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At-Risk, Education, Teaching

Back from the Abyss: Helping Troubled Students

After a recent day out of the office, I returned to the normal deluge of e-mails in my inbox, notes and documents in my mailbox and student discipline referrals.  As I spent my early morning, sifting through this paperwork and devising a plan of attack, I was taken aback by a referral I received for a young man with whom I have had fairly regular contact.  The referral read:

Stephen (not the student’s real name) decided to put his head down during a group discussion.  He was asked to pick his head up and work to help his team.  He told the teacher to “Lay the f*** off”.  The teacher then kneeled down to try to talk to him and his response was “get the f*** out of my face”.

Red flags.

Now most people would assume that addressing discipline is one of the less appealing aspects of being a school administrator.  While I wouldn’t say it is my favorite thing to do, I do enjoy the opportunity to individually interact with students and hopefully provide them with some help and guidance.  I have done this for a long time, so I feel like I have a pretty good handle on addressing situations in a manner that is supportive of the adults on our campus, while advocating for the best interest of students.

You're not alone

flickr photo by TMAB2003

What concerned me most about this situation was the state of mind of a student who is willing to make comments of this nature to an adult.  My assessment, based upon this incident and other interactions with Stephen is that this is a student who has lost hope–one who feels that there is nothing to be lost from making such comments.  A student who has fallen into the abyss.

Those of you who have read this blog for a while know that I have a passion for working with “at-risk” students–empathy born out of ignorance.  As a small town Kansas kid, I was generally unaware of the existence of true challenges, certainly nothing that would compare to many of the trials faced by my current students:

  • drugs and alcohol
  • family upheaval
  • gang violence
  • extreme poverty
  • homelessness
  • hunger

I am not saying that some of those problems didn’t exist in my hometown, but I lived a relatively sheltered life with caring parents, food to eat, clothing and a nice home.  In some ways,  I think that is why I enjoy working with students facing these struggles–because I know that I can never fully relate to what they are going through. I don’t have the audacity to say, “I understand,” nor the naivety to assume I can “fix” a student’s situation.  All I can do is demonstrate an interest, express a belief, have expectations, show empathy and work to build connections.

I wouldn’t say that our educational system has failed these students, because it is apparent that the problems faced by “at-risk” kids are much bigger than anything that can be fully addressed by teachers, administrators, or schools.  However, for many of these students, we have failed to effectively meet them where they are–academically and emotionally.

How can we re-engage students who have lost hope?  How do we rescue kids from the educational abyss?  What strategies make a difference?

Questions that need to be considered.  Ideas that need to be shared.


About azjd

Junior high principal by day, aspiring difference maker, and Jedi in my own mind. Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly.


7 thoughts on “Back from the Abyss: Helping Troubled Students

  1. I so appreciate your focus on what really matters in education, Jeff. If we aren’t challenging ourselves to be more responsive to our students, then we are missing the mark entirely. I take care of all the discipline issues at my school, and I welcome the opportunity. Investing time with those struggling reminds me that we need to spend less time figuring out creative ways to hold students accountable, and more time figuring out responsive ways to value and engage and encourage our students. The first question always needs to be, “What can I do, personally, to make a positive difference?” You have a great perspective, Jeff. Stay the course.

    Posted by Tom Altepeter | February 17, 2011, 4:06 pm
    • Thanks for the comment Tom. As you know, patience always comes into play here — being able to step back and decide what is in the best interest of all parties, not just handing down punishments.

      I appreciate and value your input!

      Posted by azjd | February 25, 2011, 2:18 am
  2. A poignant post. My own thinking has to do with the way that students who behave in this way are perceived at various levels of the system.

    I teach in elementary and I am seeing more and more students who display behavior that doesn’t fit the “norm” in terms of interaction with adults, approach to their work and interaction with their peers. On one level, this is very disturbing, disruptive, and prevents us from getting to the “real stuff of school”. But as Tom points out, the ability to step back and connect with these students is, perhaps, the real stuff.

    But schools, as they are currently structured, often don’t have the capacity to adequately connect with students that sit on the edge. We label them and categorize them. Sometimes we even try to analyze them. But all too often, we don’t help them to a place where any of this makes sense. As it turns out, we are the ones who are “at risk”. We’re at risk of missing the point and losing the student.

    Posted by Stephen Hurley | February 18, 2011, 3:25 am
    • Agree. Our traditional school “system” tends to exacerbate the issue. Those who struggle (academically, or behaviorally), fail to build the connections you mention – widening gaps, leading to apathy and increased behavioral problems. That certainly isn’t an indictment of educators, but it does seem to be a product of the system. One of many reasons we need to be taking a close look at how we “do” school. Thanks for the comment!

      Posted by azjd | February 25, 2011, 2:25 am
  3. You ask some really important questions that deserve deep thought.

    1. How can we re-engage kids that have lost hope?
    We have to begin to identify these kids very early. For me, as a middle school principal, I try to identify those kids I feel are more school dependent than others, based on many different factors, in 6th grade. If I can find those kids, provide them with the supports they need including making sure many adults check on them throughout their day…including me, I think we can begin to re-engage them in their learning. That’s another important point, let’s engage them in the learning process rather than the educational process. The ‘educational’ process, in many cases, has disappointed school dependent kids and suggests that kids must be ‘educated’ rather than they should be learning. The learning process indicates to kids that they have responsibility to engage in their own learning. This is a paradigm shift for many kids and adults. RELATIONSHIPS are the critical element!

    Something I believe is important to note is that often times kids react with anger and hurt. I work very hard to help my kids and my staff understand that it’s not the EMOTION that got you in trouble, it’s the WAY you chose to express your emotion/feelings.

    2. How do we rescue kids from the educational abyss?
    I believe there are many facets to this question and a huge chunk of the answer lies in the teaching and learning process in your school. What’s happening with instruction? But, that’s a huge topic….I’ll just focus on the relational piece of the puzzle in my response.
    I recently read a post about the ‘at-risk’ term that simply pointed out that the term ‘at-risk’ signals situations that we cannot control in a kid’s life. We, as educators, cannot control what happens to the kid when they leave our building, BUT what we CAN control is what happens to that kid while in our building and under our care. Those kids, these ‘at-risk’ kids are school dependent and some are more school dependent than others.

    We rescue our school dependent kids from the educational abyss by making sure we provide a caring, safe, supportive, and engaging environment for all our kids. We commit to making sure our school dependent kids are provided with the supports and interventions they need, both behaviorally and academically, to be successful.

    3. What strategies make a difference?
    Some strategies that I use with our kids:
    a. Identified students have an adult that checks on them throughout the day. I utilize ALL staff members including my custodians with this strategy.
    b. Visibility by administrators. You’d be surprised what this can do….maybe most of you wouldn’t! : )
    c. My AP and I sign every report card each time they go home. We split grade levels, but we personally sign every report card.
    d. EXPLICITLY TEACH the behaviors we expect. And once you teach it, re-teach them and then re-teach them again. These expectations should be school-wide and taught by all adults.
    e. Create a culture of responsibility, ownership, and reflection among all stakeholders in your school community. Our job is to teach behavior & academic expectations, school-wide, and then consistently and fairly hold students accountable for their actions. We must also make sure the adults in our building MODEL expectations and reflect on their own behaviors/actions/teaching and learning.
    f. Teach kids to take ownership of their actions, have them brainstorm a different course of action or a more positive behavior choice, and then, tell them you love them and send them on their way. I realize that some behaviors warrant significantly more discourse and action with kids, but what I know is that no matter the action, we should take the time to talk with the kid.

    Last thought that guides every interaction I have with kids and adults. My dad told me a long time ago, “honey, most kids will not remember anything you say, but they will always remember how you made them feel.” My job is make sure the kids in my building, on a daily basis, feel respected, loved, safe, and important EVEN if they act or react in negative ways. We work really hard to teach our kids that GOOD kids can make BAD choices, but those choices do not have to define who you are or who you will become.

    Posted by l jones | February 18, 2011, 4:42 am
    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful response. I really appreciate your suggested strategies in #3 – fantastic ideas!

      Personal relationships are such a critical factor in student success. I think one problem we encounter in middle school is pulling away from the elementary school model too quickly (when it comes to building connections). As you mention, kids at this age still have a tremendous need to know that they are valued as an individual. That needs to remain a focus throughout their school years.

      Thanks again for your comments!

      Posted by azjd | February 25, 2011, 2:34 am


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Jeff Delp

Junior high principal by day, sports enthusiast, technology fanatic and jedi in my own mind. Striving to be a difference maker!
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