What does “At-Risk” Mean? “At-Risk” for what?

The term “at-risk” is used to identify children who, without support or assistance, will likely experience a negative school outcome. In other words, “at-risk” children are “at-risk” for struggling at school and getting overlooked or neglected by the educational system. This is because “at-risk” children possess one or more risk factors, which fall into one of three categories:

Academic Risk Factors: school-related factors such as negative school climate, lack of resources (physical and/or human), giftedness, learning disabilities without identification or support, no regard for differnet learning styles, etc.

Social Risk Factors: These can include living in poverty or low SES areas, community characteristics (e.g., crime, low expectation levels), gap between home and school, minority status, and many other social factors.

Personal Risk Factors: Examples are disabilities, chronic illnesses (mental or physical), bereavement, lack of home support, abuse, etc.

The more risk factors a student has, the more likely it is for him or her to have a poor educational outcome.  That being said, it is important to remember that being “at-risk” does not guarantee that a child will struggle in the future; it simply means that he or she may ecounter difficulty if help is not received. This help usually comes in the form of protective factors which help to mitigate a child’s risk factors. Examples of protective factors include: resilience, positive and strong adult role models, positive and supportive school climates, guidance and counselling, providing choice, personal attention from teachers, and many, many more. “At-risk” students (or “children of promise”) with a sufficient amount of protective factors are therefore more likely to overcome their challenging circumstances and experience a more positive future outcome.

How else can I incoroporate the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model?

Aside from the GRR model itself, there are a number of related techniques that you can use in the classroom, as you assume the role of the More Knowledeable Other. They include:

Scaffolding: This is a crucial componet in helping students develop more responsibility for their learning. It involves starting off with simple tasks, modelling each phase of the learning process, and breaking larger tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks.

Materialization: This strategy can be thought of as using physical objects to help faciliate and solidify student learning. I saw this tactic used VERY frequently in my Kindergarten practicum, and perhaps one of the most common examples of materialization is the use of manipulatives in Math lessons. In my own experiences, I have found that manipulatives are great for any age group, because they allow children to visualize the concepts that you are teaching them, and being able to see, touch, and explore the materials themselves allows for deeper experiential learning.

Private Speech: In the final stages of the GRR model, this takes the form of frequently monitoring one’s own learning through the use of mental directions, monitoring porgress, and self-coaching during difficult tasks. As adults, we do this instinctively, but younger children must be taught this skill explicitly, primarily through the use of think-alouds. During a think-aloud, teachers verbally model the types of phrases that indpendent learners say to themselves, and the sorts of tricks and techniques that they use so that over time, the students begin to build this capacity as well.


Some Self-Determination Theory-Inspired Teaching Tactics

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned in other posts, it can be hard to picture a theory being used in the classroom simply by reading about it. One of the many aspects of my At-Risk concentration courses that I appreciated the most is the fact that we were equipped with a variety of strategies to apply each of our discussed theories to our own teaching. The following is a list of strageies related to Self-Determination Theory (SDT):

Conferences with students: To me, any teacher looking to use SDT in the classroom should use this technique as a starting point. This is simply because by holding an individual meeting/conference with a struggling student, it is much easier to tell exactly what the problem at-hand is, and what it is likely stemming from (i.e., is it a lack of autonomy, competence, relatedness, or a combination of the three?).

Be human: This technique can indirectly strengthen students’ sense of competence? Why? Being human and owning your mistakes shows your students that everyone is imperfect, and that mistakes are an acceptable (and oftentimes necessary) part of the learning process.

Circle Process: By now, I’ve sung the praises of circle process a LOT. But in addition to a great classroom management technique and instructional approach, circles can be a perfect opportunity for your class to increase their feelings of relatedness. They allow everyone to be seen at once, and to take turns sharing their opinions. This establishes a strong sense of respect and community amongst students over time, and it gives them the sense that what they have to say is both valuable and important.

Co-creating Assignments: This tactic specifically targets students’ autonomy, because by creating assignments and other assessment tasks collaboratively, you are essentially relinquishing a small amount of your control as a teacher, and giving your students the feeling that they have a say in their academic lives. It is also a great idea because it allows the children to be accountable for their own learning and performance, and it can also decrease some of the stress that tends to surround summative assessments.

Awesome Art Ideas: What Worked Well during my Practicum

Although I would not describe myself as a Visual Arts expert by any means, this past practicum block allowed me to become more confident in my abilities to teach Art to a group of students. My Associate Teacher and I decided that it would be fun to integrate Visual Arts with the 4 elements poetry that the kids were working on, and gave me complete creative freedom with my lessons. Essentially, I could lead any Art activity that I wanted to with the class, so long as each student’s work was depicting one of the 4 elements. As a whole, this teaching experience was incredibly rewarding– I watched in awe as the class became engrossed in their projects, and created artwork of a quality far beyond any expectations that I had for them. It was awesome, and I am so happy that I was given this opportunity during my placement. Here are a few of the ideas that I found worked especially well with the Grade 6s and 7s:

Ripped Paper: While this option was not as popular as I thought it would be, the kids were definitely intrigued by it. Ripped Paper art can be used with any age level, and it simply involves creating a rough sketch, and filling in the outline with small pieces of ripped up construction or tissue paper.

Pointillism: This was by far the class’s favourite! Pointillism is a style of painting invented by French Impressionist painter, Georges Seurat. It involves creating images using nothing but tiny dots, which I had my students do through a combination of Q-tips and acrylic paint.

Pastel Silhouette Art: This one was another big hit, and it was the first Art activity that I presented to my students. Each one was given the freedom to create an abstract background using various colours of pastels, and later cut a silhouette out of black construction paper to glue over top, giving the piece a shadow-like effect.

Graffiti Art: As a final Art project, I asked the class to depict one of the 4 elements using graffiti-style artwork in the medium of their choice. Some used pastels to create the desired effect, some used paint, and all of the students came up with something unique. Although many of them were slightly disappointed that the school did not have access to spray paint in order to create authentic graffiti, many of my placement students enjoyed this Art activity, and one even called it “cool,” thus giving me a large boost to my ego as a student teacher.

Mindset and Resilience: Some Strategies to try with Students

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, Resiliency Theory and Carol Dweck’s work on Mindset has really resonated with me as a future educator. I believe wholeheartedly that resiliency is one of the key ingredients in overcoming any risk factor, and teachers can play a significant role in helping children to develop this trait over time. Knowing how to go about doing so however, is not always so easy, so I’ve compiled a list of my favourite classroom applications of Mindset and Resiliency Theory, as discussed in my At-Risk concentration course:

  • Place emphasis on strengths: No matter the student, always keep your attention primarily on what he or she CAN do, rather than what he or she CANNOT do. Doing this both implicitly and explicitly will eventually help children to develop a higher level of self-efficacy, confidence, and resilience, because it allows them to see themselves as talented and capable individuals.


  • Create a safe and inclusive space: While this is certainly not an overnight process, it can be one of a teacher’s greatest tools in helping children become resilient. This is because inclusive, welcoming, respectful classrooms in which every child feels cared for, loved, and valued as individuals provide a safe space for both academic and personal growth. They give students a haven in which they are free to be their true selves, and this in turn provides the emotional support that they will need to overcome life’s obstacles.


  • Learn something new: This technique is aimed at helping kids to unpack their definitions of “intelligence,” and shift their focus from doing everything correctly, to growing as learners and making mistakes along the way. In my curriculum course for Mathematics, I experienced this technique first-hand when I was given the task of learning a new skill that incorporated Mathematics in some way. I chose latch hooking (or rug hooking), and found the experience of stepping back into the shoes of the learner incredibly useful and eye-opening. I think a great idea would be to choose a new skill to learn as an entire class, and to experience each phase of the learning process alongside your students, in order to demonstrate to them the importance of frustration, setbacks, mistakes, and perseverance  in achieving our goals.


  • Model Learning Goals: One of the main ways that I incorporated this strategy in my practicum classes was through the use of anchor charts, which I introduced to the class at the start of a new unit, and kept on display in the classroom during work periods. To me, learning goals help students to develop a growth mindset because they focus on individual improvement, knowledge building, and skill development, not on achievement or grades. In order to be successful, learning goals must focus on specific skills, be written in student-friendly language, and make use of “I” or “we” statements. For example, the learning goal for my recent Grade 6/7 Poetry unit was “We are learning to write different types of poetry about topics that are related to one of the four elements (Water, Air, Earth, Fire).” I then expanded on this learning goal with the following success criteria: “The language in my poem uses the 5 senses to help my reader make mental pictures,” “I have used detail and descriptive, creative writing to make my poem sound interesting,” and “my poem is my best possible work.” I chose these criteria because they gave my placement students a goal to focus on, without having them become pre-occupied with a mark. Instead, I wanted them to put their attention towards reaching their potential as writers, and developing new skills along the way.


  • Give Praise for Effort: As teachers, it can be easy to fall into the trap of citing ability as the reason for our students’ achievement. But well-intended compliments such as “You’re so smart!” or “Great job– you’re really good at [insert skill or subject area here]!” can potentially backfire because they cause children to develop a fixed mindset about themselves and their successes. Instead, it is often more effective to praise children for their hard work and effort, and expressing genuine pride and excitement when they persevere during a more difficult task. This will let students know that they are capable of improvement, and it also makes them more likely to respond positively to challenges.

Using Self-Regulated Learning Theory in the Classroom

In my opinion, one of the most helpful components of my At-Risk concentration courses were our discussions of theory-related teaching strategies. While I do find educational theory to be incredibly interesting (and I can see the merits in many of them), I personally find it more useful to not discuss a variety of theoretical perspectives, but to bring these ideas to life and apply them to the classroom as well. With regard to Self-Regulated Learning Theory (SRL), there are a wide variety of things that we as teachers can do to help children to develop the skills that are needed in order to monitor their own progress at school.

First of all, one of the main ways to apply SRL to the classroom is through consistent modeling of self-regulatory skills. This is especially true for younger children, who need to receive explicit instruction in order to develop these capacities in themselves. At any grade level though, I would be sure to model self-regulatory skills for my students, and discuss the strategies that I use to keep myself on-task throughout the day. On a similar note, it has been shown that students benefit from the use of frequent check-ins (self and teacher), discussions which isolate certain skills and learning strategies, think-alouds, and the use of anchor charts listing learning goals and success criteria. Another helpful SRL-related strategy is teaching your students about the value of metacognition. I was first introduced to this concept by my Grade 10 English teacher, Mr. Richard, who to this day is still one of my favourites. He explained metacognition in a way that was incredibly straightforward and easy-to-understand, because he told us that it was simply the practice of “thinking about thinking.” In other words, metacognition can be practiced by pausing to think consciously about our own thinking patterns, and the strategies that work best for us as learners. This information was a game-changer for me, and as a student, it helped me to become more self-aware and efficient at keeping my learning and productivity in check. I can definitely see myself using these techniques with my students, regardless of the grade level I end up teaching.



Some Poetry Ideas: My Favourite Lessons from Practicum

Out of everything I had an opportunity to teach over my Winter practicum block, some of my favourite (and most successful!) lessons were my Literacy lessons which incorporated aspects of the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model. In the first half of my placement, my Associate Teacher asked if I could start a Poetry Writing unit with the kids, and I jumped at the chance to do so. I have been writing my own poetry since I was 11 years old, and I couldn’t wait to share my enthusiasm with this class. I was given a set of amazing Poetry resources that my Associate Teacher had used in past years, and a theme to work with (the 4 elements: air, water, fire and earth). Eventually, I began introducing different forms of poetry and writing techniques, and having my placement students use them to write about an element-related topic.

After an introductory lesson and a baseline assessment, my host teacher and I decided it was time to help the students to refine their skills and begin adding more detail, description, and creativity to their poems. After a little bit of digging and some brainstorming, I found an amazing idea from the book that I had been allowed to borrow (It’s called Teaching Poetry: Yes You Can! (Grades 4-8) by Jacqueline Sweeney, and I would HIGHLY recommend it. Seriously. It’s absolutely wonderful!), and put the GRR model to work.

First, I haad a discussion with the whole group about ways to make our writing more creative. I introduced them to the idea of a “Like What?” poem, and read them a few examples from the book (as somewhat of an “I do, you watch” activity). The general idea of a “Like What?” poem is to create a short, rather free verse poem using language that is highly descriptive, and which appeals to the readers’ five senses. I provided the following list as a reminder on the whiteboard, and as a handout for those students who wanted their own copy:

  • Sounds like…
  • Tastes like…
  • Smells like…
  • Feels like… (what is its TEXTURE?)
  • Looks like…
  • Moves like…

When we had a chance to review the list, I prepared a large sheet of chart paper, and had the students collaborate as a whole group to write a class poem about the colour red. This portion of the lesson was by far my favourite, and while it took longer than I expected it to (meaning that the “You do together” and “You do alone” ended up being separate lessons), I was very impressed with the quality of the kids’ ideas, and with the direction that the unit was starting to go in. After we finished the “Red” poem, both my Associate Teacher and I were genuinely excited, and it strengthened my confidence in the merits of the GRR model as a classroom teaching strategy. Below is the poem that the Grade 6s and 7s wrote together:


Red sounds like anger and a crackling fire.

Red tastes like cherries, strawberries, apples, raspberries, and spicy peppers.

Red feels like rug burn, heat from a flame, frost burn, a soft rose, pain and velvet.

Red looks like blood, guts, snappers, a hot scarlet sunset, a piranha’s eyes, and firetrucks.

Red smells like Dorritos, ketchup, tomato soup, spaghetti sauce, paint, and tacos with hot salsa.

Red moves like fire, blood in a gutter, oozing lava, and like you’re gasping for air!

The Gradual Release of Responsibility Model: A Brief Overview

The core idea behind the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model (GRR) is that responsibility for learning is relinquished to students in smaller increments over a period of time. The process of GRR usually begins with teacher modelling sessions (“I do, you watch”), followed by a joint effort between teachers and their students (“We do together”). Then, the teacher allows students to attempt the learning task at hand, working in pairs or small groups (“You do it together”), until they are eventually able to perform the task independently, or with very minimal support (“You do alone”).
As discussed in a recent course lecture, there are several key concepts associated with the GRR model. The first of these is called the zone of proximal development, or the area that exists between tasks that students cannot do, and tasks that they can already perform on their own. In other words, tasks in the zone of proximal development are those tasks that students will be able to perform if they receive guidance from a more knowledgeable other (an individual with a bank of prior knowledge or experience about the activity in question).

In my opinion, the GRR model is a fantastic way to approach teaching, and it can be effective with students of any age level. I’ve seen it used to help Kindergarteners develop fundamental social and academic skills, and I’ve felt its effects first-hand as a student in Teachers College. My instructors have used GRR theory in several different classes, and it always makes me feel more confident in my individual abilities when I leave to complete an assignment on my own. I’ve even used it with my own placement students, and so far, my most successful lessons have been those which make the most use of the model. I’ll be posting some more about this topic under “Classroom Resources” soon, so stay tuned!

Collaborative Problem Solving in a Nutshell

The general principle of Dr. Ross Greene’s Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) theory is simple, but very powerful: “kids do well if they can.” In other words, all children are eager to learn and capable of academic greatness, assuming that there are appropriate resources and support systems available. In many cases, at-risk students, or children of promise, do not have these supports in place. This means that in order to arrive at a solution, teachers must be able to identify their own role in the problem, and work with the student(s) in question to change any negative behaviour that is being exhibited.

Dr. Greene also sees the root of most challenging behaviours at school as a set of what he calls “lagging skills” in problem solving, frustration tolerance, flexibility, and adaptability. One of the central strategies he suggests is the use of discussions/conferences with students in order for both parties to voice their concerns and brainstorm potential solutions. As I mentioned in a previous reflective post, my own experiences with CPS theory have so far been very successful, and I believe wholeheartedly in its merits as a teaching practice. While I could usually sense when it would be beneficial to try my hand at CPS, and when I shouldn’t intervene, there were a handful of instances when I found it challenging to gauge which strategy would be more effective. I know that as a new teacher, this skill will become more and more intuitive over the course of my career, and I am definitely going to continue applying Dr. Greene’s theory to my own teaching.

Carol Dweck and Mindset Theory

Out of all of the theoretical perspectives we have covered in my At-Risk concentration courses, my favourite has to be Resilience and Mindset Theory. The term “resilience” is the ability to adapt to challenging circumstances in one’s life, and referring to one’s self as an individual who is capable of overcoming adversity. Supporters of resilience theory have stated that resilient individuals are a product of a complex relationship between nature (i.e., traits that are inherited at birth) and nurture ( the environment one lives in as well as the availability of certain resources and supports). It is important to note, however, that resilience  must be built up over long periods of time. If at-risk students are able to find and maintain a resilient attitude towards life, they are more likely to overcome their unique risk factors more successfully. Resilient individuals can also be referred to as having “grit,” or a drive and ability to persevere despite the challenges presented to them.

Carol Dweck’s mindset theory goes hand-in-hand with resilience. A “mindset” is a cognitive network of beliefs that is formed primarily by one’s views regarding three different subjects:
1) Implicit theories of Intelligence: Is intelligence a fixed trait that we are born with, or can it grow with time and effort?
2) Effort vs. Ability: Is performance determined by how hard one works, or how “good” one is at a certain task?
3) Learning vs. Performance Goals: Is success during a task more important (e.g., a high grade), or is the learning process?

According to Dweck, one’s answers  will determine the type of mindset that he or she has. Those with a fixed mindset tend to view intelligence as an unchangeable trait, value talent over effort, and focus primarily on performance instead of on learning goals. Individuals with a growth mindset hold exactly the opposite views. They believe that one’s intelligence level can be developed over time, that performance is determined primarily by effort, and that learning new lessons and skills are more important than achieving a successful outcome. As someone who was very blessed to have had strong adult role models (who helped me to become incredibly resilient) growing up, I am passionate about providing then same type of support to my own students, and to help them begin to form growth mindsets. Below I have linked the video of Carol Dweck’s TED talk, as well as a presentation about “grit,” which was shown in my Teaching At-Risk course (and which I found VERY intriguing!):