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Teaching At-Risk Youth: Looking Back 50 Years

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (
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When it comes to at-risk students in our urban schools we still seem to be looking for the right answers. I thought it would be instructive to look back at wisdom from about 50 years ago, around 1963, to be exact. Our guide is Lois Weiner, who, in 1993, published a book that was looking back then at 30 years of school reform (Preparing Teachers for Urban Schools).

Three things jump to the forefront. First, is the absence of any discussion of social-emotional learning, character education, social competencies, school culture and climate, and the like. This was not on the radar screen, at least not directly, until 1993.

Second is the matter of caring. Caring seems to be the aspect of teaching that is most valued by students, and yet most fragile on the part of teachers working with this population. Because of their personal contexts, at-risk and underserved urban students often come to school with even greater needs to be cared for than other students. At the same time, teachers working with in urban schools often have less life experience and training in working in this context and with interacting with such students. As a result, they can misinterpret students' seeming lack of motivation for disinterest, rather than testing the teachers. Or they are not prepared to deal with what seems like excessive amounts of neediness, disclosure of difficult person situations, and an almost boundless desire to be reassured and appreciated.

Third is the issue of dealing with discontinuity. For a variety of reasons, legitimate or not, the learners in question miss a lot of class time. Multiplied over a classroom of 25 students, it means that those teaching are almost always dealing with students who are not "caught up" on the previous work. So every new lesson is met with a subset of students who are mystified, assuming that they are still motivated to try to keep up with the lessons. Teaching under these circumstances requires different preparation and pedagogy than one might need for teaching in more advantaged suburban contexts.

And that leads to the fourth area: preparation for teaching at-risk and underserved urban students must be different. Weiner states clearly that schools of education must change aspects of how they prepare future teachers. Their list reads like a contemporary list, with perhaps the first element being a bit more enlightened than many current discussions:

  1. University/college faculty must spend more time in the urban education context as part of training and supervising their students.
  2. Increased amount of time must be given to supervised practice experiences in the urban education setting, including the notion of internships.
  3. Much greater time must be devoted to reflecting on practice, both individually and in shared circumstances. Such reflection would allow for time to address the issues of caring, discontinuity, and cultural familiarity.

The question we should be asking, of course, is why so much collective wisdom, consistent over decades, has not been implemented. Perhaps more time needs to be spent on putting research into practice. One positive element is that the upsurge of work on social-emotional learning, character education, service learning, and project-based learning all provide excellent platforms for addressing a number of issues in the pedagogy of urban and at-risk learners.

However, unless there are ways to provide added supervised training beyond current minimal requirements, and to address the discontinuity of pedagogy, even an influx of SEL and related approaches will not be a game changer.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Please share in the comment section below.

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Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

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N Suomy's picture

I think a big game changer will be (if it ever happens) when faculties of education specifically recruit students who have a genuine interest in teaching at-risk youth. Not a stream that would serve as a back door entry to obtaining a B.Ed., but a group of strong students who have a calling to meet the needs of at-risk learners.

This comes from the experience of someone who actively studied at-risk youth literature as a B.Ed. student and sought placements in inner city schools. I can't tell you the number of soon-to-be teachers who questioned why I would want to work with "THOSE kids" when I could be teaching at the more prestigious schools to "kids who want to be there".

Once we place on a pedestal the job of teaching our most vulnerable, only then can we hope to make the inroads necessary to really change lives.

Keeth Matheny's picture
Keeth Matheny
Social and Emotional Learning Teacher and Instructional Coach, Austin Tx

Professor Elias is right on point with his comments regarding the need for SEL with urban students. I work with inner city low SES freshmen and have seen the dramatic impact of SEL in my freshman seminar course. I have also found the most critical part of my work is demonstrating care for my students.
"Students don't care how much you know until they know how much you care"
Finally his third point about discontinuity is also very important. Many of my students are dealing with dramatic circumstances at home. Some have issues with attendance, however our freshman course seems to have improved attendance. The added discontinuity is from lack of completed work. Many students are allowed to opt out of work. If they do not complete the work on time many teachers do not allow late work or cut it off after a few days. This gives both the teacher and the student an out from that assignment. The student missed the content and the teacher did not have to grade the late work. The student then suffers because much of the work builds on itself and they have missed a key "rung in the ladder". The added effect of a zero in the grade book and possibly little chance of recovery and you have an un motivated and not caught up student.

Steve Vinson's picture
Steve Vinson
30+ years veteran, teach low-income students, mostly Hispanic.PhD. in C&I.

Ah, a fine balance it is: "caring" for students is an important investment in their well-being, but it must work in concert with rigor and high expectations in school. It seems to me that we may be teaching a generation of kids that trying is enough, that a high school diploma and a few semesters of college is enough, that success in life is a birthright, and that the slogan of "All Children Can Learn" is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Only if! My experience has revealed that there are two kinds of teachers among my cohorts: the "care-ers" who see a glass half-full and the "rigor-firsters" who see the glass half-empty. I am full of cliches today, so I conclude with the words, "There has to be a better way."

Elizabeth Lewis's picture

I am currently finishing up my Masters in education and everything I personally know and experience is supported by your article. In classes we are continually talking about the changing demographics of today's classroom and the need for highly qualified teachers in "at- risk" schools. However, out of all the requirements and fieldwork we are only required in one class to visit an urban school, the nearest being over an hour away.
I feel it is not only an injustice to us as future teachers but to our future students as the majority of us will be placed in urban environments without the background knowledge of what these students go through on a daily basis or how to help them. It's not that I don't love my university or my program, because I do, but I feel that the state requirements for educating new teachers needs to fit with the emotional needs of the students in a classroom instead of just the professional ones.

Michelle Lilje's picture

Hi Elizabeth!
I sympathize with your frustrations and agree that change may be in order to ensure that educators are as prepared as possible for what they will encounter once they enter their own classroom.
I can tell you though that you do not have to travel to a labeled "urban" school to have these experiences. Sadly, I could picture a large majority of my students when reading this blog. I do have students that are not examples of these struggles, but the bulk of my students are struggling with many of the issues exampled. I have found the best way (not the perfect way) to handle this situation is to establish a level of trust with these students (I could completely relate to the testing mentioned in the original post) and prove to them you are not giving up on them and that you will hold them to very high expectations. Once they realize that you think that are important enough to actually teach (not just control and manage), it is amazing the things they will do. It is not without fail, I shed tears at home over days where it appeared that all we had gained was lost in one bad day, but then something would happen to encourage me again.
Hang in there! Just acknowledging the struggles that you will face and being prepared to confront them puts you a step in the right direction! I can also tell that you care and are passionate about being an effective teacher from your post so your students will be privileged to have someone like you as their teacher!

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