10 Things to Remember When Working With At-Risk Teens
When you get frustrated with those kids in the back of the room, their heads down, always sleeping, earbuds in, not paying any attention to your lesson, think about their background. Every aspect of a student’s life affects their ability to learn and be successful. Consider these factors about the troublesome at-risk teen:
- Is their home life dysfunctional?
- Are they from a non-English speaking home?
- Do they have a history of abuse at home?
- Do they have low self-esteem?
- Are they using drugs?
- Do they have any friends or interact positively with peers?
- Are they being bullied or are they the bully?
2. Students who have a lack of routine at home and at school are being set up to fail. Does your troublesome student show up late, skip specific classes, leave early without permission or just fail to attend school in general? These students are trying to give up or feel like they should give up. Maybe their tardiness is not their fault? Maybe they want to attend your class, but someone in that class is bullying them and they don’t feel safe or they don’t feel wanted.
3. I teach in the Appalachian region and the majority of my at-risk students are from poverty-stricken families. Three meals a day may not be an option for them. You may never see them with proper winter clothes or clean shoes. Many teachers in first-world countries believe students don’t go hungry, but that isn’t true. I know from personal experience with a family member that food stamps can be sold and government support meant for children is not always used appropriately. Don’t assume anything.
4. These students most likely have a personal connection to drugs. A parent might be addicted to pills or meth or maybe even they’re on drugs or abusing pills. No, I don’t expect you to help their drug problem, but just being aware of this possibility is something you can do. I weave drug-abuse into my assignments and I ensure I present places to seek help or agencies that offer programs. You never know what student this will help and you didn’t have to do any prying or overstep your bounds.
5. They’re used to being yelled at and ignored so doing either of these will not surprise them or affect them. In fact, you’re fulfilling the expectation they’ve already created for adults and those in authority by doing this. Don’t be afraid to engage them, to waste a few minutes of your day talking to them or encouraging them. Sometimes it will be a waste, but sometimes, those 3 minutes you spent after class may be all the encouragement a student needs to come to school regularly or to believe in humanity again.
6. They don’t have a support system at home because most of these students come from families who were high school dropouts. The expectation is that these students will fail and that’s an expectation they’ve lived with their entire lives.
7. They don’t have goals and dreams because no one has ever told them or shown them they could or should. On the first day of school, I always have my students write a letter to themselves, congratulating their future self on graduating with a high school diploma. You would be surprised how many blank sheets of paper I receive or how many students simply write that they know that is impossible for them.
8. They are very cognizant of your demeanor and quickly catch on to your emotions. They know when you’re mad, angry, upset or truly happy. You can’t fake it with these kids. Be genuine.
9. They can succeed but don’t know it. Yes, they can succeed. Succeed at what? For some, graduating high school is the biggest thing they’ll accomplish in their lives. For others, they have the potential to attend technical school, get a job, earn their drivers’ license, etc. The point is, they can succeed at something! Remind them of that.
10. They’re embarrassed and ashamed and they don’t fit in. They feel alone, neglected by family and abandoned by society. They don’t have role models and they’re angry. They are very angry. Most of them have a right to feel these emotions, so don’t dismiss this as teen dramatics.
These students are at risk of dropping out but is there anything you can do? Absolutely! Students can break the socioeconomic barrier…I did. I couldn’t have succeeded through school on my own though, I had help from teachers who encouraged me and made me feel supported. Try these techniques with your students and see if it makes a difference. And remember…the old cliché, Rome wasn’t built in a day, is very applicable here.
- Start a conversation that doesn’t begin with you berating them or discussing any behavior issues. “John, I really like that shirt you’re wearing today. Is Cold Play your favorite band? What type of music interests you the most? Why? (Now use this information to your advantage and design an assignment (make-up work?) that revolves around that student’s interest.
- Leave them an inspiring note before they leave your class that day. Find out their birthday, or maybe it’s a ‘thinking of you’ card for a deceased parent or it can even be a simple I’m glad I saw you in class today, we miss you when you’re not here. Let them know they’re not invisible. Let them know you care.
- Leave LOTS of positive feedback on their homework and assignments. Yes, you’re playing favorites and in my book, it’s ok. Some kids don’t need extra attention and love from their teachers while other students may not be receiving it from anyone else. Even if the student bombed the assignment, find a few things they did right! Find something they improved on since the last assignment, even if it’s just more legible handwriting or organizing their ideas into paragraphs. Offer to tutor them if you have time or just leave a ton of ways they can improve. This doesn’t mean give them a higher grade than they deserve…they know if they didn’t perform well but positive words can be so encouraging to struggling students.
- Compliment the student in class. It doesn’t have to be performance-related but just say something positive about them in front of others. This can really boost their self-esteem and increase their self-worth.
- Try to engage them in conversations that will enable you to build a trustworthy relationship. No, you don’t have to share your lunch or offer relationship advice. Most struggling teenagers are very private but if they feel like they can confide in you, their attitudes at school and in class can change for the better. Many of my students use their writing assignments as outlets and sometimes they approach me after class. I don’t think they expect me to have all the answers but it’s comforting for them to approach someone they trust. I always encourage them to speak with a counselor or seek help and advice from someone who has experience in that area. I offer to escort them to the proper person or office and the students are always so grateful for this!