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The Positive Path: A Recipe for Risk Reduction

| Maurice Elias

I don't think we have the proper understanding of risk. Imagine yourself at a blackjack table or on an online investment site. What if you could play or invest without worrying about losing your money? Would you be highly conservative, or would you be more reckless? The vast majority of people in that situation would be much less careful than they would if they had their own hard-earned money on the line.

The analogy is not a perfect one, but it helps make this point: Children feel they are at risk only when they perceive they have something to lose. Taking a risk means you might lose something important or cherished. And too many students, especially in underachieving schools and disadvantaged communities, feel they have nothing to lose. They do not see any positive pathways or goals in the future.

Lacking such vision is a primary correlate of risky behavior. These young people do not see their reckless behavior -- risky driving, violent or gang-related activity, delinquency, or alcohol, tobacco, drug, or steroid use -- as compromising their futures because they don't see a clear, positive path for themselves. Yet at the same time, they see the occasional role model who appears to have achieved some kind of success through what we would label risky behavior.

The calculus is not mysterious. On the one hand, students can take a positive path they don't believe has any chance of leading to success. On the other hand, they can take an antisocial path that will integrate them with peers, give them a support structure, and provide an outside chance of reaching a goal they've seen others achieve. So, although it is a problem that so many children choose the risky path, it is also a miracle that so few children choose it.

That said, too many kids are engaging in risky behavior because they perceive they have nothing positive to lose. This misperception is sustained by media images, street stories, and intermittent reinforcement as well as a lack of tangible, visible, accessible, and credible alternative pathways.

Research and practice are starting to catch up with this view of risk, and I will talk about that in my next entry. Meanwhile, what do you think? What is your experience with children at risk and what keeps them enacting risky behaviors despite efforts to stop them? In your experience, what seems to have genuinely worked to turn children around from risky behaviors? Please share your stories and your views.

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Comments (10)

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Amanda Keen (not verified)

I agree with you reaction to

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I agree with you reaction to the article. I too feel it is our job to try to change their opinions about how important education is for them and what am impact it will have on their future. Would you mind sharing with me some ways that you try to do this? I would love to hear some of your ideas!

Melissa mcGowan (not verified)

Students at risk

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Sarah-BINGO!! You have hit upon the real truth.We as the adults,grown ups,parents,mentors,teachers and role models need to get involved in our student's lives. These kids are chronically lonely, unattached and lost. Academics are incredibly important but as an educator, I spend more time validating my students than teaching them and amazingly, the at risk behaviors decrease and the grades get better. We all need a place to belong and a place to connect-video games and computers only provide the basics-it doesn't ever take the place of a hand on a shoulder or a pat on the back and a sincere compliment for a risk taken or a job well done. Every and all behavior is a form of communication-so what are our kids really telling us?

beth (not verified)

Risk Students

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The students that I have delt with in this risk category are ones who seem to think that nothing will change. I have often heard comments about them having learned to work the system and that they can make it just fine because their parents or who ever they live with have. I think this attitude must be changed first by parents stepping up and be parents, but they too probably came from this same situation. This cycle is a hard on to stop. I also feel that our society as a whole could help this problem by respecting teachers. I think in times past in communities teachers were respected and children were taught at home to give the respect because what they said to you was important. Many times now I feel that parents just want their child to be entertained and given an A. Our society has become one in which money makes you important, and teachers don't fit that category. Students who are at risk are in a hard spot, and we all must find a way to reach them as early as possible in order to correct the problem.

Kayon J. (not verified)

Strong Parents Required

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This article struck a chord. Many of my students do not seem to care. They only attend school because they do not want to stay home. To them, school is a place to "hang out" with their friends - nothing more. They have nothing to lose. If they do not perform well, they receive a bad report card from the school and a slap on the wrist from their parents. There are no “serious” consequences for underachieving.
My boys are particularly vulnerable. When they compare the life styles of the few educated men they might know with the lifestyle enjoyed by what society would deem “the undesirable elements” the teachers and other professionals, with perhaps the exception of the doctor and lawyer, come up wanting. The teacher who has a Masters degree has to struggle to survive and support his family while boys who can barely write their names and boys who are high school dropouts earn much more. They drive the latest cars, they have a lot of money and they have the most women. Is it any wonder then that many boys have little or no interest in school? Yes, it was a miracle that so few of our boys chose the deviant path. We need another miracle now. More boys are engaging in risk behavior. In fact, the statistics reveal that young men, ages 12 to roughly 25, are responsible for many of the major crimes in my country.
Many of the boys who have been rescued from themselves have strong, supportive parents who worked closely with the school and the church in order to get male mentors and councilors for them. Sadly, this does not always work but it is a ray of hope.

Gwen (not verified)

Risk Taking

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I agree that one way that we can keep at risk children out of trouble is to be involved in their lives. If we can make a connection with our students and let them know that we truly care for their well being, they will respond (most in a positive way). If we know that a student loves to play football, we can push them to join a football team, attend football camp, or toss a football around in the backyard, we can keep them busy and not give them time to get into trouble. I also agree that our students will be more open to learning and achieving when they know that someone cares for them. If you show a student that you care and you earn their trust, the students will want to please you and do everything they can to make sure that they do not let you down. Getting to know our students and being involved in their lives is so crucial to being an effective teacher.

Gwen (not verified)

Risk Taking

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I agree that one way that we can keep at risk children out of trouble is to be involved in their lives. If we can make a connection with our students and let them know that we truly care for their well being, they will respond (most in a positive way). If we know that a student loves to play football, we can push them to join a football team, attend football camp, or toss a football around in the backyard, we can keep them busy and not give them time to get into trouble. I also agree that our students will be more open to learning and achieving when they know that someone cares for them. If you show a student that you care and you earn their trust, the students will want to please you and do everything they can to make sure that they do not let you down. Getting to know our students and being involved in their lives is so crucial to being an effective teacher.

j. shives (not verified)

The Positive Path: A Recipe for Risk Reduction

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I agree with you whole heartedly. I work in a school with a large population of underachieving studets and their value system is different than society as a whole. As a teacher it is my duty to put worth on their education that they can understand. I know this seems impossible but maybe not all the students, but as many as I can.

Sarah Akins (not verified)

Many limitations are only perceptions

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Brian and Maurice, I can't agree with you more. I believe that many limitations are perceived limitations. With a bit of imagination, collaboration, investigation and hard work, a lot of these limitations can be eliminated. This requires getting involved in our students' lives, not just their academic learning, but the whole thing, as much as they will allow it. I truly believe a student will be more open to learning and achieving when they know their teacher believes in them and holds high expectations for them and will do whatever is necessary to help them achieve those goals.

Maurice J. Elias (not verified)

The Positive Path

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Brian, thank you for your comment. I have looked at your web site and I commend it to anyone who is interested in SECD with children who have special challenges. The work of technology in restoring both function and dignity is of vital importance. Parents and educators should take better advantage of the kinds of approaches that are available to reduce the risk of despair and marginalization that many children face because of perceived limitations. What your work, and those of related colleagues, shows so clearly is that many limitations are only limitations of our imagination, vision, and creativity.

Brian S. Friedlander (not verified)

The Positive Path: A Recipe for Risk Reduction

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Hi Maurice:

Your post really resonates and implores all of us who work with children to be there and model for them the kind of outcomes we hope for them. It is hard when the media keeps feeding them messages that run counter to what we know about the needs of students. I applaud your efforts and all of the programs that you have initiated in the schools to help students make better decisions and have healthier outlooks and outcomes.
Brian S Friedlander
http://assistivetek.blogspot.com

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