Strategies for Helping At-Risk Students Succeed

By Barbara Gruener
Part of our Counselor’s Corner series. Click to read other posts in the Counselor’s Corner.

Strategies for Helping At-Risk Students SucceedWhen you hear the term at risk, your initial inquiry might be: At risk of what? An online dictionary defines at risk as being exposed to harm, in danger of something. But in danger of what? To educators in our school system, that term is generally used to refer to a student who is in danger of not earning a high school diploma and not graduating before the age of twenty-one.

So what kind of support is available at a public school like mine to equip and empower those students who we educators deem to be at risk?

Early intervention is key. At our school, we begin to enroll students whose circumstances might put them at risk in a preschool class at the age of three to jumpstart their school careers so they can play, learn, and grow alongside their peers. As our littlest learners advance to kindergarten, any gaps detected in their ability to take on learning and show progress at a developmentally appropriate rate would call for age-appropriate interventions. Some students will benefit from pairing with a parent volunteer for help learning letters and sounds. A weekly visit from a high school math club member could help others make gains as they learn to count to 100 and to understand one-to-one correspondence. Still others will benefit from additional, more-intensive help with the reading specialist on campus.

As students continue through their formative years, educators gather assessment data so we can better understand students’ strengths and weaknesses and help individualize and differentiate instruction. Teachers meet regularly to desegregate this data, discuss students’ needs, and implement interventions that support students’ growth. Our school offers supplemental reading classes for students who need instruction in a smaller setting to help develop their reading skills and math club for those who need additional support sharpening their number sense.

We also provide small-group reading classes for students with dyslexia as well as co-taught classes, inclusion support, and small-group instruction for those students with a diagnosed learning disability. Programs for at-risk students at our school include weekly meetings with our Reading with Rover dogs to help our struggling readers, Peer Assistance & Leadership (PAL) student mentors to connect with students who need help with social skills, and Kids Hope adult mentors for weekly booster shots of connection and love. Additionally, we offer social skills classes for students with behavioral challenges and enrichment classes for students with developmental delays and disabilities. Especially important for our at-risk students is our library class, which gives them unlimited access to books at their reading level. We also encourage our students to sign up for a library card at the public library for even more literacy enrichment.

Because it’s sometimes easier to learn in a smaller setting, teachers at our school provide tutorials and homework hall before and after school for students who are struggling to master day-to-day concepts. For those students who are at risk of not mastering grade-level expectations or not passing state-mandated tests, we also offer targeted after-school tutorials with a different teacher who changes up delivery and instructional strategies to help meet the needs of all learners. And since our 21st-century learners are so comfortable using technology as a learning tool, we also intervene with resources like Read Naturally for reading help, XtraMath for math assistance, mindfulness exercises for relaxation and restoration, and GoNoodle for meaningful movement and brain boosts.

Often, a child’s social or emotional need shows up as an academic gap. Greeting students at the door with their choice of a handshake, a hug, or a high-five is a wonderful way to check their emotional barometer every day. Following this up with sensitivity circle time, sitting knee to knee and seeing eye to eye, not only helps students connect with one another in a very personal way, but also gives teachers critical information on the social or emotional needs that might be met before any significant learning is going to take place. Say Jimmy discloses that the morning has been rough because his little guinea pig died. How much math is he going to master? His teacher can offer some time in a Comfort Corner or a visit to the school counselor for help processing and navigating his big, uncomfortable feelings. And because self-regulation and empowerment are important, students are encouraged to self-refer for a counselor visit for help with those challenging feelings. For those students whose difficult emotions seem to regularly interfere with academics, school counselors can schedule a weekly appointment for individual sessions or invite students to a small-group counseling class with children who are experiencing similar life stressors or changes. Inside my counseling classroom, the Peace Room provides a quiet spot, complete with soft lighting, relaxing music, and sensory toys and fidgets, where students can unwind and de-stress.

Strong school-to-home connections are critical for at-risk students and their families. Good news phone calls and handwritten notes of affirmation work wonders for establishing trust; home visits also build strong bridges and elevate empathy. A good relationship will be your lifeline when you’re calling to ask for help and/or offer your support. Sometimes, at-risk students’ needs are physical. At our Clothing Exchange, we house donations of gently used clothes, backpacks, and shoes, and we invite students to come shopping as needed, no questions asked. Maybe the student is hungry? Families at our school can apply for breakfast and lunch at a reduced cost or at no cost. We also partner with the Houston Food Bank Backpack Buddy program to send home weekly food sacks with students who might go hungry on the weekends. We regularly host food drives to help stock the pantry shelves in our community. For those families struggling financially, community partners help provide support and assistance with back-to-school supplies, wants and wishes during the holidays, and scholarship tickets at carnival time. On occasion, we’ve been gifted with donated funds so that we can pay utility bills for families who have fallen on hard times.

Students with a disability that hinders their learning might benefit from accommodations through Section 504, like sitting in close proximity to the teacher, repeating directions aloud, or being assigned a study buddy to assist with classroom routines like note-taking. Each student’s 504 plan is as unique as the child’s needs are, and is created by committee on a case-by-case basis. If a student is no longer responding to interventions and is not making progress in the general education setting, a referral for additional evaluation and assessment for special education would be warranted. After the evaluation results are in, a committee of educators and care providers would convene to decide what additional assistance, interventions, or modifications would be appropriate.

As a last resort, because it is not strongly supported by data, grade retention is an intervention option for those students who might be developmentally young and need a little more time, provided they do not have a documented disability getting in the way of their school success.

Barbara GruenerCurrently in her 33rd year as an educator, Barbara Gruener, a school counselor and character coach at Bales Intermediate School in Friendswood, Texas, has had the pleasure of working with kids from every grade level. Author of the blog The Corner on Character and the book What’s Under Your Cape? SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind, Barbara enjoys positively influencing change through her inspirational keynotes and interactive workshops. When she’s not working, you can bet Barbara is knitting, baking, writing, reading, walking, gardening, napping, or spending time with her husband and their three children.


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