How to help your at-risk students learn. Wow, there’s a topic for you that looks super ambitious and way too general. But there are some ideas we can consider that will go a long way toward helping at-risk children learn successfully. The challenges these children face might be in reading, in math, or in every subject they have.
And I want to clarify what I mean by “at risk.” To me, at risk can refer to “at risk of failing to learn to read” or it might mean, “at risk in life in general.” I have taught in “at-risk schools” and have taught in middle class “safe” schools, and in both scenarios, I had children who were at risk in life and children who were at risk of failing in learning to read. What I want to share is not rocket science but hopefully will be an encouragement to those of you who are teaching children who are at risk in one way or another.
Recognize the primary obstacle the child is facing
Any child who is at risk is going to be hindered because her emotions are hijacking her thinking brain to one degree or another. A child who is living in an unstable home situation is going to come to school preoccupied with just getting through another day. Some children live with neglect, with criticism, with anger, with poor diet, inadequate contact with a parent. Some don’t know where they are going to even sleep that night. I’ve taught them. I have had students who had a parent in jail, one boy who saw his father kill his mother. I’ve had children in my classroom who were severely abused; many who came to school hungry and exhausted. No matter what the situation, if the child does not feel secure and cared for, he or she will be at risk also in the classroom.
Recognize what is going on with the child
When a child faces threat of any kind, his emotional brain takes over and puts him on high alert to help him avoid danger or threat. When this happens, the thinking brain shuts down. So, quite simply, the biggest obstacle to learning for an at-risk child comes from inside his own mind. As long as he feels any threat or danger, he will remain controlled by his emotional brain. And as long as the child remains controlled by the emotional brain, learning is not likely to happen.
“Threat” and “danger” don’t have to be physical, either. They can be emotional in nature and still hijack the child’s ability to think and reason. Ridicule, failure, and derogatory comments are all threats to a child. For children who have failed, the very idea of doing a task again that they were unable to do before looks and feels like threat. Under threat of this nature, behaviors can vary from a child zoning out, to a child acting out horribly in class. All the behaviors are calculated to help the child avoid what he perceives as threatening.
What to do
- Obviously the very first thing to do is to remove the threat and make the children feel safe. We can’t change their home life, if this is where the threat originates, but we can make our classroom a safe haven for our students.
- Be as consistent as absolutely possible. A child who is already in fight or flight mode doesn’t need to enter a situation that is unpredictable. A moody adult who one day is happy and overlooks little annoyances and the next day is hardnosed – well, this will just exacerbate the “behavior problems” of the children in the classroom.
- Choose very carefully which hill you plan to die on. Choose very wisely which things absolutely must happen in your classroom and let everything lesser go. Let me give you an example. In the last school in which I taught, the attitude of the administration was that because we were a failing school planted squarely in the ghetto, we had to look and act even more together than we normally would. This meant teachers had to wear closed shoes, never open back ones, kids could not wear printed tee-shirts and had to at all times have their shirts tucked in their pants, you know, really critical things like that. My room was full of at-risk kids. In fact I can’t think of any one of my students who was not simply surviving. So when we lined up to come back in from recess, I didn’t feel it was my hill to die on the make sure all my kids’ shirts were tucked in and I certainly did not write them up for wearing printed tee-shirts. For one thing, they were not buying their clothes as second graders, and for another thing, we were lucky the kids were even IN school wearing something. In addition, the children who were perennially late and showed up sans homework and even sans book bags did not incur my wrath. There were children who never knew where they were going to sleep that night, and I didn’t feel it was critical to try and make them always keep their book bag on their person. My hills to die on for these children were simple: don’t hurt anyone, don’t hurt yourself, we take turns talking, and during class we don’t do anything that will keep the others from doing their work.
- Ensure success for each child. Just because the lesson plan book says that my class should be able to do X, Y, Z by today doesn’t mean that all the children have the necessary skills to perform at this level. So it is my job to be aware of exactly what each child is able to do, and support them as they stretch out a bit. For one child this might mean if he agrees to stand up and read something he wrote, I will be right beside him to make sure he feels he is not alone up there. For another child maybe it means he gets a little play money dollar every time he double checks his letters to make sure they are not backwards. Above all, I must never ever shame a child or expose him to the gazes of the other children when he has failed.
- Involve multiple regions in the brain and body. When I teach, I will not do so only verbally. I will use pictures, will give examples, will make it fun, (yes even teaching punctuation can be fun!) will insert humor, will let them act out the learning, and will take them outside for a novel and memorable lesson. I will also encourage each child to use their area of strength to show me what they learned. For example: In my reading group, if I sensed that a child was still a bit shaky on the sight words he would have to read in the book for the lesson, I would display the SnapWords™, picture sides showing, and let him refer to them as he read the book. His feeling of being supported and safe allowed his thinking brain to take charge and he did much better.
- Teach in such a way that you are teaching the child, not the lesson. For example, I knew well which ones of my children needed to see the end result before they could do their project. I knew which ones needed me to fingermap their spelling words (they needed the visual map of the word in order to see it in their heads and then successfully write the words), I knew which children learned from whole to part and I didn’t make these children have to sound out words – because they just couldn’t do it. After all, I wanted them to be able to read, not sound out words.
- Support each child by taking the time to find out his or her strengths and then make sure and share this information with them so he or she can feel competent.
- Don’t focus on bad behavior. Distract, redirect, attract their interest away from what they were doing. I had a child for two years who was a bit of a hellion in class. One day I realized I was spending a whole lot of time trying to get this boy to STAY IN HIS CHAIR. Because I knew this boy was in a very precarious situation at home, I didn’t want to make his being in his chair my focus. That was not the hill I was prepared to die on – and I would have, too. He just would not stay seated. So one day I said, “Zechariah, you may stand up all day if you want to. Here are my conditions – don’t get in any other student’s way by standing in front of them, and get your work done. Zechariah stood for two years, even while writing. And his behaviors vanished. The only time he acted up was when there was a sub in the room for the day. I would come back to school the next day to find angry notes about this horrible child who would not obey.
- What about homework? As a first and second grade teacher, I didn’t find it productive to be mad and punish my children who didn’t bring homework. For one thing, I felt this was a function of home and lack of management there. I did reward those who brought homework, found out who didn’t have paper or pencil at home and supplied that, and for many children I had them show me they knew the concept they were supposed to practice for homework. For the most part, I didn’t go the homework route anyway because that created a hill I would have to die on, and I didn’t feel like going there.
I think the bottom line here is that we have to be counterintuitive with at-risk kids. They will be behaving badly and our nature rises up and wants to correct the bad behaviors. They might appear lazy. They will be forgetful and careless. They might lash out and be mean to other children. All their behaviors will tax us and drive us crazy if we let them. But remember the chaos in the brain as the child is feeling unsafe and threatened. What is going to help that? Yelling? Punishment? Or a warm welcome, an understanding teacher, and the ability to be in a safe place where there is good stuff going on. And use pictures! This is the most brain friendly way to communicate ideas to children. Especially tired, hungry and insecure children. The more brain-friendly, the better!