August 28, 2018 by

Techniques for Mentoring At-Risk Students

Written by Avery Phillips 

Mentoring at-risk students present many challenges to teachers, students, and mentors alike. Not only are you juggling the more basic variables of learning styles and interest in learning, but you also have the added layers of psychological damage, poverty, drug or alcohol abuse, physical and/or verbal abuse, and more.

In such cases, your role as a teacher changes from educator to role model. You may be providing these children with the only sense of normalcy or affection they receive on the days you see them. To rise to this challenge, you will need to adopt skillful techniques that will help you to be the best mentor you can for your at-risk students.

Meeting Student Needs

Working with students with specific needs will require that you have special training. In addition to your teaching certification, you may need to take courses specifically about meeting at-risk students’ needs. You can even get this education from online programs that meet state licensing requirements, like accreditation from the Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Programs.

You can also attend other informational sessions and courses on specific matters, such as the needs of at-risk readers and closing the gap for English learners and students of color. Always getting new training is essential for being the best teacher you can be to meet the needs of your students. The skills you should have to work with at-risk students include being able to identify them, recognizing signs of physical abuse, recognizing signs of substance abuse, and more.

Model Positive Behavior

As a teacher, it may often seem like you have to be perfect all the time. However, modeling positive behavior doesn’t mean showing your students that you don’t make mistakes, but instead admitting to making mistakes and showing how you fix them. The simple act of owning up to your faults might make you feel vulnerable — perhaps even uncomfortable — but it will teach your students a crucial lesson. No one is perfect, and you respect your students enough to admit your mistakes, apologize if necessary, and, if needed, take steps to remedy your mistake.

Showing your students that you are human like they are can help you identify with them better. This can create opportunities for them to open up to you and even own up to their mistakes when they make them. The more healthy habits you can model in front of them, the better. It is surprising what students can pick up from a teacher they respect.

That being said, make sure to model good behavior to them but do not laud yourself. Though you should have authority in your classroom, you should also treat students with respect to show them that they matter and that their voice is important.

Democratic Classroom Model

It’s important to teach at-risk youth that their opinions matter, their voices matters, and they matter. One way to do this is to have a democratic structure in your classroom. This means that students can actively help to make some decisions in the classroom, helping them feel like their opinions and actions are important.

According to the University of Cincinnati’s Master of Education program, the following are the main keys to focus on in a democratic classroom:

  • A student’s voice in their education
  • Communication and keeping other students informed
  • Emphasizing “real world” critical thinking and problem solving
  • Considering different perspectives and developing empathy skills
  • Finding solutions that work for everyone

Hopefully, the values you teach them will carry with them beyond your classroom. With at-risk students, there is never a guarantee that you can change their lives permanently, but you can try to make a positive difference. Being a mentor is hard work, and working with at-risk children is not easy. There will be difficult moments, but the rewarding ones will make all the difference to you and your students.


Avery Taylor Phillips is a writer with a focus in early childhood education. She is a community activist passionate about equity in access to educational resources and has developed a deep understanding of the way children learn in the face of challenges due to their family circumstance through her work. In her spare time, she works to advance the progress towards equitable education opportunities.