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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 J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu)
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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 Edutopia.org. But your recommendations for other sources of ingredients will be just as helpful to readers. Bon appétit!

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Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu)

Comments (105) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Diane Miner Hazel's picture

Up until spring, 2007, I worked at a large urban high school in New England-as an ESL teacher.My Ss had double period English with me, & often a 3rd period of Soc Studies for New English Learners. This extensive time together enabled students & t. to become a tight unit-a "family". But with the pressure to pack in all the latest mandates, topics Ss & T wanted to discuss often had to be put aside. My OPEN DOOR POLICIY on any non-meeting day became HOME AFTER SCHOOL-safe haven, place to meet school-minded friends, homework space w/tool & Teacher help***SHARING INFORMATION ABOUT OPPORTUNITIES IN THE SCHOOL/ANNOUNCED AT SCHOOL that were often UNKNOWN to New Eng Learners-new in building-this became key to Ss become active members of school community (sports, clubs, field trips, tutorial programs & other after school/weekend opportunities. Students who came regularly became official members of our FUTURE PLANNERS CLUB...a consistently welcoming place to embrace caring peers & adults, to find positive learning/hw environment, to talk about life-essentials on mind/inevitalbe in future, & a place to get important information on current events/opportunities. As new Ss came, veteran Ss met them after school & became their connections to adjusting. In short, I agree that AFTER SCHOOL CONNECTIONS with Students are 1 of the most important educational experiences for both ( S & T) learners!

johnel's picture

Russlynn Ali says "the investigation of the Los Angeles Unified School District will reveal reasons for their low academic performance". Who is accountable educational documentary shows how the achievement gap lead our urban youth straight into incarceration and destitution. See why Russlynn Ali chose LAUSD to be first on the List of schools that need to be investigated. Please go to www.whoisaccountable.net

johnel's picture

Russlynn Ali says "the investigation of the Los Angeles Unified School District will reveal reasons for their low academic performance". Who is accountable educational documentary shows how the achievement gap lead our urban youth straight into incarceration and destitution. See why Russlynn Ali chose LAUSD to be first on the List of schools that need to be investigated. Please go to www.whoisaccountable.net

sushma sharma's picture
sushma sharma
Lecturer Govt Girls School Jabalpur India

I had been working as an ESOL teacher for last 25 years,in my school when we compare subject wise the biggest At-Risk children list comes from the ESL subject,as the language spoken at home and in other subject periods differ the students try to avoid the ESOL and study those subjects that is being done in their mother tongue.So now I have to compensate them twice.First I work hard to create interest about the content and then I make them learn the language.So I go on from caring to setting reachable goals and build strong relationships with them.Really what you said is the only way though with every student the recipe differs.

sushma sharma's picture
sushma sharma
Lecturer Govt Girls School Jabalpur India

I had been working as an ESOL teacher for last 25 years,in my school when we compare subject wise the biggest At-Risk children list comes from the ESL subject,as the language spoken at home and in other subject periods differ the students try to avoid the ESOL and study those subjects that is being done in their mother tongue.So now I have to compensate them twice.First I work hard to create interest about the content and then I make them learn the language.So I go on from caring to setting reachable goals and build strong relationships with them.Really what you said is the only way though with every student the recipe differs.

Richard Titus's picture
Richard Titus
I have 19 years of professional experience with students.

In order to reach kids who at-risk, the role of forming significant, sustained and positive relationships with these kids cannot be overstated. From my experince, I will go as far as to say this route maybe the only way to "save" one of these young people from following the path that their parents, peers, and "role models" have set before them. Kudos to your article!

"Professor" Paul GTO Briones's picture
"Professor" Paul GTO Briones
Host and Co-Creator of Virtual Science University & Anatomy & Physiology/Advanced Biology Instructor At KHS

Thanks Maurice for your blog here on eduTopia. My recent work confirms your four main points you posted here. The way kids learn today is different, so the way we teach and approach them, must also change. Our task is to circumvent what they are learning from some of our negatively oriented news feeds, our morally perverse video feeds and websites, our politicians that are more focused on getting votes than educating our children. We must reach these students and parents in their homes before they reach the classrooms.

I am very interested in helping students of all socioeconomic status learn Biology. But as you know, learning goes deeper than the current educational structure takes you. This is why they must have caring adults in the education setting with which underprivileged youth can build a strong relationship. We must empower students and their families to foster an environment that supports scientific curiosity and educational achievement as the building blocks for tomorrow. We must help parents become more interested in helping their children learn than to let the multimedia platforms of video and social networking, that have made our children falsely believe that a materialistic world of fast cars, drugs, and fame is within reach. We must use community based outreach to let these students realize that our prisons are full of these people who infected our communities. We must fight against these barriers and instead return to the cultural teaching of our parents and grandparents who suffered the persecution of being undereducated or poorly educated, teaching our children that a return to the basic premise that you go to school to learn, you go to college to achieve, and you climb the corporate ladder to excel ---and this will take sacrifice and dedication.

Here is the link to my research that confirms Maurice points on this post: http://www.virtualscienceuniversity.com/blog.aspx?id=65decd65-8a48-474a-...
Thank you for giving me an opportunity to share my comments about this post. For more info contact me at www.virtualscienceuniversity.com

Miguel's picture

I agree with many of the great points made through all the comments. However, what really stands out to my eyes and what I have seen in my years of experience (11) is that the personal connection we make with our students is critical. I always try to get to know them well; their likes, issues going on with their families, their own expectations, etc. Knowing our students and making that personal connection, plus some strategic planning based on targeted needs of our students go a long way. Data collection has also shown great effectiveness in my school. We follow our students' progress closely and conference with them to provide feedback; which in return is great because they end up taking ownership over their learning and progress.

Mehdi Zouaoui's picture

Thank you Prof.Maurice.Nice read
What I notice every time is that learning and engaging students into a more positive learning is really complicated because you will be faced on a daily basis with different moods and even you apply what was said by the pundits;however, you find different outcomes. So, blending and adapting with a real-time reaction to the signals students steadily send to the teacher, tacitly, is becoming a challenge for every teacher aspiring to change

Linda's picture

These are just my thoughts based on many years of instructing and getting feedback from teachers in the public school system. After 14 years of developing an effective program I spent 16 years using that program with the specific goal to improve students' thinking skills. I used a very atypical approach and I encouraged teacher feedback to gauge effectiveness.
I am not a teacher. I was motivated to succeed because I had three challenged students of my own, and when it worked for them (and I needed work) other parents were willing to try what worked for me and my kids. I don't have a degree. I'm a student of life, an observer and innovator. Here's my thoughts:
A student's attitudes, thought patterns and thinking skills all play significantly for- or against- the student. This is true for the decisions they make, the coping skills they apply, the efforts they devote and the focus they use and follow. The influences of family, environment and society in these primary areas are tremendous and often permissive or misdirected, while the influence of the school is limited and often punitive.
The student challenged with developing highly effective thinking skills in an environment that lacks them or a society that misuses them (or a mind that perhaps struggles a bit with acquiring them) is paddling against the stream; and this becomes even more apparent in school. There, the student feels frustrated, unprepared and overwhelmed. Escape (truancy) or misconduct are the likely result, with a negative impact on the learning environment for others as well.
Yet if a student is faced - especially at a young age - with a personal, overwhelming desire to achieve something they are excited about, which requires highly functional thinking skills and offers instant gratification for achieving those skills, the student (with appropriate guidance and opportunity) will develop those skills even if the influence is available only once a week, for an hour a day. Then, when the student is in school, those skills can be brought to the surface and applied in very successful ways. This is especially true if the teacher is aware of the program and is kept up-to-date on the student's progress and achievements.
So what offers this amazing influence? Horsemanship. The motivator (to get the opportunity to handle and someday ride a size-appropriate horse) is huge! (Especially for children living in the city!) The presence of the horse commands their attention and their willingness to apply themselves, but you (the program instructor and the teacher at school) also have them asking, "How?" and "Why?" and "What if?"
Faced with the uniqueness of the horse opportunity they learn to listen to directions, gather information and apply SELF control (because without that they know - intuitively - they won't be able to get their hands on the horse). They learn to apply focus - first to the instructor, then moments later to the task at hand, and also to the horse. This means learning to focus in a changing environment, overcoming distractions and turning on that investigative mind.
The horse (by its very nature) requires them to take a leadership role. They want to know how to do that BECAUSE they want to succeed, and they simply can't (the horse won't let them) if they don't learn. Cause, effect. Learn, do. Win, win.
They learn how to organize, evaluate and extrapolate information, and plan sequentially. In order to adjust their plans, offer support to their team (the horse) and give it logical directives while remaining goal oriented they must develop additional thinking skills and a sterling work ethic. Because they WANT the success of the moment so badly -- they develop those skills and the necessary work ethic very quickly.
They even get to experience the benefits of their learning instantly - in a very appropriate manner: horses supply instant gratification - or instant evidence of something lacking by either remaining cooperative or offering resistance.
As students gain and apply leadership skills, for example, they will find it possible to lead the horse effectively (it will remain in position beside them, allowing them to direct it across or through various obstacles without resistance). If students fail to use their skills or knowledge, their efforts to lead the horse will be challenged by the horse itself. (It might stop to eat instead of walking past the feed bucket). Analyzing (with guidance) where and how they lost control will help students identify which thinking skill(s) got left out at that moment when "things went wrong". Thus, students learn to take responsibility for their learning and the consequences of their thinking/decisions/actions.
Of course the program is complex and takes some time. Each student enrolled would probably need to continue for the entire academic year. But the results are astounding. I loved hearing back from the teachers how my students were changing and developing. Some favorite comments: "she is shooting past her peers", "he has become so thought-filled even mentioning his classwork hours after it has been completed", "we even see it at home - she's become so cerebral and deliberate in her thinking!", "He told me today, 'riding is a thinking game, and whatever I do when I grow up I want it to need just as much thinking'", and "he went from acting out to sticking up for the underdog and serving as a leader for others".
I don't know how one would effectively apply this learning opportunity across the board in the average school system, as it is expensive, requires a lot of space, and can only be effective one-on-one or in small groups. But if individual students were identified to be especially in need/at risk, and the instruction was used as an intervention (as opposed to an enrichment), I think it would be a viable and affordable option for those who would especially benefit... if school systems/districts were motivated to make it happen.
The program I designed/used was simple and highly repeatable. It requires a skilled horseman with the ability to instruct and with some additional training to learn what thinking skills are being taught and how; the instructor also needs to be able to help students identify their growth areas, for themselves, so that the skills are easily transferable to the classroom and home.
My own special needs children grew up to be an IT professional, a movie and film videographer/editor/producer and a budding engineer. Other students I still know (many of whom are now adults with children of their own) tell me that their equine (horse) experiences were among the most positive and greatest influences of their lives.

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