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Teaching & Reaching At-Risk Students

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Part of being a good teacher is knowing how to reach as many students as possible. This lesson will help you think about what it means to call a student at-risk, and how you can best work with students who get labeled that way.

Who is At Risk?

The phrase at-risk gets used a lot in the media and sometimes in political descriptions of schools and children. Traditionally, students can be perceived as at-risk because they come from socioeconomically disadvantaged households, because they have behavioral or cognitive challenges, or because they lack family support. This lesson will help you think about strategies for reaching your students who are most vulnerable to such a label.

It is important to both consider what we are really saying when we use the phrase at-risk and to understand what students actually are at-risk for and why. Students struggle and sometimes rebel for any number of reasons, and the phrase at-risk often gets used as a euphemism for different types of social inequalities. At the same time, noticing that a student has been disadvantaged or faces particular challenges can help you get them the assistance and support they need most. As we proceed with the lesson, keep in mind that you might be making negative assumptions when you work with a student who has been labeled as being at-risk.

With that caveat in mind, though, we will talk about the following strategies for reaching students who you might find difficult to teach, help, or relate to:

  • Knowing the whole child
  • Working closely with the family
  • Accessing different learning styles
  • Using culturally relevant pedagogy
  • Spiraling your curriculum

Knowing the Whole Child

Children certainly are complicated human beings and sometimes act out when they feel they are not known or appreciated in all their complexity. Next time a student is acting up, take time to chat with them. Find out if something might be going on at home or in an extra-curricular activity. Find out what really gets them excited, or how they spend their spare time. Taking the time to form these relationships goes a long way to knowing how best to reach students and motivate them to learn.

Get to know your students as whole people!

Working Closely With the Family

If a family thinks that you see them as an obstacle to learning, they are not likely to support their child in getting to know you and learn from you. Invite families into your classroom and take the time to get to know them. Let your students know that you are keeping these channels of communication open. If families are resistant to your efforts, think about why and what you can do to make your classroom more inviting. Families who have had bad experiences with school might need more patience and attention. This is not always easy, however, if you take the time to form relationships with families, you may find that even the trickiest students develop a deeper level of trust for you. It also helps to give families positive feedback early, rather than waiting till something goes wrong before beginning your communication.

Accessing Different Learning Styles

Often, students who are struggling with academic material may not be being taught in ways that work for them. If you have been doing a lot of lecturing, consider adding more visual cues to your lessons. Give your students chances to move around, use all five senses, and interact with one another. Keep notes about what kinds of activities work for which students, and come back to these notes when you are struggling to reach particular students. Accessing different learning styles is an important way of being a good teacher, and sometimes it can make all the difference in reaching students who might otherwise tune out or even behave in difficult ways.

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