Getting to the Heart of Education- Listening to the Whole At-Risk Student

Posted by on March 3, 2014

My long-time friend, colleague, and former co-worker, Dr. Steve Sroka, shares how to retain, engage, challenge, support, and educate all students:

Getting to the Heart of Education- Listening to the Whole At-Risk Student

By Stephen Sroka

Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all……  Aristotle

Many at-risk students in schools are crying for help with their real life issues, and yet many educators respond with an emphasis on academic proficiency skills. With today’s stress on academic achievement at all costs with little regard for the mental, social, physical, emotional or spiritual aspects of the whole student, many teachers teach tests and not students. Students become point averages and not people. And many students tune out and drop out literally or figuratively. What do our at-risk students want? What can you do to make a difference?

Teaching across the country, from the poor inner cities to the rich suburbs and on isolated reservations, I have had the opportunity to dialog with at-risk youth. I have asked the students for suggestions on how we may reach and teach the whole at-risk student. Students shared their thoughts, reproduced below, on how to retain, engage, challenge, support, and educate all students.

What problems would you remove from your school?

  • Apathy of teachers and students
  • Not being challenged
  • Not feeling welcomed
  • Bullying and fighting
  • Discrimination
  • Boring classes
  • Standardized lessons, standardized tests, and standardized lunches
  • Grades, and testing as a way of ranking students
  • Drugs and alcohol
  • Early morning classes

What are the qualities of effective teachers?

  • They have a passion for the content and the students they teach. They make the classroom come alive. They don’t just say, “It’s in the book.”
  • They use humor that doesn’t hurt.
  • They are nonjudgmental. They let kids know their opinions are welcomed and respected.
  • They are outgoing, understanding, and not intimidating, and you can confide in them.
  • They see you as a person and not as a point average.

What top qualities would you want in your school?

  • Supportive teachers that students can connect with.
  • Knowing you’re there to learn, and there are no outside or internal threats.
  • Healthy lunches and snacks.
  • Being free to speak your mind and being respected.
  • A clean, safe and welcoming environment.
  • Positive discipline.
  • Teaching for understanding, not memory.
  • Creativity that is valued and encouraged.
  • Extracurricular activities- sports, music, art, clubs, dances, field trips, service learning, and other things to do besides boring schoolwork.

There’s no way I could pay you back, but my plan is to show you that I understand, you are appreciated……Tupac Shakur

After listening to the students tell me what they thought, and teaching for 30 years and researching adolescents and learning, I respectfully offer these observations on how to get to the heart of education for the whole at-risk youth.

  1. If students are not learning the way we are teaching, we must teach the way that they learn. Do all students learn the same? Of course not, so why do we teach and test them all the same? Are all students gifted? Of course they are, but some just open their boxes a little later. All students have different learning styles, so teaching should be tailored to involve all students in activities that are interesting, fun, insightful, useful, and let them explore their creativity, reflect on their life, and develop relevant life skills that utilize all of their multiple intelligences. Every student needs an individualized education program. There is no one right way to teach all students.
  2. At-risk students are crying for help and we punish them. Many students, who put themselves at-risk with sex, drugs, and violence behaviors, are crying for help. But today, rather than try to help them, we punish them. Why do we incarcerate, when we need to rehabilitate? What good is it that a student can pass a proficiency test and not a reality test? At-risk students need life skills to prevent risky behaviors, and interventions to help them overcome problems, which impact their ability to learn more and live better, safe and drug free. Treatment makes a difference. Recovery makes a life.
  3. Some at-risk students are invisible. Some at-risk students do not speak up or act up: they just shut up. They live in the poor ghettoes and in the rich suburbs. In fact, many at-risk youth live in the suburbs hiding behind their fences, lawns and lawyers. One Native student sent me an email after I spoke on her reservation. It read, “You must be the voice for kids like me, who do not have the strength to cry for help.”  What you see, may not be what you get, with some at-risk students.
  4. If you can’t relate, nothing else really matters, no matter how much you know. Teaching is about relationships. To get to the head you must go through the heart. As most effective teachers know, students don’t care what you teach, if you don’t teach that you care. Positive relationships help build positive students and better school climate. Relationships help keep our youth safe and healthy so they can learn more and live better. Little words and little deeds help build strong relationships and make big differences and change lives. You can help build relationships by addressing the four challenges of communication, collaboration, cultural awareness and caring. You cannot give a kid a wake-up call in a foreign language. You can’t do it alone. You need to be sensitive to the culture. Caring is crucial. If you can’t relate, everything you do is much harder.
  5. We tend to treat symptoms and not the source of problems, which is often about mental health. We frequently try to address problems by treating the behaviors and not the causes. For instance, to teach about bullying behaviors (and to set up rules to stop it) without dealing with the underlying mental health issues, is like putting a bandage on a cancer. You cover up the problem and it looks good, but the problem is still festering. As we often see with destructive risk behaviors, like sex, drugs and violence, hurt people, hurt people. The use of mental health professionals, such as, school counselors, school social workers, school nurses, school psychologists, as well as, school resource officers, may enable us to help people, help people.
  6. At-risk students need the 3 F’s and the 3 H’s. There are no easy answers, only intelligent alternatives to help our at-risk youth learn and live. Research suggests that students need a family who loves them, even if it is not a biological family; friends, who will pull them up, not down; and faith, a moral compass, a sense of right and wrong. My experiences suggest that students crave honesty, enjoy sensitive humor, and want hope.
  7. Facts are forgotten, but feelings last forever. I retired after teaching for 30 years in the inner city. When some of my former students gathered to honor me, I asked them what did they remember about me ‘back in the day?’ Was it the time I jumped up on the desk and took off my shoes to teach the bones of the feet, or the community projects in the ghetto in which we participated during summer breaks? One Hispanic student piped up and said, “We forgot most everything you said, and the many of the things we did, but we never forgot the way you made us feel.” In the end for many students, kindness, not content or curriculum is what they remember. Isn’t it interesting that once you get to their heart, you can teach your content and curriculum, but that may not be what they remember? 

You can make a difference. I believe that education is one of the most powerful tools we have to help build resilient at-risk youth today. I believe that the efforts of one person can make this a better world. This is why I teach. I can make a difference, and so can you. Our at-risk students are speaking. Are you listening?

© 2014 Stephen R. Sroka, PhD, Lakewood, Ohio. Used with permission.

Stephen Sroka, PhD, is an adjunct assistant professor at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and the president of Health Education Consultants. He is an award-winning educator, author and internationally recognized speaker. He has worked with at-risk youth issues worldwide for more than 30 years. Connect with Sroka on his website or by e-mail at

Ken Trump

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3 thoughts on “Getting to the Heart of Education- Listening to the Whole At-Risk Student

  1. Thank you Ken, for starting this kind of examination of what is occurring in schools and with our children. It is the only way to start mitigating a disastrous mixture of uncontrolled social media, deteriorating education and the way our children are not learning how to deal with each other, society and learning. I agree that treating the symptoms of social strife will not solve it and we need to examine what is going within families and schools to be able to address the complex issues of today. Mr. Sroka’s list of questions and answers with students is very revealing and shows we are not addressing most of them. This was a great article to read.

    1. Ken Trump says:

      Thanks, John. Your deeper perspectives and comments are always appreciated!

  2. Chuck Hibbert says:

    Comprehensive, means just that. Total look at school safety. A best practice.

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