In the late 80s and early 90s, I led a campus-based program for middle school students at-risk of dropping out of school. The residential summer program engaged 60 to 70 students in academic classes, work skill development, employment, recreation and service activities.
The program was challenging for students, our staff of university students, teachers, counselors and our leadership team. Many of the students did not want to spend their summer away from friends and family on a college campus 80 – 150 miles from their hometown; and taking classes in math and language arts was not their first choice of summer activities.
During our orientations in their communities, we explained to the students and their families about the program and our focus on ensuring students understood the connection of school to employment opportunities and the need to stay in school and graduate. Of course, students’ success would not be measured for several years as they progressed and succeeded in school. The success of our program was based on students moving from risk to resiliency through motivational and educational strategies and programming.
Most of the students did not understand the concept of “at-risk” and when it was mentioned in news articles about our program it was a phrase foreign to them. During one group meeting as I asked, “What questions do you have of me?” One of the students asked me to explain what in the world at-risk means and why are we (program participants) labeled at-risk? You see what I get when I offer these prompts, a courageous student asking for clarity about a label she had but not knowing why, what or how it came about. As you can imagine, her question was followed with almost every student saying they needed that answer as well.
As I explained the concept of at-risk, shared indicators and characteristics of individuals most at-risk and identified the consequences of dropping out they agreed that none of them wanted to be labeled at-risk and that they would do all they could to reverse those negative predictions.
That conversation led us to talk about the opposite of at-risk and what characteristics, talents, gifts and strengths each of them had they could build on to stay in school and be successful in life. Many mentioned their sports abilities, others their skills in nurturing others (younger and older) in their families, artistic talents were mentioned by many, some talked about their ability to lead others and several said they could not identify a specific talent or gift that evening but would get back to the group as they thought more about their abilities. Actually, the latter group members indicated they welcomed other student’s suggestions of the talents that they saw in them.
Fast forward to 2011 as I engaged with special and general education students through Special Olympics’ Project UNIFY (a school-based inclusive leadership, sports, and school climate national initiative) and in partnership with GALLUP assisted students and adults to identify their individual strengths and complementary team building. It was a joy to hear students identify and explain their top three or five strengths and how they use them to “get things done,” collaborate with others and solve problems. Talk about a shift in perspective, from an individual feeling incapable with low expectations to knowing they were capable and that they and others should have high expectations of them.
I am sure each of us feels at-risk at times, just a bit shy of full ability to accomplish something and not knowing what contributions we can make to groups. So, the designation at-risk is not just for students with characteristics too often leading to dropping out of school but for all of us to some degree at-risk of failing to meet expectations or fulfill an obligation.
My experience, in the two examples above and several others, when I was younger and now as an adult, lead me to believe a focus on our strengths offers a better path to progress and success than a focus on “at-riskness.” Using a sense of at-risk to motivate us to do better can be a good strategy but why not begin with at-strength and build from our positive attributes to increase our knowledge, skills and dispositions individually and within the groups we engage?