What are "at-risk" students and how do I teach them?

What are

At-risk students are those who are not on track to complete their education as they are not currently experiencing success. Students that have drug, alcohol or behavioral problems, are truant, come from low-income families, or have low self-esteem are at a higher risk of falling behind their peers and putting themselves in danger of not completing their studies (ERIC Digest).

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Research on working with at-risk teenagers in group homes, juvenile detention centers or youth development centers pointed out many challenges, but made it clear that teachers need to be aware of biases and that these youth are resilient and can be successful with guidance (Duerr Berrick and Ayasse).  Additionally, research provides a lot of insight into working with students with drug or alcohol problems or violent and criminal pasts, especially from low-income families. Through analyzing this specific group of students, we must recognize the unique diversities they possess and how important it is as educators to understand their needs.

When researching the trends, issues, preferred learning styles and best practices of working with at-risk students, it is unfortunate to see that these students typically do not receive the same type of education as higher performing or privileged students.   Due to teachers failing to demonstrate a high level of interest in the ability of at-risk students to succeed academically, high rates of truancy, alienation and feelings of being disconnected with their classmates, teachers and school community are common (Kaufman & Bradbury). Alford and Woods warn of even well-meaning teachers quickly ascribing failure to these students instead of identifying the gaps and finding solutions to meet the needs.

To better meet the needs of at-risk students,  teachers should implement more activities that mirror real-life situations and  vary the ways in which we assess our students (Ferguson). Students should be given opportunities to show their competency in a manner that suits their strengths. Consider their intelligences and preferred learning styles when creating classroom activities and assessments. Include kinesthetic activities, music and topics of their interest.  It is important that we try to understand the level of complexity these students have, yet how capable and deserving they are to receive a successful education.

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Another challenge in working with these at-risk students is the high rate of drug and alcohol use and addiction.  According to the Casa Palmera Staff, drug abuse not only causes serious health, behavioral and emotional problems, it also can result in learning problems and brain damage. In addition to having backgrounds with drug and alcohol abuse, many at-risk teenagers have criminal and violent backgrounds. According to the National Crime Prevention Council, one of the biggest challenges in educating these students is getting the community, the educators and the families to recognize that violence and crime are learned behaviors and that the students need specific skills to combat this influence in their lives.

Some of these students find themselves in their current situation due to their families' circumstances. They come from low-income families in desperate times. Some have been abandoned or are from families on the streets. Others have parents who are incarcerated or are addicts, and other were expected to leave their education behind in order to help the family financially, which is how they found themselves on the streets, in a life of crime or addiction.

Strauss  warns of stereotypes when education children from underprivileged families. Even though our stereotypes are a natural response, they come from limited knowledge and experiences.  For example, she says many believe poor people do not value education and they are lazy. In reality, it's often the contrary. These families work just as hard, if not harder, than many people from higher socioeconomic standings. Often they are aware that they are in their difficult situation due to a lack of education, but they are stuck in the cycle of poverty and struggle to make ends meet, which makes it difficult to find the time and resources for education. Strauss also asks educators to not judge parental involvement on our biased and cultural expectations of what it should look like.

Working with at-risk students can be challenging, yet extremely rewarding.  Even though our curiosities question why these students are in this situation, we owe it to them to not judge, to try to remain objective.  Take your time to get to know these students, like all of your students, on an individual basis, understanding their interests, intelligences and preferred learning styles.  These students also deserve the opportunity to better their lives by learning English!

Want more ideas on how to successfully teach English to your students? Take our 4-week TEFL course in Costa Rica! 

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Alford, J. and Woods, A. Constituting ‘at risk’ literacy and language learners in teacher talk: Exploring the discursive element of time.

At-Risk Students. ERIC Digest Series Number 21.

Casa Palmera Staff. The Effects of Drug Abuse on Teens.

Duerr Berrick, J. and Ayasse, R.H. Improving Educational Services for Foster Youth Living in Group Homes:  An Analysis of Interagency Collaboration.

Ferguson, Scott T. An Examination of Teacher Efficacy on Student Achievement in Regional Juvenile Detention Centers and Youth development Centers in Kentucky.

National Crime Prevention Council. Strategy: Violence Prevention And Problem Solving Education For Children.

Strauss, Valerie. Five stereotypes about poor families and education. The Washington Post.

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