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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

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 Edutopia.org. 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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Comments (104)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

stephanie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am in my second year of teaching in Capitol Heights, Maryland on the very Eastern edge of Washington, DC. Many of the students at my school are considered to be at risk. I have found that caring, as described in the article above, can truly make a world of difference, and has the potential to change, even save a life. My concern is the students who slip through the cracks. Not all teachers are willing to reach out like many of us are, and there are never enough teachers who want to make a difference to reach every single student.

I loved what the article said about helping students set realistic goals. Many of my students want to be mechanics and hair stylists, and I see nothing wrong with these goals if that is their passion. It is a way to support themselves, and could take them far if they fine tune their skills. With the proper guidance i believe these kids could go from low achieving students to driven professionals.

I am in search of a way to reach as many kids as I can. Everyday after school I see several students lingering, with a glimmer of hope in their eyes searching for somewhere to go to stay safe and out of trouble, yet for various reasons (grades, etc.) they are not able to partake in most activities. I would love to hear suggestions on a program to reach these kids, who if given the guidance and a safe environment could perform at a higher level.

Let me know if you have a suggestion!

Brandie Larsen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed reading your blog. After seven years of teaching in a public preschool that serves special needs students, typically developing students, and students that are viewed "at-risk", I have come to the conclusion that all students are at-risk. Some students are at-risk for social failure and other students are at-risk for academic failure. I feel that it is important to not only build a trusting relationship with the at-risk students but with each student as who's to say when they may become "at-risk."

Beth's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach in a small ratio classroom. Knowing that students need strong relationships at school and outside of school, I have tried to build relationships with all of my students. From reading this article and your post, I have realized that being a female I may not be able to make the best connections with my male students. I am going to recruit some of the male teachers in my school to assist in connecting with my male students as positive role models.

Lacey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I, too, teach at-risk students. I am a 6th, 7th, and 8th grade reading teacher for students who are closest to becoming proficient and grade level but have been falling through the cracks for too long. I must admit that I love these students. I probably could have been labeled with the same title if I wouldn't have been so good at faking it and getting the things I needed done to go forward with sports in college.

These four factors are vital and I appreciated their order. I have found in my own experience that the relationships far outweigh all the others. The kids need, long, and thrive off of people caring and taking an interest in them. To be honest, who doesn't? I know that I still appreciate being noticed by others for positive things even at 30!

It's great to know that education is starting to close the sieve that has been allowing so many students to fall through. It is also overwhelmingly endearing to hear that there are so many people who WANT to be the ones that these kids fall into!

Ellen Delgado's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I work in an elementary school with "at-risk" students. My peers and I often say that we wish we could establish after and before school programs to support homework, study skills, and plain old social interaction. Of course all programs have to have "research based" instruction and be "academically sound". It seems that the students who need the most get the most overwhelmed with academic expectation and no guidance and support from educators. I offer no suggestions, just empathy for our common frustration.

Erin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I fully agree with the four keys to helping at-risk kids, however, I have found that some students will not respond to any steps I take to create a relationship or understand them better. I teach first grade in Georgia at a school with a majority of low income families. Unfortunately, some of my students have already learned the harsh realities of the real world their families live in. Despite my efforts to create positive relationships with my students, and show each one that I care for them individually as well as care for them as a whole class, there are still a few students who contine to ignore my efforts. I hope that since these students are so young if an authority figure takes the time to truly create a positive relationship, they may choose to change their attitude toward school and become more successful. Despite my efforts with these students, I continue to have one student in particualr who displays defiant behavior and is quickly falling behind academically. I have exhausted every intervention I can manage with the student yet have had relatively no effect. What should a teacher do when the students go unaffected despite all efforts to help them?!?

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

So many excellent ideas have been added through the various comments that I have read! Thank you! Many resonated to the idea that all students should be thought of as being at risk, that they all need caring relationships, and they need to have individual, personal goals of some kind to sustain them in school, as well as connection to the school as a larger place with meaning to them. Most important, to me, is the realization that we can't give up on youth at risk. They don't want us to, however unmotivated they may seem. It's just that they have been burned too many times by false promises and false starts so they may not recognized decency, caring, and commitment when they see it. Hence we must persist even when students don't express appreciation for what we are trying to do. Fear not... they appreciate it and eventually, all but the most truly disturbed children will show it.

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

Stephanie, in the face of a tidal wave, we cannot possibly stop the waters by ourselves. What you can do is to fine ways to engage a few of these students. Find ways for them to be helpful to you, to other students, or to the school community. Perhaps they can be after-school tutors for younger students. Greet them by name and speak with the sincerely. Share what you are doing with your colleagues, not to aggrandize yourself but to let them know what's possible. Many of our colleagues have good hearts and good intentions but feel overwhelmed by the tidal wave. They need to see how they can hold back a little bit of the water, as you are doing. Then, they will join you. Slowly but surely, the tide can be held back as each one tries to do a little bit, rather than the impossible. Don't worry about a program. Just bring the essential ingredients in our recipe into your relationship with these young people and the rest will follow. That said, The Educator's Guide to Emotional Intelligence and Academic Achievement, Engageing the Disengaged, Understanding Emotions in the Classroom, and Engaging Youth At Risk: Our Hope for the Future, and Resilience Education are all helpful resources for you and others with similar aspirations.

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

I think that A Blueprint for Promoting Academic and Social Competence in After-School Programs (Issues in Children's and Families' Lives) by Thomas P. Gullotta and Martin Bloom contains excellent advice and practical leads for those interested in after school programming for at-risk youth.

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

Edutopia has a wonderful video that shows how to make math engaging for all students, as well as how to help students set their own goals and help one-another in the learning process. You can access that video at http://www.edutopia.org/math-social-activity-sel-video. It's worth watching!!

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