(3/18/08)Just a quick “who do I think I am to write this”. I have worked with at-risk youth since 1996, in the following positions: Assistant Family Teacher, Behavior Technician, Behavior Technician Team Leader (these all in a group home), Case Manager, Education Technician III and a Special Education Teacher. So while this is not an academic study or an “expert” discussing this topic, I do have a lot of practical day-to-day experience in the subject. This blog is directed mainly at educational staff, but some things in here are universal. The opinions and observations stated in here are strictly my own.

1. LACK OF SELF-CONFIDENCE. Most of these learners/youth actually have very little self-confidence. Most come across as bigger than life or that they know everything. I have found that in many instances this is actually a lot of bravado to cover up how insecure they actually are. Just think of what some (not all) have been told they are “less than others”, abused and neglected by the very people that should love and nurture them throughout their short lives. Most do not have the “typical” family life that “we” might have had.

They are actually very needy and need to be supported as much as possible. I understand that large class sizes, their behaviors and other factors make this difficult, but sometimes we at “school” are the only stable part of their life.

2. NEGATIVE BEHAVIORS IN THE CLASSROOM: When they are acting out in class is it because they are “jerks” – especially when they are letting you know pretty emphatically — that they don’t know how to do whatever it is you are doing in class or that you are boring them. Often times it is easier for them to “look baaad in front of their peers, then dumb or stupid. Think about that kid that always acts out in your class, think about when that youth does it. Is it when you call on them or ask them to do start work, do something in front of their peers or respond to a question where their peers will see their academic difficulty? Especially after years of comments from “teachers”, “Oh come on – anyone can answer that question”; “Ah – you didn’t do your homework again!”; “I guess I need someone else to answer this question.” and all those other “put downs” that are said to students by teachers. If this is the case, the teacher is initiating the student’s negative behavior cycle and setting the teacher and youth up for behaviors in the classroom.

Teachers have to remember that at-risk youth typically have poor school attendance records and can have tremendous gaps in their education (high school students reading at 3-4th grade level or unable to do basic math functions). It doesn’t mean that they are dumb or learning disabled, they simply haven’t been in school enough to learn these basic skills, but they are embarrassed about their lack of academic ability. Where I work, we call these students curriculum deprived and attempt to fill in these basic skills. Putting or keeping these students in regular classes, is usually setting them up for failure and for the teacher to have disruptive behaviors in their classroom.

I believe that the reason at-risk students like computers so much are that computers are non-judgmental, when youth make a mistake it allows them to re-do (in most cases), goes at a pace they can follow along (slower or faster) and it holds their attention better.

Another thing just because you taught it yesterday, doesn’t mean they learned it yesterday. These student have so much on their mind and so many difficulties (emotional, learning issues, substance abuse, mental health problems, etc.) that just because they seemed to understand what you previously taught, doesn’t mean they do today. I know that this is very frustrating for us as teachers, but just think how frustrating it is for these youth (especially the ones who know that they could understand if there wasn’t so much going on). But in large classes what do we do? There isn’t any simple answer for this and I don’t claim to have the answer, but smaller classes and more individual attention really works well. But in this time of budget crunches, it isn’t a realistic solution.

In the course of teaching a class, if a teacher is purposely and repeatedly sets a child up to fail, or continually verbally demeans a student, then in my eyes the teacher is initiating the youth’s behavior cycle and is abusing that child. This may sound harsh, but it is the way I feel.

3. DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY. Many times these youth are battling multiple demons in their lives, their home life is shambles, their relationships are tumultuous, substance abuse is rampant, the police, multiple state agencies are involved and so on. These youth are stressed to the max and the last thing on their mind is “school”. When they lash out in your classroom, are they actually always lashing out at you or the other students…no I find most of the time it is everything else going in their life and you just happen to be the one they blow up at.

Sometimes, take it as a compliment when they blow up at you (am I crazy – maybe), but they feel safe enough around that person or place to let out some of their frustrations. What can you do? Maintain school standards, expectations and set appropriate boundaries (rules) and don’t let the youth intimidate you by yelling, screaming, swearing, etc. into lowering your standards. Physical aggression is a different story, but you should follow the polices in place for your school in either case.

I know how difficult this is to do — I have been called every name in the book, some that are not in the book and some were invented specifically for me, been kicked, hit, bitten at some point or another in my career with at-risk youth and have found the one thing they really respect is CONSISTENCY. They thrive on knowing what you will do in the classroom or those “bad” situations and once they know you are “safe” (you won’t hurt them), you can begin a relationship with them –slowly.

4. BUILD RELATIONSHIPS: These youth are scared to death of relationships, they will do everything they can to “push” people away, that way it is harder for them to be hurt, especially by adults – again. My best advise is be patient and take it at the youth’s speed – not yours (if you rush them, the result usually isn’t pretty), be consistent and stick around. These youth will test you in every way they can, to see if you stick around. But if you are able to stick around, you might be surprised with the results.

5. THE PAY-OFF: When you are walking around in a mall, store or other public place and the youth see you and come rushing over, and want to talk your ear off; sit down beside you when they don’t have to and talk “sports”, about their future or you see them in that cap in gown at graduation. It is then you know why you took the time to extend your hand, kept it out no matter how much they slapped it away, and stuck with them.

The same youth and adult many years later.

I could go on, but these are to me some of the most important issues to look at when working with at-risk youth. Books have been written about this subject, by people a lot smarter than me, but I thought it would be nice to get a conversation started on this subject and see where it leads.

Why did I write this – I can’t really say…but in your prayers to whatever higher spirit/power you have tonight, say an extra one for a youth that I know. Thank you. – Harold

Technorati Tags: at-risk youth,blog,education today and tomorrow,frustration,graduation,learning style,reform,shaw,Special education,teacher,teaching,technology

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