Working with At-Risk High School Age Students

I know the term “at risk” is a catch-all term for students that have can have many different challenges. I am going to share my thinking about students, that first of all, are not having academic success in a high school setting. Some of you know I am “back in the saddle” so to speak and working in an area public high school in a student support center. This piece is about some of my thinking formed from many years of experience with this kind of teaching.

Some of the students need counseling and the help that can be provided by the counseling services in a school. It is really important for a teacher in an academic support setting to be sensitive to student needs, both expressed verbally, and some just from being able to read people. I often think being able to read people is the best tool I have in my tool box. For some, counseling can help remove the barriers to success and put them back on a path that will be emotionally healthy and productive. I also know that for some, the receptivity for the help of counseling needs to be there, the sort of, you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink deal.

Teachers and school staff can help to build this receptivity in ways that are under the surface, but still intentional. And for some, just this kind of effort is all the counseling they need to self-correct. In many cases, the postive remedy is as simple as letting someone know you care and want the best for them. A regular dose of caring goes a long way and cannot be overstated. Sending students off to their next class with the words, “take care,” can be so effective and the sincerity is heard.

Lots can be said about the design of personal learning plans that are tailored to a student’s interests and learning styles, and are also anchored to the standards. I am not going to talk about this now and will bring this up later. This kind of alternative education has been my teaching experience and is very dear to my heart, not just because it is close to my thinking and educational philosophy, but because I have seen it work for many students disconnected from traditional schooling.

Right now, I am going to share some thoughts about using support services and programs for students engaged in traditional academic tracks.

First of all, for a school to dedicate staff and resources to student support services says a lot about the school and its caring to help students be successful.

My experience has been that nothing good happens until trust is established with the student and any staff trying to offer academic support. Once trust is established, the door is open for all kinds of good results. The foundation of trust is being a good listener. I cannot say enough about being a good listener.

Hand in hand with the trust piece is a receptivity on the part of the student for academic support. A lack of receptivity can be just as detrimental to academic success as the absence of a trusting relationship.

With trust and receptivity in place, we are ready to go to work.

The next piece in this puzzle is the recognition of goals. Ok, what are we going to try to do in the time we are working together? How will what we accomplish fit into a bigger picture of goals? This is critical and so important for the student to see the pieces fitting together.

My next tool is allowing for self-directed learning as much as possible. Help students to be self-directed learners. Know when to step back and allow a good process started to work. In time, you, the teacher, will find students need you less as they take control of their learning. Yes, you are still there when they need you, but recognize that and do not make yourself too intrusive in their learning. Student successes will build upon themselves, this is what we want to see happen.

Track progress and achievements, be able to show students a record of what they have accomplished. Also, be able to show students their progress towards goals set. All of this reinforces student success.

When you, the teacher, are working in a student support center, it should always be foremost to establish a learning environment. Why are students coming here to this area? This should guide all that we do as teachers working to support students in out-of-the classroom settings. Time used to manage behaviors is wasted time and takes valuable resources away from all the students accessing the support services.

I strongly suggest mini conferencing with each student coming into the student support room at the beginning of their time. Record what they are coming to work on and get help with. Track it! And, at the end of the period, a closing mini conference with each student can record what has been accomplished. This will reinforce the student’s work ethic and also be helpful to share with classroom teachers referring students to the support center. It establishes a partnership and a model of time management. I always remember the proverb, “Wasted time is lost time, you never get it back.” How true.

After mini conferencing you now can recirculate to the students needing close help. Keep everyone moving in a desired direction and it will be suprising how much good happens.

What I am writing about is the work we can do to help students build good learning habits. We can model this with our students. I have always found it effective to give students a “window into my head” to know what I am thinking. This is a wonderful way to demonstrate problem solving, and even more effective when the teacher is genuinely sharing their thinking about a problem the student is trying to solve. Share with students the wrong turns, the false starts, the hit the wall moments in our thinking. This is a good thing and it helps to build a willingness to problem solve. We do not always get it right first time, and let students know this is how we learn.

Ok, lot of threads of my thinking here. I will try to revisit this piece and build on some of the ideas I am sharing in future pieces. You can say you are forewarned and avoid me if you want. I get it.

Take care,

Ed Pirie

West Topsham, Vermont

Published by Ed Pirie

I am a Vermonter, been one all my life. That just about tells you all you need to know. I am not much of a follower and like to do my own thinking. I value my family and a quiet existence in a very rural part of Vermont. There is a lot in the world I do not understand. My writing is my attempt to wrap my head around much that is swirling around me. Some time ago gasoline pumps changed to the way they look now. I had stopped to fill my Jeep and I could not get the gas to pump to save my life. I went inside and complained to the attendant. She knew me and said, "Ed, the whole world is changing and if you don't figure out the changes you are going to fall off the earth as it spins around." Well, I am not always successful figuring out the changes, but my writing is my way of working through some of them. I hope you enjoy.

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