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Teaching at-risk students: 3 Ways to help foster motivation

Teaching At-Risk Students

Seasoned teachers recognize that no two students are alike. Each has different circumstances, a unique skillset and their own interests. This is why the ability to remain adaptable and meet each student where they are is an essential quality for great educators.

Adjusting to the subtle differences from one student to the next is pretty typical for teachers. But almost all instructors will also face the challenge of teaching at-risk students at some point in their careers. At-risk students — learners who have a higher probability of failing academically or dropping out of school — often require alternative approaches to education.

If you’re looking for ways to help at-risk or unmotivated students succeed, you have options. Join us as we explore the facts surrounding this pool of students and evaluate methods educators and administrators can implement to better support them.

At-risk students: Who are they?

Educational leaders understand that every aspect of a young person’s life can impact his or her ability to learn and succeed in school. There are numerous circumstances that tend to put students at risk. According to the National Dropout Prevention Center, there are four primary categories: school-related factors, student-related factors, community-related factors and family-related factors.

  • School-related factors include a negative school climate, lack of relevant curriculum, an ineffective discipline system, passive instructional strategies and a disregard for student learning styles.
  • Student-related factors comprise things like low ability levels, behavior problems, absenteeism, poor peer relationships, drug or alcohol abuse, nonparticipation, illnesses and disabilities.
  • Community-related factors include community support for schools, high incidences of criminal activities and the absence of communication between schools and their communities.
  • Family-related factors consist of elements like low socioeconomic status, dysfunctional home life, low parental involvement or expectations, abuse and high mobility.

The American Psychological Association (APA) suggests that significant personal roadblocks can prevent students from doing well in school. Administrators need to take responsibility for ensuring that all students can be successful, providing extra support and resources when needed. But the first step is learning how to identify at-risk students in the first place.

Dr. Cheryl Burleigh, who spent 27 years in the education field and now serves as a faculty member and instructional coach for the School of Extended Education at University of Massachusetts Global, notes in a recent webinar that at-risk students commonly act out because they’re seeking attention. Dr. Burleigh identifies the following warning signs of at-risk or unmotivated students that all educators should be aware of:

  • Slipping grades
  • Tardiness or absenteeism
  • Disruptive, disrespectful or risky behavior
  • Failure to complete assignments
  • Feeling overwhelmed by tasks
  • Inability to comprehend the instruction provided
  • Unwillingness to engage in classroom activities
  • Lacking self-confidence

But attendance and performance can improve for at-risk students when schools engage with them and their parents in positive ways. Consider the following three methods when attempting to connect with at-risk students in your school community.

3 Ways to help at-risk students succeed

Many at-risk students lack the skills to respond appropriately to teacher and administrator expectations. Temporary interventions are sometimes needed to help them succeed academically. Dr. Burleigh explains that educators may be able to make breakthroughs by maintaining a positive attitude, making learning fun, incorporating storytelling into lessons and showing an interest in students’ lives outside of school.

As these tactics become a regular part of your teaching practice, you may start to observe subtle differences in your students. You might also consider implementing one of the following large-scale methods for fostering motivation.

1. Prioritize relationship-building

Schools that are modeled to teach at-risk students take a range of approaches to educating young people. But an understanding that one-on-one relationships can yield unmatched benefits is a recurring theme. For many at-risk students, most interactions with school faculty and administrators are negative. Schools that implement a system of positive meetings and interactions with students and staff can create a more supportive environment for students.

Dr. Burleigh breaks the process of fostering positive relationships with at-risk students into three categories:

1. Communication:

  • Allow students to be openly expressive and encouraging to others.
  • Provide clear explanations and consistency in structure.
  • Move around and interact with students to create a connection.
  • Praise often, making an effort to catch students doing a good job.
  • Practice useful failure and turn mistakes into learning opportunities.


2. Support:

  • Celebrate achievements and student work.
  • Implement student-created classroom rules, such as respecting one another, avoiding name-calling or preventing bullying.
  • Be patient and model kindness.
  • Laugh with your students and be vulnerable.
  • Take a vested interest in your students’ lives outside of school.


3. Engagement:

  • Incorporate storytelling into your lessons and interactions.
  • Design lessons around students’ interests when applicable.
  • Give students choices on how they can do assignments.
  • Integrate technology.
  • Incorporate hands-on and cooperative learning activities.


Dr. Burleigh notes that it’s important to ensure you provide a safe learning environment for your students. Let them know you care about them and that everyone is welcome. Building those relationships can pave the way for learning.

2. Incorporate a democratic classroom model

One method the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) suggests to help engage your more challenging students is implementing a democratic classroom model when appropriate. It’s important to teach at-risk youth that their opinions matter and that their voices are worth hearing.

If students can actively help make some decisions related to upcoming lessons, classroom layout or even what text to read next, it can help them feel as if their opinions and actions are valuable. It also gets them used to real-world problem solving and helps create solutions that work for everyone.


A more democratic approach to teaching involves positive behavioral interventions and supports. It’s based on an understanding that teachers don’t control students. Sharing power with students in this way can help them learn to manage their own behaviors. A democratic approach can often be more effective, both for classroom management and student learning.

3. Consider the tenets of the enabling component model

The APA and the National Association of School Psychologists have partnered to promote the enabling component model in schools across the nation. This method of teaching aims to consolidate and coordinate sources of student and learning support — counseling services, school intervention programs and community resources — that tend to be fragmented at many schools.

The enabling component model also offers interventions to address barriers to learning and teaching. Interventions might include bringing support staff directly into the classroom to work with children or making better use of community resources that could help struggling students and their families. This methodology encourages schools to do the following:

  • Make innovative changes to classroom instruction.
  • Support children through difficult transitions.
  • Connect families to schools and school activities.
  • Maximize use of community resources.
  • Reorganize crisis assistance and prevention protocol and resources.
  • Strengthen links to external mental health and behavioral services.

The APA notes the enabling component model can help educators build up their students’ sense of competence, self-determination and connections with others rather than punishing them for bad behavior.

Amplify your impact with students

Teaching at-risk students can be challenging for educators in all classrooms. But you now know there are ways to break past the barriers students face on the path to academic success.

To hear more of Dr. Burleigh’s expertise on how to effectively educate students who may otherwise struggle, be sure to check out her University of Massachusetts Global webinar “Relationship building: A Support mechanism for at-risk and unmotivated students.”

Perhaps you’re interested in diving deeper into strategies to manage the day-to-day operations of your classroom and ensure your students’ needs are met. Consider enrolling in UMass Global’s Extended Education course, Classroom Management and Student Responsibility.



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