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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Positive Path: A Recipe for Risk Reduction

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger

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.

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger
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