Over the course of the past twenty years that I have worked with at-risk students, I have heard countless times from colleagues and professionals in the field that “it’s all about relationships”. This advice is usually passed on as requisite insight that everyone who works with at-risk youth either understands or will come to understand as a truism. I agree that it’s all about relationships, yet what does this actually tell you? How does it help? Does your relationship or empathy lead to students’ resilience?
Over the course of the past twenty years that I have worked with at-risk students, I have heard countless times from colleagues and professionals in the field that “it’s all about relationships”. This advice is usually passed on as requisite insight that everyone who works with at-risk youth either understands or will come to understand as a truism. I agree that it’s all about relationships, yet what does this actually tell you? How does it help? Does your relationship or empathy lead to students’ resilience? What do you do after you build a relationship with them? How can you as a teacher or administrator help? The truth is that many teachers care about their students but don’t know how to help them. With this in mind, here are 15 ways to help you – as a teacher or administrator – mentor a student who is ‘at-risk’.
1. REALIZE THAT YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE.
The sheer complexity of the challenge of helping students who are at risk cannot be understated. There is no foolproof recipe. The truth of the matter is that you can try as hard as you might to help a student and never be able to change the outcome of their life. But, this is not to say that you shouldn’t try; because, there are also countless numbers of students whose lives have been altered by the seemingly inconsequential interactions they have had with teachers who cared about them. A case in point is provided by the famous author Albert Camus. You may never know how you have affected the lives of the students you try to help. Nonetheless, when you show compassion to ‘at-risk’ students, they remember.
2. TEACH STUDENTS THAT THE STRESS OF THEIR LIFE HAS AFFECTED THEIR LEARNING.
The effects that stress has on the ability to learn are dramatic and uniquely problematic for children or youth who experience stressful lives and/or who are unable to regulate their responses. Modern research into the toxic effects of stress can play a key role in helping children and youth understand how and why they have struggled to learn in the past. Experiencing stress or being witness to stressful events can cause a multitude of barriers to a student’s short and long-term memory. This is important for students to know because they often make commitments to try their hardest, to learn but come back to school unable to recall what they felt they had learned the previous day. This scares students and makes them worried that they cannot learn and/or are stupid. Helping them to understand how stress has affected them will put students at ease and allow them to externalize the reasons for their struggles rather than internalizing them and feeling like they can’t learn.
3. BE AWARE OF THE STUDENTS’ LIMITING BELIEFS.
Many students feel that their lives are on a one-way track to nowhere that keeps heading straight towards disaster no matter what they do. These students often repeat to themselves (their scripts) that plays out limiting beliefs like:
“I can’t do it.”
“I’m a failure.”
“I’m a loser.”
“No one likes me.”
“No one cares.” or
“No one can truly understand.”
Be aware that these thoughts are likely there and they must be confronted in order for students to be successful.
4. REALIZE THAT ‘AT-RISK’ STUDENTS OFTEN FEAR THAT THEY CAN’T CHANGE.
Understand that many students have tried to change before and they’ve failed. They’ve made resolutions to themselves that they are going to change and have fallen short and as a result they say to themselves that no one understands that they can’t change. Ultimately, the reality of a student’s life is played out in the scripts that they repeat to themselves about their worthiness, abilities and value of their efforts. Part of what you have to do to be effective in helping students is to realize that they likely have these thoughts and they need to be addressed in order to help them.
5. TEACH STUDENTS TO FEAR THE SEEMINGLY INCONSEQUENTIAL DECISIONS THEY MAKE.
Students must understand that the small decisions they make will define the outcome of their life. Decisions like: “I’ll play one more game, read one more page, smoke one more smoke, stay out 15 more minutes, wait to complete homework or hit the snooze button one more time” program them for failure. Students need to understand that change does not involve a big decision that they can or will make in the future but rather a small decision today followed by many more small decisions that they will have to practice to be good at.
6. TEACH STUDENTS TO NOT PUT OFF CHANGE.
Students often know that they’re going to have to change but are unwilling to do so because they are having too much fun right now. These students must be taught to fear procrastination because putting off the change they want makes it harder for them to change in the future. Habits are hard to break and the further they continue with the negative behaviours, the harder they are going to be to break.
CC Photo by: RDECOM
7. MAKE STUDENTS CONSCIOUS OF THEIR DEFENSE MECHANISMS.
Teach students to become conscious of their defense mechanisms. How do they drown out the anxiousness they feel about where their lives are headed? Making them conscious of their defense mechanisms is an important process for them to uncover. Tell them that their avoidance patterns have a price. Explain to them that you want them to remember that their coping mechanisms are hurting them and will lead to future pain.
8. UNDERSTAND THAT CHANGE IS LONELY.
When students try to change, so too do their behaviours. The problem with this is that teenaged students have a social imperative programmed into them at puberty. They often have cohorts of friends that are bad for them. These friends have accepted and supported them and most importantly made them feel like they belonged. Thus, when these students try to change, they become lonely – they have in effect lost their friends and need to find people who will accept them. With this in mind, it’s helpful to create conditions in which the student is supported in their efforts to change by subtly removing them from their temptations and/or by facilitating positive associations with more on-track students.
9. UNDERSTAND THAT DROPOUTS ARE NOT THE SAME.
Most people have an image of a dropout as a defiant student who acts out and is openly against doing what it takes to graduate. These students are the delinquents that we all have in our minds as teachers. But, it’s important to note that this is not the only typology of students who drops out. In fact, it’s the quiet unassuming dropouts the represent a much larger cohort. These students quietly fade away and we often don’t even notice.
10. BE AWARE THAT DROPPING OUT IS A PROCESS RATHER THAN AN EVENT.
At-risk students telegraph their intentions by their level of engagement in school. There are multiple opportunities to try to intervene. Increasing engagement levels is a concrete principle to begin the process of change, because it’s easily understandable and it’s something that teachers and schools can do that doesn’t rely on outside factors. If teachers and schools adjust their practices to engage marginal students, they can affect change in these students and increase the likelihood of them graduating in the future.
11. YOU CAN’T CHANGE PEOPLE; THEY NEED TO WANT TO CHANGE.
Be aware that many students simply aren’t ready to change. Make sure that the student knows that they are going to have to put effort in to change. When you find yourself in a position in which you are putting all of the effort in, pull back and examine your efforts. Remember that you cannot change someone – they need to want to change. In this case, you can tell them that you are here for them when they are ready and that you truly care but you cannot do the work for them.
CC Photo by: Richard Phillip Rücker
12. TEACH STUDENTS THAT THERE IS A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A WISH AND A DREAM.
Dreams are followed by action and wishes are just thoughts. A student’s wishes need to change to dreams and for this to happen, they need a plan that begins with a first step that a student can commit to. Teach students to commit to a dream by taking action.
13. KNOW THAT THERE IS A FINE LINE BETWEEN EMPATHIZING WITH A STUDENT AND ENABLING THEM.
Although empathy is the necessary precursor to helping a student, it might be the exact opposite of what a student needs. They may in fact need someone to tell them that it’s time to stop feeling sorry for themselves. This is not because their life is not worth empathizing about, but because, dwelling on the things one cannot change simply keeps them stuck in the past. This is the “I care about you enough to tell you the whole truth about the choices you face”.
14. MAKE PARENTS YOUR ALLY.
If you’ve been a teacher long enough, you will know that often “the apple does not fall too far from the tree.” This thought is often the first one that comes to mind when dealing with problematic behaviours. Obviously, if the parent knew what they were doing, there wouldn’t be a problem. The interesting thing about this thought process is that the parent is often thinking the exact same thing about the teacher (i.e.: if the teacher knew what they were doing, there wouldn’t be a problem). Either way, it’s always best if you communicate with the parent and hear their concerns about their child.
If a student has struggled in the past, ask their parent why, or better yet, develop a parent interview form that you can discuss with them. They have a story to tell and if you hear them out, they become less resistant to you. It also helps to make the parent aware about how you will handle discipline, in a manner that will be respectful to their child. This is especially important if you are dealing with a student that might test boundaries. Let the parent know that you expect their child might test boundaries and if they do, this is how you will respond. If you communicate with the parent in this manner, their initial inclination to defend their child is diffused.
Preface every comment to a parent with these two sentence stems:
“I’m really worried about ____ because…..”, or
“I’m very proud of ______ because….”
Sometimes parents are acting out their own difficulties with school and projecting them on to their child. In this case, it’s important to communicate as much as possible.
15. REALIZE THAT YOU ARE NOT A COUNSELOR.
Although you may be called to provide advice and empathy for a student, it’s important to realize that nothing can replace the assistance provided by a professional counselor trained to explore the depths of emotions that ‘at-risk’ students have. You may be called to use some of the tips provided herein, yet you should use the relationship you have with your students to move them towards seeking support from counselors who are trained to help them.
Ultimately, it is all about relationship. If you find yourself in the position where you have to help a student that is ‘at-risk’, always begin with relationship and move on from there.
If you would like more insight into ‘at risk’ students and/or understanding how to help keep students in school, read my paper “Reconsidering Dropout Prevention by Understanding Dropouts”. If you want some unique insights into understanding dropouts, pay particular attention to the sections: Poverty and the Developing Mind, Stress and Neurocognitive Development and Stress and Adolescent Development.