Reaching At-Risk Youth

I read an article today called, Socioeconomic status as child dictates response to stress as adultBasically, this article was about how individuals who grew up poor or lacking in resources, tend to make decisions that are likely to bring immediate rewards as opposed to delayed gratification when faced with stressful/life threatening situations.  “The research also suggests that efforts using a ‘you never know what’s going to happen tomorrow’ approach to persuade at-risk kids to stay in school or avoid risky behaviors might be ineffective.”  They propose that instead efforts should be made to communicate a sense of security and well-being.

I don’t know about anyone else, but when my students come to me telling me about how their cousin was shot at the Taco Bell, or how they don’t get home until 9:00 pm because they have to wait for their father to ride the bus home with them to one of the worst parts of town, I don’t think my saying, “You are safe and all is good,” will really have that much of an impact on them.  So how do we reach these kids?  As I ask that I think to what lead to my success.  I grew up in the projects, the only child of a single mother.  What made the difference for me was that my mother wouldn’t put up with anything less than my best in school.  She took an active role in my education and applied for me to get a scholarship for a private school.  Although I was very aware that I was poor, I was inculcated with the belief that education would make things better for me in the future.  My mom also took some college courses while I was in grade school.  I remember being very proud of her and feeling that her education would lead to a better life for both of us.  She never finished her degree and that was quite a disappointment for me.  I do believe that is when I started being a normal teen and acting out a bit more.  So I guess for me a lack of future security did lead to riskier behavior.

Now, how can we use this knowledge to improve education for at risk youth?  Is it enough to just say that things will be okay?  I doubt it.  I think that youth need to actually believe it and have reasons for believing it.  Also, they can’t be told, “When you graduate from college….”  That’s too far into the future.  Perhaps setting short-term doable goals for them that will somehow improve their life.  Rewards for accomplishments.  Would this be enough?  I have no idea, but I doubt it.  I think back on my 18 years teaching and I remember being successful with some difficult students.  But how?  What did I do?  I think it was a matter of 1) showing them that I cared,  2) taking time to work with them individually, and 3) being a cheerleader for them.  This worked for most students, not all.  And many of those students fell back into their poor academic habits once the year was over and they left my class.

So what’s the answer?  I have no idea!  Any possible answer seems too simplistic and limited in scope, but one thing is for sure…we can never stop trying!


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