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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.

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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.

Using Culturally Relevant Pedagogy

Sometimes, students are hard to reach because they perceive school as a place that is unfriendly to their cultural background.

Using culturally relevant pedagogy can include diversifying the materials in your classroom, modifying the language that you use, and changing your teaching style so that you make students feel safe and recognized. It will often help to find out about the cultural backgrounds of students in your school and research into how learning works in their homes and communities. Finding ways to integrate this knowledge into your classroom teaching strategies should help. Remember, there is no such thing as a deficient culture. There are, however, cultures whose needs have not historically been met by school systems in this country.

You can help to correct this wrong by using culturally relevant pedagogy.

Use diverse pedagogical styles to reach more learners.

Spiraling Your Curriculum

Spiraling your curriculum is just another way of saying you should return to the same concepts and skills over and over again, using differing methods, over the course of the school year. Once simply isn’t enough for most students, and even students who learn things the first time around can benefit from deepening and repeating what they understand. Ideally, a curriculum should spiral over the course of a student’s entire school career. Students who might otherwise be labeled as at-risk can really benefit from repetition and even just the comfort of knowing it’s okay not to learn something in full the first time around.

Lesson Summary

Students who get labeled at risk need teachers to get to know them and work closely with their families. Remember to access different learning styles, use culturally relevant pedagogy, and spiral your curriculum to meet all of your students’ needs.

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