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Students who are “at-risk” for school difficulties are impacted negatively by environmental and emotional difficulties in their personal lives. Because of this, psycho-educational assessment needs to consider student factors beyond the academic that impact student achievement and success in school. School is a huge component of children’s lives and, as such, needs to be engaged in combatting and protecting against life stressors; social and emotional programs are an effective example of this. Teachers need to take a holistic approach to their pedagogy and assessment that focuses on social-emotional health so as to prevent students from becoming, and to intervene when students’ are, at risk for school difficulties and failure.
Defining the term “at-risk” is not a perfect science. There is no universal definition for “at-risk,” yet there is a general understanding among researchers and educators of its implications (Edmunds & Edmunds, 2018, p. 374). It is widely understood that students who are “at-risk” are “at considerable risk for failing school, enduring ongoing social and behavioural difficulties in school, dropping out, and experiencing significant difficulties throughout their lives” (p. 374). School problems result from external-to-education risk factors both biological (ex. pregnancy and child health related) and/or environmental (ex. extreme poverty and abuse) in nature (p. 374). Risk levels can range from low to high and are heightened during transition periods (p. 374). Risk factors are multiplicative and include individual as well as societal and environmental factors, particularly: individual, family, peer, school, community, and social-cultural factors (p. 374). Being “at-risk” is a relative status that is dependent upon context, and thus is not a “fixed attribute” a student will always have (p. 374).
Students struggling in school are often assessed in reference to their academic abilities, yet are denied an assessment that takes into account all their life factors that may be negatively impacting their education. The psycho-educational assessment that students receive when they are having academic difficulties largely ignores a student’s environmental life factors, while focusing on intellectual and academic functioning as it appears most relevant to learning (p. 376). However, a holistic assessment – an approach that additionally takes into account the environmental and emotional components of a student’s life – would be much more beneficial to an at-risk student, whose challenges are linked to these “external” factors (p. 377). Emotional and environmental factors such as “psychological trauma” and “traumatic stressors” multiply to “create barriers to student learning, classroom functioning, and overall well-being” (p. 377).
If education and educational assessment only focus on “academic” factors, not only will student well-being suffer, but so will students’ academic achievement (Greenberg, Domitrovich, Weissberg, & Durlak, 2017, p. 16). Families today experience many social and economic pressures, and lives are complicated by increasingly multicultural/multilingual communities and by a technology and media-centered society (p. 16). Today’s myriad stressors mean that education needs more than simply an academic focus; education needs to help students develop cognitive, personal, and social competencies – including how to manage stress and work with others (p. 16). Through a holistic approach that seeks to understand and teach the “whole child” by assessing and building social-emotional competencies, academic outcomes will improve while also buffering against the effects of risk factors (p. 17). Schools can include social emotional learning (SEL) in their classrooms as one example of a preventative intervention that improves “positive social behavior, conduct problems, and academic performance,” outcomes which were reported in a meta-analysis of 213 kindergarten to grade 12 interventions (p. 17).
Students’ well-being and success is supported with evidence-based social and emotional learning (SEL) programs, which are designed to reach students of varying risk levels all within the same classroom. The program uses interventions for three levels of student risk: universal, selective, and indicated/treatment interventions (p. 18). Universal interventions are applicable for the whole class no matter their risk level, selective interventions focus on students who have at least one risk factor increasing their likelihood of poor outcomes, and indicated interventions target those “who are already experiencing early signs of problem behaviors but don’t yet meet diagnostic criteria for having a disorder” (p. 18). Treatment interventions are often grouped with indicated interventions and are specifically for those students “with high levels of symptoms or diagnosable disorders” (p. 18). Universal interventions work as prevention, whereas the other levels focus on treatment. As methods of preventing school difficulties associated with “at-risk” students, universal interventions are relatively inexpensive and can help to develop adaptive coping and resilience skills in students that lead to “measurable and potentially long-lasting improvements” that can be applied to school, family, and community contexts (p. 13, 18).
Because most children spend many hours for many years at school, schools are essential locations for providing intervention for at-risk behaviours. SEL programs develop personal and social competencies, which in turn support academic success as well as decrease the occurrence of behavioural and emotional problems (p. 14). In the classroom, SEL focuses on developing “students’ capacity to integrate thinking, emotion, and behaviour to deal effectively with everyday personal and social challenges” (p. 14). Skills focus on self-awareness (understanding one’s emotions, values, and personal goals and building self-efficacy), self-management (regulating emotions and behaviors through delayed gratification, managing stress, controlling impulses, and persevering through challenges), social awareness (empathizing with others), relationship skills (communicating clearly, listening actively, cooperating, resisting inappropriate social pressure, negotiating conflict constructively, and seeking help when needed), and responsible decision-making (evaluating the consequences of one’s behaviour) (p. 15).
Each level of intervention has a different focus, but the same goal: reducing the negative impact of risk factors for student well-being and academic success. Universal interventions are provided to all students and so do not create stigmatization for any particular student (p. 19). Interventions are multi-faceted and focused on: school structure and policies, pedagogy and instructional quality, specific SEL curricula and skills, as well as teaching caregivers parenting skills (p. 19). These interventions reduce or prevent difficulties associated with risk factors, such as “emotional and behavioral problems, early substance use, delinquency, and school failure” (p. 19). Selective interventions are more specifically geared towards students and families who have life experiences (such as poverty, trauma, or parents will mental illness) placing them at risk for poor educational outcomes (p. 19). Indicated and treatment levels are for students and families who are exhibiting signs of difficulty and involve specifically prescribed services and programs (p. 20). In these cases, it is important for schools to coordinate school providers with specialized mental-health services to supplement and align with the school-based approaches for managing behaviour and building positive social-emotional skills (p. 25). Schools should instigate this collaboration and evaluate student progress using the relevant and necessary assessments (p. 26).
More than simply identifying at-risk students, it is a teacher’s duty to equip students with the skills necessary to combat their personal barriers to learning. Using SEL and applying effective universal intervention to classroom practices takes into account the external factors that affect learning and will help students cope with these difficulties, reducing the impact of life stressors on academic and personal well-being (p. 22). Teaching social-emotional competence “can lead to enhanced self-efficacy and confidence; greater attachment, commitment, and engagement in school; more empathy and prosocial behaviors; fewer conduct problems; less risk-taking and emotional distress; and improved test scores and grades” and can provide future academic, career, mental health, and relational success (p. 15).
Some examples of teaching social-emotional development include explicitly teaching social-emotional skills, as well as modelling and encouraging students to practice the learned skills throughout daily interactions (p. 23). Teachers can facilitate these behaviours through providing meaningful opportunities for student autonomy and individuality in learning, providing a safe and welcoming environment, encouraging collective participation, and being emotionally supportive of each student; these practices can lead to positive student-teacher relationships and support social-emotional competence, academic achievement, and mental health (p. 23). A school can further support this climate through implementing SEL curriculum and restorative discipline policies that encourage students to use their skills to correct misbehaviours (p. 23). Additionally, peer mentoring and service learning can be leveraged to build a positive sense of community (p. 23). One example of community building could be regular morning meetings where educators meet with smaller groups of students to develop student-teacher rapport, build trust-based relationships, and to express care for students’ individual lives (p. 23). Connecting with supportive adults and peers in school and during after-school programs can benefit students’ “self-perceptions, bonding to school, positive social behaviors, school grades, and achievement-test scores, and reduce problem behaviors” (p. 24).
At-risk students experience difficulties beyond the walls of the school and require their teacher to support them on a holistic, not merely academic, level. Teachers must understand their whole student so as to know how to remove their personal barriers to learning. One method of achieving this goal is for teachers to get to know their individual students and to explicitly teach, model, and encourage social-emotional wellness in and outside of the classroom.
- Edmunds, A., & Edmunds, G. (2018). Students Who Are At-Risk. In, Special Education in Canada, Third Edition (pp. 365-393). Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press.
- Greenberg, M. T., Domitrovich, C. E., Weissberg, R. P., & Durlak, J. A. (2017). Social and Emotional Learning as a Public Health Approach to Education. Future of Children, 27(1), 13–32. Retrieved from https://ezproxy.student.twu.ca/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eric&AN=EJ1144819&site=ehost-live
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