Finding ways to support the diverse groups of students in your classroom can be one of the biggest challenges a teacher faces. From their academic needs to their social and emotional ones, education is about supporting the whole child (not just their reading and math scores). One particular group of students that requires much thought, planning, and attention are the at-risk students. What is an at-risk student, what are the challenges they face, and what are some ways to support at-risk students in the classroom?

What is an At-Risk Student?

The term ‘at-risk students’ is frequently used to describe students who are academically struggling in the classroom. They have a higher probability of failing their daily work and tests or dropping out altogether. The term also encompasses students who face circumstances that contribute to their struggles, such as homelessness, parents in prison, health issues, violence, learning disabilities, or disciplinary problems. These learning-related factors can adversely affect the educational performance and overall success of students. Additionally, there are many other challenges that at-risk students face other than failing their classwork (edglossary).

Challenges At-Risk Students Face

At-Risk students face many challenges throughout their school years, even on as regular as a daily basis. Instructionally, they don’t always understand the whole group lessons. They need small group time where the teacher can scaffold the learning goals and re-teach them at the level the students are at. Listening to whole class lessons can leave students feeling overwhelmed, confused, and defeated. Because of this, at-risk students also need their confidence boosted. They need to know that they can get to the goal if they work hard and keep trying. They need to know their teacher believes in them and feel supported through their mistakes. There are many other ways that teachers can support their at-risk students.

Ways to Support At-Risk Students in the Classroom

Prioritize Relationship Building

Building relationships with at-risk students can impact the student more than imagined. For many at-risk students, most of their interactions with teachers and administrators are negative. This loses their trust in their teachers and makes the school environment a negative one for them. Instead, teachers should put a significant amount of time into fostering positive relationships. Get to know that student on a personal basis; what do they like to do outside of school, who makes up their family, what do they do for fun? Equally share these same things back with the student, so they can get to know you as a person and not just you as a teacher.

Incorporate a Democratic Classroom Model

One way to let students know that their opinions matter and their voices are heard is by using a democratic classroom model. This means that students get a say in building the classroom rules and consequences, get choices in how they show their learning, and may even help design the layout of the classroom. By giving students ownership in these areas, they are more likely to abide by the rules and accept the consequences, put forth more effort in their assignments, and enjoy the classroom space they helped design. Shareholders care more about their environment when they feel they were a part of the creation of it.

Use a Check-In/Check-Out System

The check-in/check-out system is designed to decrease disruptive behaviors by building a relationship with another adult in the school building (someone other than their current classroom teacher). How it works is that students typically check-in with this adult when they arrive at school. The adult helps set their day up for success by going over a predetermined goal sheet with them; talking about areas they may have had difficulty with the day before (think PE, transitions, independent work time, etc.), asking how their night at home was, and building their confidence that they can have a great day. Each check-in may take anywhere from 1 to 10 minutes depending on the age and needs of the student. At the end of the day, the student returns to this same adult to go over how their day went and send them home with something to reflect on, but also with something positive to think about. Most importantly, the check-in/check-out system should be personally designed to best meet the needs of the individual student.

Communication Log with Parents

Having an open communication log with parents can be another great way to support at-risk students in your classroom. This keeps parents in the loop about day to day events and lets the student know that everyone involved in their education is aware of their days. A communication log can come in a variety of formats. It could be the same goal sheet that is used for check-in/check-out. You can send that goal sheet home and have parents sign the bottom of it to show you they saw it. If an incentive is needed, reward the child with something small for bringing it back signed.

A notebook with quick notes about the day is another great communication tool. Jot down things that went well or things that can be worked on in just a few sentences (or have the students write down their thoughts as you help guide them in this reflection process). Leave space for the parent to comment or ask questions. This back-and-forth journal is a great way to communicate and can be easier than getting into a game of phone tag.

One of the biggest challenges teachers face is finding ways to support the at-risk students in their classroom. These students may struggle academically, socially, and behaviorally and it can be difficult to find what works to help these students excel. By prioritizing relationship building, using a democratic classroom model, incorporating a check-in/check-out system, or having a communication log with parents, it can greatly help set these students up for success and make them feel like contributing members of their classroom community.