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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

Sarah Beaulieu's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My name is Sarah and I teach ninth graders in a Freshman Academy in SC. We have recently discovered that 50% of our ninth graders are below a ninth grade reading comprehension level. Also, 20-30% of our ninth graders are below a 7th grade reading comprehension level. We have identified these students as "at-risk." They are at-risk of not being able to pass the English I End-of-Course exam at the end of English I and possiby not being able to pass their state high school exit exam at the end of tenth grade. We have developed a pull-out system in which these students are pulled out of their study hall and required to work on reading comprehension in the library. So far, one-third of the students have reached the ninth-grade reading comprehension level and therefore placed out of the pull-out program. These students, however, have requested that they still be able to go to the library during study hall and read the books and complete the exercises that the at-risk students are. I totally agree with the 4 areas identified, especially the area of caring, sustained relationships. There has been such high teacher turn-over at the middle school that these students are just waiting for their teachers to leave, so they were hesitant to develop relationships. It has meant a lot to their progress and work that they are developing good relationships.

Joel Grant's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with your comments on "at risk" students. I teach in a school in Ohio that sounds very similar to yours and we are constantly trying to develop new strategies to improve our "at risk" students test scores and overall appreciation for school. My questions is where do we set the bar for "these" students, what is too high and what is too low? I realize it is an individual evaluation of each student, but we are told to have each student reach a minimum test score. (our standardized test)How do we motivate these students to achieve a minimum test score.

Jennifer Lerum's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There is a new teacher on my team who doesn't have any children to rush home to after school, like I do. She is able to attend our students extra curricular activities and I have seen what a difference it makes with her relationships with students. I taught an additonal period of math class to our at-risk students this year. During the six weeks I taught it, I built a wonderful relationship with this small group of eigth graders. They still stop by to visit with me between classes, even though I don't have them in class.

Cathy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe that in many different parts of the country, our schools face an increasing amount of students characterized as "high risk." My name is Cathy and I teach seventh grade math in a small school in upstate New York. Compared to my student teaching and summer school teaching experiences, my school has significantly fewer at-risk students. However, I believe that in any school district forming meaningful, trusting relationships is the key to student success. I have seen students evolve significantly within the classroom, and much of this growth is attributed to relationships formed. It is important to make a student feel comfortable, welcome, and respected within the classroom. It seems that often times before we even attempt to teach our students we must develop some type of rapport with them. Trusting relationships, in combination with the three other points, together, will help create a positive and reinforcing classroom environment for all students.

Denyse Hypolite Brathwaite's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have a kean interest in helping children who are at risk. I was immediately drawn to the article "The Four Keys for Helping At-risk Kids" I have worked with at-risk students for many years. Family life, community, school climate and factors within the child play an important role in making the risk worst or providing protective factors. The four keys as purported by Maurice Elias, can be utilized to create protective factors to cushion the impact of the risk factors.

Think of a scale, with the risk-factors weighing down one side of it, but as parents, teachers and other concerned individuals begin to place protective factors on the other end of the scale, would soon be balanced and eventually weighed down with protective factors. Then, the at-risk child would no longer be at-risk.

Rhonda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Angela. My name is Rhonda and I teach third grade in Georgia. I start on the first day of school trying to build a community in my classroom. It has been my experience with all students, not just "high risk", they will be more interested in what you are teaching if they feel a sense of respect. It makes sense. As adults, we respond to people better if we feel a bond. I feel it is important to set attainable goals for all my students and help them make a plan, maybe even a checklist. It is vital to periodically check to see how we are doing on achieving our set goal and maybe revamp our plan. It is vital for students to know that it is alright to rethink a plan if it is not working and set a different goal. We must understand all students are different and we can not have one set plan which will not work for all students. It is okay to be different. Students also need to realize it is okay to be different. I encourage my students to believe whole heartedly in whatever it is they are doing. A little love and caring can take a classroom that extra mile. I definitely agree with the 4 keys.

Kris's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a high school teacher in Compton, CA and have found that a large percentage of my students are considered "at-risk" of being retained, not graduating, dropping out of school, expelled and so much more. I am a 9th grade reading teacher with students reading on average at a 2nd grade level. I learned very quickly that I needed to build relationships just like the above article states. However, with the economy in the state that it is in, I am finding it difficult to provide an engaging school and community setting. My only idea would be to develop an after-school program that would be a type of outreach program...any ideas????

Mindy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am so glad that someone has taken the time to point out that at-risk students are in need of loving relationships. A common characteristic of at-risk students is that they are not provided with these relationships at home, and as we know from Maslow's hierachy of needs, this is a human need. It is an unfortunate reality that we as educators must provide this at school. However, it only requires a small committment to make a huge difference. It can be harder to maintain a "loving" relationship with these students than others, as these are usually the ones pushing our buttons. Although I may unintentionally lose my cool, I try to talk to each student before they leave my classroom and let them know that even though their actions may have made me angry, that I still care about them (similar to the never go to sleep angry philosophy). Even if I can not do this, I always start each day fresh, greeting students as though nothing ever happened between us, giving both of us a fresh start and a second chance!

Scott's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hey, my name is Scott and I teach middle school music in Philadelphia schools. After reading your comments, I'd just like to ask a few questions and maybe flesh out your situation a little more. How are you finding the the economy is keeping you from engaging your students and also creating a community setting? Are you in this by yourself? I find that if you can work with a group of teachers, it becomes easier to realize goals. As Sarah commented a few comments down, maybe some kind of pull-out program would be good to get things started. She also mentioned that the kids are just waiting for their teachers to up and leave so forming good relationships can take perseverance and a lot of effort. But those relationship in themselves will help foster the community you are seeking.

Cathy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In my school district we offer a mentoring program for some of the at-risk students. Teachers volunteer their time, and try to meet with their mentee weekly. We have mentoring socials once a month, where we get together and have a potluck dinner, or just make a craft together. This is a reinforcing program because many of the students create meaningful relationships with their mentors, and often confide in them. Many students just need support and a listening ear from a caring adult. I hope this helps! Good luck.

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