Typhani Harris | October 2016

Who’s Really At Risk?

At Risk is an adjective used to describe some of our challenging students.  It sometimes even feels like a scapegoat when we are not sure what to do and often gets thrown around like ADHD or ODD when really the students just need a little TLC.

The Glossary of Educational Reform refers to the term at-risk as “often used to describe students or groups of students who are considered to have a higher probability of failing academically or dropping out of school.”  The Glossary of Educational Reform also admits that this label is often due to situational circumstances, not innate abilities.

In August of 1992, The National Center for Education Statistics published a statistical analysis report highlighting a longitudinal study that defined the characteristics of At Risk Students based on an examination of eighth-grade students who were at risk of school failure.  They examined demographics, family background, parental involvement, academic history, student behavior, teacher perceptions, and school environment.

Beyond race-ethnicity and socioeconomic backgrounds, they revealed the “following groups of students were found to be more likely to have poor basic skills in the eighth grade and to have dropped out between the 8th and 10th grades”  and therefore considered at risk:  students from single-parent homes, older than their peers, frequently changed schools, repeated a grade, poor grades in math or English, did little homework, came to school unprepared, cut class, were frequently tardy or absent, were perceived as passive, disruptive, inattentive, or underachievers by teachers, lacked parent involvement in or about school, had parents who held low expectations, or were from urban schools or schools with large minority populations.

Technically if a student falls into one or more of these categories, they can be considered at risk.  When I originally read this list, I thought to myself, what’s left?  Today, by this definition, there are potentially more students considered at risk, than not.  Arts Integration and STEAM have such important and valuable roles in education already, and with most students falling into the technical definition of at risk, the arts are an access point for all students to engage and find success.

Here are 9 best practices that will support yours at risk students.

Build the relationship

Investing in relationships is a goldmine, is your first line of defense when it comes to anything “adolescent,” and relationships will help when working with your at-risk students.

Meet them where they are and guide them to where you want them to be.

Your at risk students may be at risk due to their academic history, so it is important to meet them where they are.  It’s like asking the students to put a nail in the wall and hang a picture, but then not giving them the hammer to do so. Maybe everyone else in the class brought their hammers, and by high school, they should all have hammers! But this student was never given a hammer, nor taught how to use one…and now you are asking them to hang this picture. Some of these kids are clever enough to “MacGyver” it and will do enough to appease you and get you to leave them alone, but some of them will shut down or become an even worse distraction. It’s not their fault they don’t have a hammer, but our actions may blame them for not ever having a hammer. So, we meet them where they are, hammerless and all, and help them find the tools to hang up that picture.

Stay in contact with parents

All parents want the best for their child, even though our at risk students may have very little parental involvement or support at home, it is still very important to keep the lines of communication open.


You have no idea what these students are going through. If you are committing to building relationships with your students, you will have a few minor ideas, but often, these children are dealing with very adult issues, and they don’t like to talk about them. Listen when they share, even if it is the smallest of details, and try to understand their world.

Use their strengths

Find their strengths and use them! If they love technology, have them be your tech expert and run all of the technology in class, if they love talking have them read the PowerPoint slides, if they love to be in charge, have them lead different activities.   Invest and capitalize on their strengths, it will help both of you.


Let them own their learning. The more responsibility and choice we turn over to the students the more they own it. Allow them to do the heavy lifting. They don’t like your assignment, awesome! Have them design their own that will demonstrate the same thing. They think this activity is “stupid”, cool, have them engineer the next activity for the class. Just because they aren’t doing your assignment, the way you want it doesn’t mean they aren’t learning. Creation is the pinnacle of Bloom’s Taxonomy, so let them create.

Have them help you build a lesson

Meet with them outside of class and have them help you build a lesson they “like.” Don’t go the sarcastic route: “well, since you don’t like anything I prepare how about you prepare it yourself!” Build the relationship, and then comment “hey, I noticed there were quite a few people not connecting with

[insert assignment here] do you think you can help me build something they will like?”


Give them a chance to choose. Give them the freedom to determine their own way. I love to do a Lottery. You can do it quite a few different ways, but essentially it is offering multiple choices and having students either choose, or draw out of a hat.


It is frustrating that our whole world is blinded by their smartphone screens…but if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em! Use their social outlets to your advantage. Get them socializing in class, build Twitter™ or Instagram™ walls, and have them comment. Have their homework be to literally post on social media and comment on two classmates! *Note: always have a second option in case students don’t have access to or are not allowed to use social media.

Many of our students could potentially be considered At Risk, so it is important that we provide an environment that is safe, trusting, and gives students a chance to own their learning.

About the Author

Dr. Typhani Harris, author of Putting the Performance in Performance Task and Stop Teaching, brings over 2 decades of educational experience to The Institute. Originally a high school English Language Arts teacher, Dr. Harris transitioned into a dance educator who cultivated an award-winning collegiate style dance education program at a public school in California. Prior to joining the Institute, she was an educational leader and instructional coach specializing in preparing new teachers in secondary urban schools.  As the Chief Academics Officer, Dr. Harris maintains courses, conferences, and the accredited certification program at The Institute.