The term “at risk” simply implies the risk of failing one or more classes. However, it belies the bigger picture—the far reaching effects of being a socioeconomically disadvantaged teenager. In my work in the education field, I had the opportunity to meet and influence several at-risk teens. The average “home-life” for the kids I worked with meant at least one absentee parent, usually the result of drug addiction or incarceration. Abuse was the norm, physical, sexual, and emotional. Several students lived with extended family members, friends, or couch-surfed and had experienced homelessness by the age of sixteen. Drugs and alcohol were more accessible than nutrition, toothpaste, and winter coats. With few exceptions, supervision came from juvenile probation officers, teachers, and counselors.
I came to know and love these students, who proved to be some of the most intelligent, generous, and talented people I’ve ever known. Everyone can make a difference. Here are the keys to breaking through the walls of defense and help these types of teens realize the fullness of their potential.
1. Offer them respect: There is nothing that will reach an angry, rebellious teenager faster or more effectively than genuine respect. Like adults, young people yearn to be regarded as equals. If they have no home, no possessions, and no prospect of improving their situation, respect becomes currency. Equally, nothing will alienate a teenager more thoroughly than “disrespecting” them in word or deed. When it comes to respect—give and you shall receive.
2. Encourage their strengths: Too often, educators, parents, and counselors, try to fit a square peg into a round hole, trying to force them into what we think they should become. This is an exercise in futility and will yield frustration for all parties. Instead, we need to meet them where they are. If young people are allowed to freely develop their strengths and attributes, the options are limitless. Seek out and nurture their strengths and be willing to look in outside the box. Most importantly, never lose sight of the fact that it is about them.
3. Create a sense of ownership and belonging: Most at-risk kids feel alone and disenfranchised. Street and prison gangs are well acquainted with the unrivaled human need to belong, thus praying on the isolated and insecure. A sense family, even outside the traditional, is more powerful than any street drug creating a bond difficult to break. Fortunately, gangs don’t have the exclusive on this concept. Provide an environment where at-risk teenagers can feel safe and accepted and they will move in from the fringes to become part of the whole. Take it a step further and give them something they can take ownership in, something in which their contribution is outwardly valued and appreciated, and there is no limit to what they can achieve.
Photo by Doug Robichaud