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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

Bethany Haas's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think these 4 keys are a great start to helping kids who are at risk but I also feel that they need to value the importance of an education. As an adult now I can look back and see how I got to where I am today and I know that I got here through a good education. I never liked every subject but I worked hard to do well and I think because many students lack that drive that they will never really value an education.

I certainly agree in the value of mentors and building relationships with teachers. When the parents at home fail these are often the only meaningful relationships that these children might have in their day. Often these relationships are what will motivate students and keep them going.

I know that for me it is hard to build these relationships with students because I just don't seem to have enough time in my day. It is something I really have to work at in the future.

Kate Amunrud's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My name is Kate and I am a technology teacher for second through fifth grade elementary students. I love the idea presented in the article, The Four Keys to Helping At-Risk Kids. I think I can make the most impact on students while offering a caring, sustainable relationship by being a good listener. It is too easy to make eye contact, offering a smile and head nod or a generic comment like "cool". That is too superficial. At-risk kids need to know someone is really interested. For me, that means asking questions that show my interest and extending those conversations to include other interests my students have.

Carla's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My name is Carla and I teach 5th grade in Georgia. This article was very interesting. I teach several students who are considered at risk. The ideas in the article about building relationships with the students and helping them reach their goals really is important. I also liked the idea of "leeway and forgiveness". We all make mistakes and students should know it is O.K. when they make mistakes as well. It is so important to have someone to help them get back on track and continue to encourage them even after the mistake. Ideally, this would be someone outside of school as well as their teacher.

Angela Collins's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi! My name is Angela Collins and I teach 1st grade in South Carolina. About 90% of the students at my school are at-risk students. I agree with your four keys to helping at-risk students. I am a first year teacher, but I have found out that once students know that you genuinely care about them and you gain their trust, they excel so much. Without that stable relationship between teacher and student, that at-risk student will not attempt to excel. The other key areas are just as important as building those stable relationship. In my classroom, I sit down with individual students and we discuss the goals that I have for them. There are a few goals that I have for my class as a whole, but because my class is so diverse I could not give each student the same exact goals. By having individual goals, all of my students will have an opportunity to reach their goals and feel optimistic about continuing to move forward.

I enjoyed reading the article. It made me refocus on certain areas that I can improve in to better help my students.

Stephen Patenaude's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Once I saw the words "At-Risk", I knew this was an article that I wanted to read. I teach in Everett, MA (a city that borders Boston) and most of our students are kids at risk. Actually in our school we do label students as "At-Risk Students" but in our system, students in this category are children we have repeated a grade. That being said we have a lot of children that fit into the four categories you have laid out. Everyone I work with focuses heavily on these students. These children need compassion and care more than they need to be disciplined. They also, like you said, need reachable and realistic goals. We cannot expect miracles from these students. If we set goals too high we are setting them up for failure and that will do nothing but crush their spirits.

Jennifer Lerum's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My name is Jenny and I teach 8th grade math. I forget about the "leeway and forgiveness" mentioned in the article which needs to occur so students don't get frustrated and give up on their goals. My 8th graders are in the process of registering for high school and some are complacent about their job at school. I need to help them remember their goals and let them know it is okay to stray as long as they can get back on track.

Katie Holt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


My name is Katie Holt and I teach high school social studies at a low-income school in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I was immediately drawn to this article after reading the title. I am constantly looking for new ways to connect and build relationships with my students. Ashley, I love that you take the time to sit down with each of your students and discuss their goals for the year. As a new teacher, that is something that I would really like to implement in my classroom. Another helpful resource in dealing with at-risk students is "A Framework for Understanding Poverty" by Ruby Payne. This was only book I had time to read my first year teaching, and it really helped me to connect with my students. This is my first time participating in a blog and I really enjoyed reading the responses!

Jennifer Lerum's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Whether you teach at an inner city school or in the suburbs, at-risk kids are everywhere. I teach 8th grade math in a suburb of Chicago. Who would think I would be dealing with at-risk students? Two parent incomes, nice homes, and nice cars don't assure a child will not be at-risk. Lack of adult supervision, due to both parents working, has negatively affected some of my students. No one checks homework at night or is available to pick them up if they need extra help. I strive to build relationships with these chldren in order for them to realize that an adult does care and will ask the tough questions,"Do you have your homework done for math class?"
I totally agree with the article when it comes to students feeling engaged. It goes beyond working on homework during class. Engaging my students by asking for their opinion on how to solve a math problem and helping them learn to work together in small groups has been beneficial in making them feel like part of a community.

Katie Holt's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

While I agree that many students have unrealistic goals, I worry about trying to change them. I know many at-risk students are told that they need to be "realistic" with their life. I teach Economics and we do an entire unit on careers and life planning. In the unit I try to let my students know that they should have more than one career of interest. Instead of telling students that their chances of playing in the NBA are slim, I try to explain to them that they need a back up plan in life.

jennifer Lerum's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I totaly agree with the article also in that you need to REALLY listen to students as they are talking to you. I am making more of an effort to do this due to readings I have been doing for my masters classes. I am so happy to read that other teachers see the importance of this very caring gesture.

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