Vol. 8, No. 1• November 2003

How to Help At-Risk Students Survive Middle School

by Susan Pepper

The social studies assignment required students to make a timeline of the most important years in their lives. The eighth grader was hanging back from lunch, holding up his sagging pants in one hand, the timeline in the other. He proceeded to point out the two most important years in his life. He whispered, “This is the year my father died, and this is the year my mother died.” I asked about his current living arrangements; he lived with his aunt. His brother was serving five years in prison.

The realization was stark: Do the parts of speech or the causes of the Civil War really matter to this young man? Not at all. Is a quality education important to his future? Absolutely—in some ways, perhaps more so than for those living in stable situations. The question for those who work with at-risk children is how to make education a focus for them when they are concerned primarily with survival.

Whether their at-risk situation is caused by family upheaval, transience, abuse, poverty, or other factors, the challenge for these students is the same. A set of strategies must be in place so these students can focus more on education and less on personal survival. The middle school years are critical—often making or breaking students. By following a few simple steps, you can improve an at-risk student’s chances for success through these trying years.

1. Identify a point person. Contact the educator who has the most positive rapport with this student, and let that person know immediately of the challenges facing the child. Ask this educator for help in working through any rough spots. If one teacher on the team is sold on this student’s potential, she can spread the word to the whole team and suggest positive strategies when he is having a tough day. Secondary school teachers may have as many as 150 students. It’s critical to get this student on their radar immediately.

2. Establish a dialogue with the guidance department. Ask about programs and services such as anger management. Notify the student’s counselor of any upcoming changes so her teachers remain informed. One of our students did quite well until her drug-addicted mother would make a periodic visit. The student would start coming to school wearing heavy makeup and telling everyone she was moving away with her mom.

3. Get a clear game plan on attendance. Nothing sinks students faster than a high absentee rate. Students have to get into the pattern of attending school every day. Obviously, if they are absent, they have missed the teachers’ lesson plans for the day. At-risk students become frustrated at being behind and then face a mountain of makeup work. Many students simply give up. Work with your point person to find a solution. Can the student have an extension? Can he do some of the work during lunch or before school? Is all of the work essential? Work out a viable solution.

4. Negotiate in-school suspension for discipline whenever possible. Most schools use primarily in-school and out-of-school suspension for discipline. Sometimes, in-school suspension will not work, such as cases involving fighting or drugs. For lesser infringements, however, push hard for the student to remain in the classroom. Would an apology to a teacher be feasible? How about silent lunch? Success occurs when students are in the classroom participating in learning. Removing these students from their academic routine often leads to frustration and failure.

5. Use a daily agenda book for assignments and communication. Agendas are useful for building a positive school routine. Consistency is critical to maintaining academic focus. Get into a routine of checking the student’s agenda for homework. If necessary, ask the teachers to double-check and initial the agenda to be certain the necessary information is there. In addition to bolstering grades, this daily exercise in organization gives students a sense of control over the academic process and helps build confidence. Agendas are also a great communication tool between home and school, since concerns can be quickly addressed through short notes.

6. Find an organizational system that works. An agenda book is inconsequential if it’s buried in a 50-pound backpack. In my experience, the best system for students with weak organizational skills is a colored folder system. A red folder for science is easily found in the bottom of a locker. A black folder can be for their most dreaded class. Make it simple and memorable. Often, a student’s entire day is ruined because she cannot find an assignment she worked hard to complete. If the pattern is repeated, students begin to shut down in class, believing the situation is now hopeless.

Academic success is so important for at-risk students, but they frequently lack the skills to do well. Confidence rises when they are able to accomplish what is expected of them. The middle school years are tough on most students, but they are especially difficult for students who are just barely surviving on many levels. These strategies and others provide tools for academic success—they do not address the other pressures in their lives. But academic success often equals hope for the future, something many at-risk students can definitely use.

Susan Pepper, MA, is a teacher in Mableton, Georgia.

Copyright (c) 2001 by Child Welfare League of America. From Children’s Voice, July/August 2003. Reprinted by special permission of CWLA. Subscriptions to Children’s Voice are $25/year and can be ordered online at www.cwla.org/pubs, by calling toll-free 800/407-6273, by faxing 770/280-4160, or by e-mailing order@cwla.org.