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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

Natasha Johnson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am emplyeed with a community action program(Head Start)that emphasises education for three to five year olds in Houston,Texas. This article was extremely informative and relevant to me. The four ingredients that was listed in this article to reach at risk children was packed with real truths that I belive. As educators, we must remeber that buliding a relationship is based and built in time and on trust. Students must be guided on healthy paths for success,and this process will look different,but might follow the same format for every child. Having goals that students can actually reach will be a catalyst in developing and maintaining self-esteem, social, and emotional skills, and procduce an over all well rounded individual. The community plays a key role in assisting with positive behavior for at risk children. It is my opinion that when the community and schools partner together with the understanding that every person is needed to reach at-risk children,then change and progress will be evident in both schools and community as a whole.

Natasha Johnson

Millie Morris's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi! My name is Millie Morris and I teach K-2 at Mountain Park Elementary in Stone Mountain, GA!

I have spent an incredible amount of time thinkinga bout my 4 at risk students. I am currently working with four at risk 2nd graders in the area of reading. I have worked very hard at creating a strong relationship with all of them. After reading this blog, I have decided that I need to look for opportunities to see them outside of school. I am going to go into school on Monday morning and show them what the next reading level test looks like and see if they think they could set a reachable goal (date) as to when they might be ready to take this test. (They are currently reading Rigby level 21) I am hopeful that this will help them to work a little harder during our class time to reach their goal. I never thought of doing this with young learners, but I am motivated to try. It breaks my heart to see them struggling. Can someone explain to me the difference between reachable goals and realistic hopeful pathways?

T. McMillan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello. My name is Terra McMillan and I am middle grades science teacher. I totally agree with the article on the importance of building stable relationships. As a teacher, I learned very early the importance of listening to the students. Sometimes they just want someone to listen to them. It seems the more you listen, the more the students feel comfortable with you and hence starts the relationship building. I also agree with the importance in being apart of the student's life outside of school. I teach in the after school program with several at-risk students. Yesterday, I played basketball with them as part of our health unit. I was amazed at the response I received from the students the next day at work. Several of them came by my room just to tell me "hi" and offer me a few pointers on playing basketball.

zeneida thompson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Terra,

My name is Zeneida I teach at Desert Sands Unified in La Quinta CA.
I enjoyed reading your comment and also the information about the four keys to help at risk students.

I also participated in an after school at risk program by teaching Italian to at risk students after school and I had a similar experience like yours. For months I had students coming up to me, visiting my class, talking more to me. They were very excited and I felt that they enjoyed that familiarity and felt comfortable around me. Which proves that students need that sense of community we can provide not only during school hours but also after school or even outside of school.

Jim Scott's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teacher 6th-8th graders in a midwestern inner-city school district. All of them live in poverty, few even know their fathers, let alone live with them (or see them very often). They are constantly moving from house to house for one reason or another. In short, they are ALL at risk. This article hits on all the main points of helping at-risk students. I believe the most significant is building relationships. I'm not talking about being their friends or mentors necessarily, but being a stable, constant and predictable part of their lives. I've been at my current assignment for 2 years and I can see the change in the students. They don't have to like me, but I know they respect me (as much as kids that age show respect) and are willing to share bits of themselves with me. I have seen an increase in their academic performance as well as their behavior. Believe me, it's far from perfect. Sometimes, really far from perfect. But, knowing that I'll be there to help and correct them makes a difference. The problem: myself or anyone else in my building could be moved at any time! All the work we've put in place could be lost to budget cuts or other problems. Until the folks who run the ship actually act on what research tells us, only small, isolated gains will be made.

Kari Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach 1st grade students and have had plenty of experience working with at-risk students, but continue to look for ways to help them be successful. Our school district concentrates on 1st grade students in providing them one-on-one instruction if they are at-risk. I am out of my classroom for 45min everyday providing a student with individualized instruction. The program is called CLIP or Collaborative Literacy Intervention Project. We work on reading and writing strategies, review running records, incorporate word work, review familiar books and use strategies such as predict and locate, and discuss vocabulary and concept words to make the student successful as they read a new book. There are usually between 45-80 lessons before a student has reached grade level and is released from the program. Unfortunatly, not all students will reach grade level through this program and other interventions need to be done. To me reachable goals are goals we make for each student in small steps. We do the best we can, the best we know how, and sometimes it still doesn't seem to be enough.

Justin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello my name is Justin; I teach health education at the middle school level. I work with every student in the school throughout the course of the year, meaning that I also work with every at-risk student as well. I think that this article made some excellent points about creating caring sustained relationships with these students. I agree that once a rapport has been developed with the student then the advice of the teacher is taken to heart and can have a meaningful impact. I also think that a solid teacher student relationship is a crucial factor in the success of the student. I have found in my experience that if you have a great relationship with at-risk students then they don't really care what subject you are teaching, but they will usually be much more successful in class as a result of your relationship.

Robbie Pauly's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My name is Robbie Pauly and I teach in Key West, Florida. A great deal of my students are at-risk kids. They come from home lives with little to no support, parents who are working two jobs to be able to support their family, or have no parents in the household at all. I agree with the statement that there is more than one way to make a recipe. What works for one student may not work for another. However, I do feel that one of the most important ways to reach these at-risk students is to create a relationship with them. If they trust you they will want to learn and do well for school for you. This becomes a high motivational factor for these students. I have seen this first hand within my classroom. I have a 5th grade boy who has been struggling throughout most of his academic career. School is not his love, music is. I could not figure out how to help this child to place an emphasis on his education. One day he asked me to attend one of his musical performances on a Saturday. My husband and I went and absolutely loved it! However more than that, the student loved it! The child said he could not believe that I came. He said he had many teachers in the past who said they would come and never did. His grades have improved dramatically since I began attending his performances. With at-risk children there are many ups and downs. For example, this child did very well for a month and this last week he struggled. It is in these times of struggle where the relationship needs to be ever stronger then ever. The child needs to know that you care for them no matter what. After you create this relationship, are there any other words of wisdom as to how to keep the child on track academically if they start going the other way again?

Robbie Pauly

Ashley Yarber's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was immediately drawn to this article because I teach at a Title I school. Many of our students come from low-income homes and are considered to be at risk. I agree with many of the points in the article. This was the first year I sat down with my students and discussed their goals for the school year. Many of my students were dissatisfied with their current level of performance, and they thought they were capable of much more. We set reasonable goals, and I am happy to report that all of the students have been successful at reaching their goals.

I also think that having positive, stable relationships with students is very important. Students will perform better when they know someone cares for them. Personally, it is hard for me to meet the needs of each individual child in my classroom. In order to make sure they have a positive relationship in their life, I try to get other staff members involved as mentors. Currently, I am using the school nurse, P.E. coach, and a kindergarten teacher as mentors for three of my students. I think it would be an excellent idea for my school to contact other community organizations to ensure that students have those positive relationships outside of school too.

Thanks for the article! I really enjoyed reading it!

Vicky's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed reading this article and thinking about the students in my 5th grade classroom.

There are many variables at play in a child's life. As a teacher, finding out why a child behaves or struggles the way they do is the first step to trying to correct the problem and put the child on the path to success. In order to find out why a child is struggling, it is important that the teacher has built a relationship with the child. Once a relationship is built, strengthening a child's self-esteem by setting goals that are attainable is important. When a child feels safe and successful, they are more available for learning. This sounds easy, but in the regular classroom it is quite a job. Every child is different and requires something different. It takes a lot of work, but can be very rewarding in the end.

This article is a great read for new teachers.

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