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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 (

Comments (15) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

etaps's picture
Educator, Composer, Writer, husband, parent

Often times kids need to see what's out there. It has to be presented in a way that is not making them "choose a career." For many reasons those words are not uttered. Whether it's video games, films, music, recording, art, acting: all of these industries need to be presented to the student in a non-imposing manner.

zep's picture
Education Specialist

Consider taking the next step beyond "non-imposing", believe that all human beings are born with an insatiable appetite for learning (the age old joke is they want to learn, but not what the teacher wants them to learn) and therefore all activities need to be presented as non-compulsory. For an interesting read, check out the United Nations Rights of Children document.

Jody's picture

I do a lot of professional development and the feedback I get from teachers has been that in addition an intentional, structured SEL program (and caring), having some understanding of the impact of trauma on the brain and tools to support those students (without taking away from others) has been transformational. The data suggests that with insecure attachment and an exposure to trauma (ACE score of 4 or more) students are 32X less likely to succeed.... And we can do something about it and empower those students to succeed over time.

TaraD's picture

I completely agree with you about teachers being placed in Urban environments without the proper background knowledge. I really believe that Education departments should come up with some kind of way to allow future teachers to be able to get more hands on interactions with students from Urban areas so when they are placed in that kind of environment they will know how to allow the students to reach their full potential.

Patricia Palmer's picture

There is so much truth in this article and the various comments. Two observations: 1) while caring is important to ALL students so should they accept responsibility for learning. If the assignments are late, and there are no "consequences" for those choices made by the student, regardless of the reason (choosing to play video games or working or no electricity) it is still the student's responsibility to complete the work. HOW do we as educators resolve this issue? Setting students up to fail is definitely not a solution but giving them a pass is not either. 2) if the students in our Schools of Education are products of inferior K-12 programs themselves and are not "ready" to enter a program of teacher preparation, then they too must accept the responsibility as a student to get up to speed. Universities are businesses and they need tuition $ to operate. If we insist on higher levels for those entering our Schools of Education for all future teachers, we can begin to have highly qualified teachers in all classrooms. However, people respond to incentives and if the environment in which a person chooses or is able to find a job is more challenging than in other districts, what is the incentive? Of course, some feel the "calling" and that is wonderful. But how do we motivate those who do not feel the "calling" to desire to be placed in schools where so much energy is required to get the students to want to learn every hour of every day before the teacher can attend to the lesson? These are the pressing questions we in education must resolve in order to successfully help all of our students find the path to success.

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

I agree that we need to both demonstrate caring and ensure rigor. I do not believe that providing opportunities to complete late work interferes with rigor in fact I believe it enhances it. Students can not opt out of work and still must complete all assignments. Teachers can still teach academic responsibility by giving lower grades for late work and having discussions with students who have a pattern of late work.

I have an issue with the policy of giving a zero and no chance to complete the work for any credit. I believe students should be encouraged complete all work and always be able to get at least some credit.

Davis3813's picture
4th grade teacher from Philadelphia

I feel another concern that I have about teaching in an Urban setting is the movement of teachers. I have been teaching for 5 years and have been in 3 different schools, with 4 different principals. The lack of consistency for me has made it difficult to find a "home" and really dig into the needs of my students.

Lilit's picture

Has anyone here heard of the Public Charter Schools "Options For Youth" or "Opportunities For Learning" or "Pathways In Educatation"? They are located in California and the greater Chicago areas, and are schools that target at-risk students. The schools are set up so that students take most of their work home, but come to meet with teachers to go over work not understood. They get one-on-one time with the students, and form bonds and relationships with adults. Some of these students have no one else to turn it, and that creates an environment for success. After speaking to numerous students who attended the program, it is clear that he bottom line is that once students feel like someone believes in them, they will strive hard to success. It's amazing what a lending ear can do.

mazaval2's picture

Currently, I am working with at-risk students through a Service-Leanring course that I am taking. While working with students, some of my mentors have noticed that some students react differently towards me, in a positive way, than they do toward their everyday teachers. Since being in the Service-Learning program, I have put my best effort to create meaningful relationships with the kids I come across, I have even gone as far to get to know their family to ensure a positive connection is being made. Often times, educators seem to start off with the same internet, but seem to grow impatient making it seem like teachers forgot to care for their student's emotional needs. I have dealt with students who do not make the day easy, but there is usually a reason for that. Kids don't act out just to do it. There is usually purpose behind, so when I grow impatient, I take necessary steps such as talking to the parents asking if there something that is going on at home that may be causing the student to outburst. This has made a significant difference to me as it shows that I care and I can try to do something, even a small gesture can help, to improve the well-being of the student that I come across.

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