January 11, 2010

Motivating At Risk Students


            Costello (1996) states that the definition of a student "at risk" is very controversial. Many educators, as well as parents, disagree about who or what to blame when children do not succeed in school. An at risk student is defined as "any student who is affected by environmental conditions that negatively impact the student's educational performance or threaten a student's likelihood of promotion or graduation" (2005 Montana Legislature). An at risk student is defined as having one or more of the following characteristics: (1) student not meeting the necessary requirements for promotion to the next grade level; (2) student whose educational attainment is below other students with regards to their age and grade level; (3) student who is a potential dropout; (4) student failing two or more courses of study; (5) student who has been retained; and (6) student not reading on grade level (Kansas State Department of Education).

            It is reported that the personal, economic and social costs of academic underachievement are high and growing. Every year, there is an increasing number of students entering schools with conditions in their lives that schools are ill prepared to accommodate (Costello, 1996). Thus, there is a great need for stressing and focusing on students who are at risk.



Problem Description

            As the researcher has assessed that there is a great need for focusing on students who are at risk, the challenge for teachers, therefore, is to facilitate and motivate these students to learn. The question now becomes: How can teachers facilitate and motivate at risk students to learn? The high number of at risk students – those in danger of dropping out in school due to academic failure or other problems – is currently a major concern in education (Reed & McMillan, 1994). On the bright side, according to statistics, the dropout rates for young people in the civilian, non-institutionalized population has steadily decreased between 1972 and 2004, from 15 percent to a low 10 percent in 2003, where the rate remained in 2004 (Child Trends Data Bank).

            Hootstein (1996) adds that most at risk students are not motivated to learn in classrooms. At risk students are usually characterized by inattentiveness, boredom and inability to see much connection between school learning and their outside lives which are often faced and challenged by poor health and nutrition, substance abuse, teen parenthood, poverty, racism, violence and low self-esteem. The boredom and preoccupation of students with personal problems often are the causes of a decrease of quality of their lives in school which not only affect the students but the teachers and school administrators as well.  Teachers become disturbed and frustrated as they continuously try different strategies to motivate at risk students and help them understand the value of learning. Consequently, the recognition for efficient motivational strategies for the student population is very crucial (Hootstein, 1996).

Possible Solutions

            There are several researches and models that indicate different strategies to motivate and facilitate students at risk such as the RISE model (Hootstein, 1996), examining the notion of "resilience" (Reed & McMillan, 1994), casual attribution theory (Kozminsky & Kozminsky, 2002) and establishing student-teacher relationships (Testerman, 2002). Let us examine each of these models in the proceeding part of this paper.

            RISE Model. Hootstein (1996) defines four major conditions that will influence students' motivation to learn in the classroom. The Rise model includes strategies to establish Relevance of learning, to present Interesting instruction, to maximize students' sense of Satisfaction and to assist students Expectations on success. Hootstein (1996) has suggested two strategies teachers can use to make learning more relevant for students. First is to relate content to the needs, concerns, goals, interests and experiences of the students. The second technique is to encourage and motivate students themselves to become more involved in making content more relevant such that learning becomes more meaningful within the context of real and present problems. As for making instruction interesting for students, teachers can provide incongruous, conflict and paradoxical information. Student curiosity on subject matter can be deepened by offering them something new or different from what they already know. In addition, abstract content on subject matter may become interesting if made concrete and familiar by using examples, metaphors, anecdotes, stories and simulations (Hootstein, 1996). In terms of satisfaction of students, researches reveal that rewards like praise, privileges or tangible rewards may have disadvantageous effects on student motivation. Thus it is important that at risk students believe that their efforts lead to rewards that they value (Firestone, 1989). Hootstein (1996) suggests that teachers provide rewards that have information value. Teachers may use rewards either to inform students about their competence or to control their behavior. Lastly, with regards to increasing students expectations, teachers can pass on confidence in them, assist students' sense of control, motivate positive self-talk and highlight effort. Consequently, students will be willing to expend effort on an assignment or task when they expect to perform successfully at the same time believe they are responsible and accountable for their own performance (Hootstein, 1996).

            Notion of "Resilience". Examining the notion of "resilience" among students is a rather interesting approach in helping at risk students. The term resilient students can be applied to those at risk students who somehow have developed characteristics and coping skills that enables them to succeed despite tremendous hardships and presence of at risk factors (Reed & McMillan, 1994). These students appear to have developed stable, healthy personas and are able to recover from and adjust to life's stresses and problems (Winfield 1991). Factors that seem to be associated to resiliency are categorized into four aspects: individual attributes, positive use of time, family and school (Cited from Reed and McMillan, 1994). According to Reed and McMillan (1994), resilient at risk students characterized by personalities, dispositions and beliefs that promote their academic success regardless of their backgrounds and current circumstances. These characteristics have been developed due to a psychological support system which provides a safety net and encouragement. Resilient at risk students are known to have adults – a parent and someone from school – with whom they have developed trusting relationships. As the notion of "resiliency" is examined, there are some suggestions regarding how teachers and administrators can aid the academic success of at risk students. First, there must be development and enhancement of current instructional strategies, techniques and other dimensions of school environment in order to promote a sense of internal locus of control, self-efficacy, optimism and a sense of personal responsibility. Second, to provide a classroom environment that highlights academic achievement as well as fosters students' self-esteem and self-confidence, teachers, administrators and counselors need to have the necessary training and motivation. Finally, teachers need to be provided with training and motivation in order to develop relationships that benefit at risk students (Reed & McMillan, 1994).

            Casual Attribution Theory. The casual attribution theory states that in situations of success and failure, people have a tendency to analyze and assess the causes that led to their failure or success (Weiner, 1986). The analysis will reflect the perceptions and beliefs of an individual. Accordingly, these casual attributions will affect our perceptions of ourselves, expectations and sense of ability to influence such events and our motivation to learn. According to Kozminsky and Kozminsky (2002), improving at risk students' motivation to learn can be done by an attributional dialogue between teacher and student. The change in motivation happens when students learn to attribute their achievements to their own educational efforts as well as to the suitable application of learning strategies they practice (Kozminsky and Kozminsky, 2002).

            Establishing student-teacher/adviser relationships. It is believed that students are less likely to drop out of school if they are convinced that the school personnel are concerned about them. In addition, an adult in school showing an individualized concern for an at risk student will have a considerable positive effect on that specific student's attendance. Furthermore, improving students' views on the degree of concern that teachers feel for them would positively influence and affect the students' attitudes about school, consequently, increasing their likelihood of staying on to graduate. On the other hand, poor student-teacher relationships have negative effects and influence in students' self-concept (Testerman, 2002).


            The high number of at risk students is currently a major concern in education. At risk students have shown characteristics of low self-esteem, insecurity about their abilities and negative attitudes towards learning. These issues of at risk students have disturbed and frustrated teachers as they continuously try to facilitate and motivate at risk students and make them understand the value of learning. The challenge for teachers has been on implementing strategies that will facilitate and motivate students to learn. This paper has proposed strategies based on the RISE model, examining the notion of "resilience", casual attribution theory and the establishment of student-teacher relationships. Teachers must offer the students genuine caring, respect and encouragement as preconditions to stimulate motivation to learn. Moreover, teachers may use strategies that will increase appeal of learning and challenge students to become more personally and actively involved in the whole learning process.












2005 Montana Legislature. (2005, March). Senate Bill 152. Electronically Retrieved February 14, 2006, from <http://data.opi.state.mt.us/bills/2005/billhtml/SB0152.htm>.

Child Trends Data Bank. Dropout Rates. Electronically Retrieved February 14, 2006, from <http://www.childtrendsdatabank.org/pdf/1_PDF.pdf>.

Costello, M.A. (1996). Providing effective schooling for students at risk. Electronically Retrieved February 14, 2006, from <http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/issues/students/atrisk/at600.htm>.

Firestone, W. A. (1989). Beyond order and expectations in high schools serving at-risk youth. Educational Leadership, 46(2), pp. 41-45.

Hootstein, E. (1996, November-December). Motivating at risk students to learn. The Clearing House.

Kansas State Department of Education. At risk definition. Electronically Retrieved February 14, 2006, from <http://www.ksde.org/leaf/survey_on_education_costs/at-risk.pdf>.

Kozminsky, E. & Kozminsky, L (2002, November). The dialogue page: Teacher and student dialogues to improve learning motivation. Intervention in School and Clinic, 38(2), pp. 88-95.

Reed, D.F. & McMillan, J.H. (1994, January-February). At risk students and resiliency: Factors contributing to academic success. The Clearing House, 67(3), pp. 137-140.

Testerman, J. (1996). Holding at risk students: The secret is one-on-one. Phi Delta Kappan, 77, pp. 364-365.

Weiner, B. (1986). An attributional theory of achievement, motivation and emotion. New York: Springer Verlag.

Winfield, L. A. (1991). Resilience, schooling, and development in African-American youth: A conceptual framework. Education and Urban Society, 24(1), pp. 5-14.

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