On the last day of school, there are few teachers who don't look back on the year and wonder how they could have been more effective at reaching every student. Many teachers regret the opportunities that we missed to help students who are at risk of dropping out instead of graduating to a better future. We tend to question the many decisions we made during the school year regarding the students in our classes who were seriously struggling with tough problems such as attendance, academics, poverty, lack of readiness, or peer pressure.
While there are many promising programs and a great deal of support available for at-risk students, too many students still drop out of school. Perhaps one reason for this continuing problem is its complexity. Students can be at risk for dropping out for many reasons. Here are just a few possible contributing factors:
• Family problems
• Poor academic skills
• Substance abuse
• Emotional problems
• Chronic peer conflicts
• Repeated failure in school
• Inadequate parental supervision
• Undiagnosed learning problems
• Chronic illness
It is undeniable: at-risk students depend on their teachers to help them stay in school. Instead of mentally beating yourself up for not taking full advantage of every chance that you had to help all of your students, think about how you can incorporate some of these simple, common sense strategies into your plans for the new school year that lies ahead.
• Be persistent in your efforts to motivate at-risk students. Do not hesitate to let them know you plan to keep them in school as long as you can.
• Spend time helping your students establish life goals so that they can see a larger purpose for staying in school. Without a purpose for learning, school seems like an exercise in futility to a student who wants to drop out.
• Set small goals that will help students reach a larger one. If you can get them in the habit of achieving at least one small goal each day, they can build on this pattern of success.
• Involve students in cooperative learning activities. Feeling connected to their classmates empowers and supports students who may be considering quitting school.
• Invite guest speakers or older students to talk with younger ones about the importance of staying in school.
• Offer open-ended questions so that at-risk students can attempt answers without fear of failure.
• Be generous with praise and attention. Your kind words may often be the only ones your at-risk students will hear all day.
• Assign work that is relevant and meaningful. If students see a purpose for their work, they may decide to stay in school.
• Seek assistance from support personnel and family members. It takes many determined adults to change a student’s mind once he or she has decided to drop out.
• Check on students when they are absent. Call their homes. Show your concern.
• Create situations in which at-risk students can be successful. Perhaps they can tutor younger students, mediate peer conflict, or help you with classroom chores. Focus on their strengths.
• Offer extra help and assistance to all of your students, but particularly to those at risk of dropping out.
• Tailor activities to students’ preferred learning styles. When the work seems too difficult, at-risk students can often be successful if their teacher uses another modality to teach the material they need to know.
• Connect to at-risk students in a positive way. Make sure that they understand that they are important to you and to their classmates.
To learn more about how you can help your at-risk students, begin with the Education World Web site (http://www.educationworld.com). You can access a wealth of information on how to help your students at risk of dropping out of school by using “at risk” as a keyword to search the site. You will find links to other sites, articles, motivational tools, and strategies for teachers.