the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, the Center for Social and Emotional Education, the Character Education Partnership, or Support from another educator who is at least a little farther down the road is essential when challenges arise. After all, those who try to reverse the misfortunes of kids at risk put themselves at risk, vs. staying on a safer path. So reach out for help and support. Eventually, you will be able to build a community of support from your colleagues.

Next Step

How about if you start by preparing your thirty-second elevator speeches and then share them with visitors here so others can learn from them and you can learn from others? Sharing and borrowing is a necessary educational practice if we are to collectively move ahead and improve the lives of our at-risk students.

Lynn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I wanted to comment the programs in your school. The mentoring socials sound incredible. You are lucky to have teachers willing to participate in such an event. Our school has tried to implement intervention programs, but so many of the teachers and students in our school are very apathetic. More than half of our seniors are not eligible for graduation this year and when we tell them they act as though they never heard the information before.

Regarding building a relationship with your students, I have been told by them that I must show respect to them first, before they will show it to me. I don't argue with them, and I do show respect towards them. It really works. If the teacher is willing to let go of their ego and treat the student respectfully, the students behavior will, in turn, correct itself and they will become wonderful. The teacher must be authentic. They must really mean it when they show respect. It can take time, depending on the student, but they will begin to show respect back.

Shelley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a former teacher and Principal of high risk schools serving vulnerable children, I have realized that underrepresented children need more time in academics in order to compete with their counterparts who have educated parents, supportive tutors and lots of homework assistance. By the time underserved children reach high school, they are so far behind that they can not catch up and then they give wonder! In order to begin a program in our area of Marin City, CA, we have been researching schools that are making a difference...KIPP schools around the country, Eastside College Prep in East Palo Alto, Downtown College Prep in San Jose, the Making Waves program in Richmond, CA, College Track in Oakland CA, East Palo Alto, San Francisco Bayview Hunter's Point and New Orleans, Harlem Children's Zone. Each of these successful programs work with entering students (middle school or high school) who are at least 2-3 grade levels behind, scoring in the 10% on standardized tests, are usually the first in their families to graduate high school and attend college. Their programs are ALL based on 10 hour days with caring adults + Saturday college visits and summer programs. In every case, 100% of the students graduate high school with an appx. 85% college retention rate. Remarkable! It can be done! And the wheel does not have to be reinvented!

Robert Sharp's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really like the comment in the blog that, "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." I see this sort of mentality every day; too often with my at-risk students.

I've often had students who, at the 12th grade level, bank on playing professional sports for a living. They've not been tapped for play after high school and can't play with the school team due to grades. I've also had students who place all their eggs in the basket of being a rock or rap artist. Beyond that, too many of my students are doing poorly in school while entertaining dreams of being doctors, lawyers, and engineers.

Addressing this issue will have to be done with care. I don't wish to tell any students that their dreams cannot be accomplished but also want to be honest and realistic with them. I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a boy but as I grew up, I edited my goals to be more in line with my capabilities and what I really realistically wanted to do with my life. I don't see this happening with some kids.

I think, in many ways, mass culture is doing a huge disservice to our youth. While I'm all for free expression of ideas, I feel that some very influential outlets of culture should exercise a bit more responsibility in terms of what messages are sent to young people.

- Robert Sharp

kris's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The current state of our budget at school is simply, we have no money. Supplies are limited as well as technology. Walking into the typical classroom does not look inviting. Funds just are not as readily available as they use to be. In addition teachers are not inclined to put in the extra time with the students if it doesn't mean extra money as well. Personally speaking, I enjoy spending time with my students. I talk to them during class time, during passing periods, lunch, on their way home and online in the evening at times. My students trust me and confide in me. The problem comes in reaching all the other students in the school. Mentoring programs sound great and something I might want to begin here. Maybe even a pull-out would work as well. That is if our students were actually motivated to attend class.I feel that I can extend myself oh so much until I become burrdened down and burned out.

Stephen Patenaude's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that in our school it is "non-school" items that prove to be the best motivators. For instance we have a program called Study Island. It is a computer program for grades K-12 and it asks grade level questions in ELA, Math, Science and Social Studies. The students are graded after they complete the given section, but they cannot move on until they receive a Proficient or Advanced score. We push and push Study Island, having them use it whenever there is free time and at home. As a reward for the highest rate of successful completion, the top students will be entered into a raffle for a Nintendo Wii (that every teacher pitched in to buy). Seeing as though we are from a very poor community this is a huge motivator. Our "at-risk" kids are eating this up and on it whenever they have a free minute. They are staying after school to work on it and if they have computers at home, they are on it there.

I do agree with you on setting a standard for them. Where is that bar? How low, or high, can it go? We cannot let them underachieve, but we cannot ask the world of them. I do not think there can be a universal standard for our "at-risk" students. Each student needs to have their own goals. If they have their own goals they know exactly what they have to work towards and it can be a way for them to track their success.

Amanda Marrs's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My school does this as well Cathy and I find it becoming very useful. I teach 5th grade in NW Indiana, just outside of Gary, IN, and many of our kids are struggling to find that "right path." We are getting these kids at the age when they are struggling to find themselves and it is wonderful to be able to mentor them and let them know that YES someone does care about them and is there for them! I have mentored several students these past few years and I build such a close bond with them that they return to see me even when they are not in this building anymore. Building that relationship with as many of your students as you can I think is key to a successful learning environment. It builds trust and respect that works both ways and leads room for you to bring in fun and exciting new ideas into the lessons instead of constantly having to discipline and yell at the students.

stephanie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really liked what you had to say and as a high school teacher I have seen many students like those you described in your posting. One in particular jumped out in my mind as I was reading. He is a starting basketball player, but has poor grades and an attitude to match. I have worked closely with him, his parents, and coach trying to help him understand that he needs a "back up plan." I think the most gentle and least devastating way to approach this issue is by encouraging students to have something else in mind just in case. I never base it on their lack of talent, but instead on things beyond their control (blown knees, etc.) Many come to a complete understanding of the importance of not "putting all the eggs in their basket," but I do not know what to do with those that don't.

Good Luck with you future rappers and athletes!

Katie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach first and second graders in Pennsylvania and I share many of the same frustrations. I feel like everyday is a battle with several of my students. I continue to try to find ways to connect with them, but nothing has been successful thus far. Also, these children who hesitate to form relationships with their teachers are often extremely unmotivated in school. I am at a loss, because without being able to make a connection with them, I have struggled to motivate them to even try to do their work. So now, not only do these kids lack the stable relationships they need, but they are also falling behind academically.

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.

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