How to help “At Risk” Kids Succeed in Life.

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Al Pacino delivers a powerful and inspiration speech in this scene from "Any Given Sunday". Image courtesy of

Al Pacino delivers a powerful and inspiration speech in this scene from “Any Given Sunday”. Image courtesy of

Recently, I was asked to speak at a leadership event for student athletes. A prominent political figure in our area was scheduled to speak prior to me on the importance of the pursuit of academic excellence.

I was excited to hear this individual drop some knowledge on these kids and inspire them to greatness. I was hoping he would go all Al Pacino from Any Given Sunday and spit out some powerful metaphors and personal stories that would move the needle in all of our lives.

High School Students love this clip, have them interpret the meaning in a writing exercise.

Unfortunately, he went all Ben Stein and started dropping statistics about how difficult it was to earn an athletic scholarship for college. He then essentially proceeded to explain to them how to forget about becoming a professional athlete because the odds were stacked against them.

All I could think after hearing him speak was…

“You had ONE job to do!”

Self Doubt Kills Ability

The quickest way to stifle a student’s development is to set limitations on what they believe to be possible. Or as the French artist Edgar Degas articulated, Self doubt kills ability.”

Now before you start referring to me as Captain Optimism (I would probably find that flattering, I could go by Captain O, for short…never mind, that sounds like a SNL skit), I do believe a healthy dose of reality is good for children when placed in the proper context. However, when talking to young people about their hopes and dreams, we must understand the weight our words carry.

I am probably more sensitive to this type of stuff because I was labeled by educational leaders as an “at risk youth” and was told more times than I can remember that I need a “back up plan” if and when I failed to achieve my dreams. I still remember standing in front of my 4th grade class being told by the teacher that “professional athlete” was not a realistic vocation to choose for the upcoming career report because only a gifted few make it that far.

Here I was, a latchkey kid who was struggling in school, my parents were going through an ugly divorce, my older brother had just ran away from home, and I was surrounded by adults who wanted to teach me about “realism.” Being that I walked by drug dealers and sex workers on my way to an empty apartment, only to boil some Top Ramen for myself for dinner, I think I had “realism” figured out.

I served myself a healthy dose of “reality” every night. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

The ONLY thing I had in my life was baseball; I did not understand why the adults in my life were not leveraging my enthusiasm for this game which gave me purpose. Instead, they treated it as a negotiation tool. I know they all had my best interests in mind, and I am sure this elected official had noble intentions as well. However, if we are going to have a shot of preparing our young people for the complex global issues that await them, we need to think critically about the language we use.

3 Practical Approaches to Positively Influencing Youth in High Risk Situations. 

See what I did there?

You are not dealing with “high risk” children. It pisses them off when they hear that…good luck earning your way into their circle of trust with that mindset! 

You are serving children dealing with “high risk situations,” often times due to circumstances outside of their control.

1. Get Out of Your Own Way

We all drag baggage into relationships, and it is easier to identify to those with whom we have the most in common. In the professional world, business leaders regularly hire themselves even when research shows that it hurts the company’s bottom line. There is also plenty of research that demonstrates that educators struggle at remaining objective when dealing with students who may not share the same ethnicity, race, or gender. Think for a moment: how much easier it is for you to invest energy into children who you can relate to? Developing a meaningful relationship with those children comes pretty naturally, doesn’t it? That is why we must be extra vigilant when working with children with whom we have the least in common. Most of our baggage lies with our preconceived notions.

Mark Twain famously stated, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

I had a childhood friend (we will call him Raymond) who was labeled as an “at risk youth” by most of the adults in his life because he spent time in the juvenile detention center for assault with a deadly weapon. That tends to be a turn off for most people.

(Trigger Warning: this story describes an incident of domestic violence.)

Now, Raymond had a heart of gold and the system failed him miserably. Raymond’s father was a functioning alcoholic who would beat Raymond’s mother when he would drink too much. When Raymond got older he was put in a position no 14 year old should ever be in and was forced into survival mode. Raymond hit his dad with a baseball bat across the head in an effort to stop him from beating his mother to death. When the police arrived, Raymond’s mother told the authorities that Raymond attacked them both.  She did this in order to protect him from his father. She felt that he was safer in jail than at home, and she kept him there as long as she could while she figured out how she was going to move away from her husband.

There was not one educator that was aware of that story because they failed to put forth the effort to earn his trust and fully unleash Raymond’s brilliance. It was more convenient to see him as a “troubled teen” that just needed to be managed.

There is incredible power in seeing someone as who they are capable of becoming rather than fixating on where they currently are.

Try to remember that the only thing that children in high risk situations have an abundance of is criticism, negativity, and “realism.”

2. Strategically Invest Your Focus 

We can not control the result of our efforts, but we can control our approach. We live in a distracted world, and the demands placed on us make for plenty of communication with little connection.

Empathy fuels meaningful connection and it is developed through one’s ability to control their focus. Children in high risk situations will never receive the amount of love and attention they need or deserve. Think of the last truly meaningful social interaction you experienced. It happened because all parties involved fully invested their focus. You probably left that interaction feeling really good about yourself, you felt understood and a part of something. The key to experiencing more interactions like that is by investing the full force of your focus on others.

Ask meaningful questions and listen without the intent of responding.

Worry less about having to have all the answers and dial into the non-verbal energy being exchanged.

Try and feel what the other person is feeling.

Try and think how the other person is thinking.

Remember that people are not necessarily going to recall what you said but they will never forget how you made them feel.

Be deliberate and schedule these full focus sessions.

You will find that these focus sessions are like dropping Inspirational Bliss into people’s lives that actually recharge you in the process. For more tips on how to give your empathy a boost by strengthening your ability to focus, check out this article.

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

3.Leverage the Power of Strength-Based Leadership & Mentorship 

When we honor the virtues of others, people will invest their time into to sharing them. When we shame others for their shortcomings, people will invest their time into hiding them.

We were not created to be perfect, we were created to be whole. When you create an environment where children in high risk situations can bring their whole self to the interaction, you are creating a safe space that they rarely get to experience.

Much More is Caught Than Taught

Chances are that you are not surrounded by a support network that celebrates your strengths. There is probably no shortage of people in your life willing to point out your shortcomings. I bring this up because life has a way of beating us down and challenging our ability to keep a positive mindset. Self care is critical to sustaining the focus and attitude required to deploy a strength based approach to mentoring.

Children in high risk situations have a sixth sense when it comes to measuring authenticity. You can not b.s. your way through their defense mechanisms. They need to hear and feel that you are happy to see them, that they matter, and that you believe in them. Therefore, it is critical that you recognize and celebrate your own strengths and virtues in a manner that promotes a positive self image.

I am guessing that you chose to become an educator to in some way push humankind forward and improve the human experience for others. Children in high risk situations need invested mentors more than you can possibly understand.

You may not be able to help them all graduate or succeed in school, but if you engage them, believe in them, and celebrate them for who they are and what they can become, you will have improved their existence and they will always remember your influence.


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