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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Guest Blog: What's the Best Way to Teach "At-Risk" Students?

Betty Ray

Director of Programming and Innovation @Edutopia

Mary Beth Hertz (@mbteach on Twitter) emerged as a leader in the afternoon #edchat, where forward-thinking educators from around the world connect and discuss different issues of the day. Her tweets during the chat reflected her knowledge and passion for at-risk youth and further revealed her fluency in the issues and challenges of at-risk students in the classroom. Here's her opinion and summary of this week's edchat.

--Betty Ray, Community Manager (@EdutopiaBetty) and Elana Leoni, Social Media Marketing Coordinator (@elanaleoni)

This week's #edchat discussion topic really hit home for me. I was excited to hear what my Twitter PLN had to say about "What teaching methods work best with at-risk students?" I have been teaching "at-risk" students for about 10 years. My first real experience began with the first of two winters I spent teaching on the Navajo reservation in college. Currently, I teach in a chronically failing school in West Philadelphia. 100 percent of our students qualify for free/reduced school lunch and most of our students read below grade level. Before starting the night's discussion, I wanted to find out what most people considered "at-risk." I knew I had a definition in mind, but I was sure that others had their own definitions.

@mbteach: What does "at-risk" mean to you?

@Gaiaellyn: For me "at risk" means child is at risk for not seeing and using their gifts and talents for good...

@jasontbedell: Thinking of my students, they were kids who had stopped caring about school and were in real danger of failing out

@hshawjr: Students who have not been successful in the reg classroom or have outside of school "things" interfering w/education

@mbteach: For me, an "at risk" student is one whose environment (home/school/neighborhood) is not conducive to academic success

@Struggle2Learn: Learning disabled children are also considered at risk.

@Irene Tortolini: At risk to me means that we as educators are at-risk of not being able to reach these children.

@mritzius: At-risk students are created by a disconnect between what they actually need and what adults think they need.

@baldy7: I think we create "at risk" students by creating a rigid model.

@edtechsteve: To me, "at risk" has absolutely nothing to do with intelligence or test scores.

@cmoor4 To me at-risk are the kids you DON'T NOTICE.

Most people agreed that these kinds of students need well-defined boundaries, structure, a culture of trust and a feeling of safety. Teachers need to build a rapport with at-risk students; they need to believe in them, they need to differentiate instruction according to their needs. Many people commented on the importance of positive role models and the power that one adult can have in a student's life. As stated by @shyj: doesn't it all boil down to good teaching? and by @Chuck_Bell: The key message to students labeled as at risk: "I Believe in You."

The discussion moved at times toward the idea of labeling students as "at-risk," or labeling in general:

@courosa: I think it's been said already, but really wish there was better term than "at risk"; then there's labeling in itself, "othering" kids.

@usamimi74: We do too RT @cmoor4: Now we have this new term at my school: intentional nonlearner.

@kylepace: Is it too unrealistic to say that we should treat all students as if they are at-risk?

@baldy7: I'm still trying to figure out what strategies are good for "at risk" kids that aren't for "typical" kids?

@mbteach: I would say that whatever you would do with the avg kid would work with the at risk student!

@mritzius: At-risk, not at-risk, they are all people and all need different things at different times. Schools need to be responsive.

Maybe we are wasting our time labeling students. If we teach students as the individuals that they are, then labels are unnecessary. This approach would also make irrelevant scripted intervention programs, remedial classes and rigid grouping and tracking of students that can often prevent them from success by the academic track and label that precedes them.

As stated by @mrwejr: If a child does not 'play' or 'do' school well, does this make them at risk? When does the system change for the child?

Educating children, whether at-risk or not, requires a team effort. These efforts must sometimes be doubled with at-risk students.

@ksivick: Parents are key....all kids go home to be validated..if the parent doesn't support the school, the child won't either.

@BeckyFisher73 Do you work with your colleagues to gang up on the kids? It takes a village...

On a parting note, I feel strongly that the worst thing we can do for at-risk youth is "feel sorry for" or pity them. The students I work with crave structure and boundaries, and although they all live in the same neighborhood, one cannot assume that they come from the same home life or have unsupportive parents or lack skills needed for academic success. Get to know your students. Get to know their parents. Don't assume anything about at-risk students until you know the truth. Stereotypes are hurtful to you both.

Mary Beth Hertz is a computer science teacher at a large elementary school in West Philadelphia. She has been at the school for 5 years, and has been working in the School District of Philadelphia for 7. Her experiences over the last 7 years as well as many other life experiences inspired her to create her blog, "Philly Teacher," about teaching. Mary Beth can be reached on Twitter @mbteach.

Betty Ray

Director of Programming and Innovation @Edutopia
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Barbara's picture

I am having a difficult time with all the "entitlements" of labeling....if you look at Carol Lee and others' work, you will see that there is a common thread of cultural mismatch theory that suggests that the school as it currently exists does not relate to today's youth...at risk or not. I agree with the statement by another listed above:

"If a child does not 'play' or 'do' school well, does this make them at risk? When does the system change for the child?"

The structural assumptions of many schools slot students into "normal" and "at risk" or, as one said, "typical" types of learners. What exactly does a "typical" student look like?

If we are going to move toward 21st century learning, we need to get rid of the label "at risk" entirely. The issue of "at risk" rests more with the traditional structure of schools and the culture of testing that permeates our nation's thinking.

Dianna's picture

Whether we like it or not there are definitley differences in learners due to varying factors such as home life, background experiences, etc.; and yes some are more in danger or more "at-risk" of failing than others. The "at-risk" students need more and extra help to bring them up to where the "average" students are. Yes, we treat all students the same as someone suggested but we also have to provide assisstance to those that need it. If a "average" child doesn't understand something, I do the same for them...offer extra help and support. It just so happens that the "at-risk" students need it more often. With my "at-risk" or "below average" students I have them read to me or a more able "partner". I motivate them with stickers for completed assignments that are done with effort and move on to stickers for work done correctly. When their sticker pad is full they get a treat bag with goodies such as pencils, gum, homework pass, bathroom pass, water pass, good behavior ticket (to be used to take off one check or name from the board). It also helps these kids to just talk and listen to them. Ask them about their life outside of school. Let them know you care. When they know you care about them they tend to work harder for you.

Elana Leoni's picture
Elana Leoni
Director of Social Media Strategy and Marketing @Edutopia, edcamp organizer
Staff

I completely agree Diana. Students do not do well if they don't feel cared about. I was just watching a video on Susan McCray that speaks passionately about this: http://www.edutopia.org/maine-project-learning-rigorous-real-world-relev...

[quote]Whether we like it or not there are definitely differences in learners due to varying factors such as home life, background experiences, etc.; and yes some are more in danger or more "at-risk" of failing than others. The "at-risk" students need more and extra help to bring them up to where the "average" students are. Yes, we treat all students the same as someone suggested but we also have to provide assistance to those that need it. If a "average" child doesn't understand something, I do the same for them...offer extra help and support. It just so happens that the "at-risk" students need it more often. With my "at-risk" or "below average" students I have them read to me or a more able "partner". I motivate them with stickers for completed assignments that are done with effort and move on to stickers for work done correctly. When their sticker pad is full they get a treat bag with goodies such as pencils, gum, homework pass, bathroom pass, water pass, good behavior ticket (to be used to take off one check or name from the board). It also helps these kids to just talk and listen to them. Ask them about their life outside of school. Let them know you care. When they know you care about them they tend to work harder for you.[/quote]

Carisa Lynn's picture

I think that there are many outside factors that contribute to what might make a student "at-risk". Parental involvement, economic status and health issues are just a few of the things that may affect the way a student performs in school. However, I don't think that an "at-risk" lable should change the way we teach the students. As we have learned, all students learn differently and have different needs so I think that should be the most important thing we are trying to do. If we get to know our students and learn what works for them I don't think an "at-risk" lable would make a difference.

Connie Carroll's picture
Connie Carroll
I am a school counselor with 28 years experience in 3 different states.

I currently work at a rural 6-8 middle school as the school counselor to 496 students. At any given day, I could make a case that all middle schoolers are "at-risk" one way or another. I have just completed Ruby Payne's book, "A Framework for Understanding Poverty." I found her research practical and well documented. She put research to a topic that I have always believed to me important and of value to education. That is the topic of relationships and connections with students. Time and time again, I have seen students who were not achieving academically begin to be successful with additional time and an adult mentor. Listening , guiding and not judging or having pity for students can increase the desire to achieve. I will take any label out there if it allows additional programs for students.

Troubled Youth's picture

It is well obvious that troubled teenagers suffering from emotional and behavioral problems need extended care and specialized treatment programs. In the normal traditional environment at risk children are unable to grow hence there are teen homeschooling programs teaching them in effective ways. Structured and disciplined environment help depressed youth to overcome all types of psychological issues and troubles for life long.
http://www.troubledteen.net/

David Young's picture

I think the best method to teach at-risk students is to find the service which best meets their needs and goals.

At-risk students are children/youth who are more likely to drop out of school due to a variety of demographic, socioeconomic, and institutional characteristics. They are those students that have a high risk of ending up in gangs and other criminal activity, teen pregnancy, etc.

Here is a comprehensive online resource for anything you need to know about at-risk youth, teenage problems, root causes for teenage problems, and its solutions and interventions.

John senn's picture

Yes, teaching at risk students is not an easiest task and as well as need lots of patience and useful methods that help troubled teens. Being a responsible parent, parents need to take more care and gaining more information on dealing with troubled teen helps to provide better teen parenting.

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