Stephen Sroka

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

"Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all." —Aristotle

Many at-risk students in schools are crying out for help with their real-life issues, 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 grade-point averages and not people. And many students tune out and drop out, literally or figuratively. What do our at-risk students need? 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 dialogue with at-risk youth. In these diverse settings, I have asked students for suggestions on how we can 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 grade-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 that include 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 out 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 affect 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 American student sent me an e-mail 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 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 Fs" and the "3 Hs." 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 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 in Cleveland, Ohio, and 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

Comments (9)

kwesi rollins

February 26, 2014

Really great insights.  Thanks for this article.  Love the quotes from Aristotle to Tupac.  Awesome!

Kristi in Colorado

February 26, 2014

Thank you Dr. Steve for a great reminder of why we do what we do each day. By removing the barriers to education, learning becomes embraced and celebrated. When a student is hungry, bored, abused, or worse, how can we imagine that they value completing algebra, swimming in PE, or any of the other rote responsibilities of a fully engaged student?
Everyone should take this list and remind themselves each day of what students need to succeed! Let’s start with beginning school later in the day once the teenage mind wakes up!

Dr. Louise Eggert-Nevins, Ed.D.

February 27, 2014

I commend you for your life work. Being an educator/administrator for a few decades of my life it’s refreshing to see a fellow colleague contribute “The Whole Child Blog” which should be common place in the life of every child, yet seems to be so elusive in best practice. To the heart of the matter, what makes an effective teacher is an understanding that “If you can’t relate, nothing else really matters, no matter how much you know”. I recommend a good read “From the Barrio to the Boardroom” by Robert Renteria who is at the present engaged in many communities, particularly in high-need schools. as his story resonates hope and the value of education to at-risk youth.
Dr. Louise M. Eggert-Nevins

David Zulkoskey

February 28, 2014

Passionate teachers truly see teaching as a vocation and therefore exude empathy and commitment to their students and their craft. It is a sad commentary on the teaching profession that we must continually advocate for compassion in teachers. In theory, is this not what all good teachers should employ in their personality and their daily work lives? Have we as a society, literally lost the ability to be kind, to care and to advocate for our students? The article is excellent as it points out what we need to use in our daily work. My concern, however, is that as educational systems continually expand and the focus moves primarily to data that we will lose sight on the real centre of education - the student. These are the leaders of tomorrow and not a piece of data that can be easily misinterpreted. The world is changing and we in many ways are losing the ability to connect with people, now is the time to really focus on education. Global and societal change is good but it must be tempered with a sensitivity for all people and we as educators can make a difference and make this world dynamic and wonderful for all.

Joan Immerman

March 2, 2014

Thanks for the insightful article.  I, too, have been in education quite a long time.
I, too, am concerned on the amount of time spent on testing and the move away from educating the whole child to emphasis on academic achievement.  It scares me.If parents are too busy to teach life skills and teachers are too busy :getting in all the material for the test”, then… Who is teaching our children ?  Educational systems have adopted the business /corporate model with it’s emphasis on data and production but we are not dealing with products, but human beings.

Bibiana Deshi

March 4, 2014

An insightful and a thought-provoking thesis. The issues you’ve raised are central to an effective education system. Thanks for sharing.

Tracy Cullinan

March 14, 2014

If only more teachers thought this way!  So many think that delivering content is “teaching”.  Yet teaching does not happen unless learning happens!  For students to learn they must be engaged.  To be engaged they must feel some connection to the content - the first step to this is a connection to the teacher!  And so the cycle continues

Bobby Avalos

August 23, 2014

thank you for this awesome feedback, the 3F’s and 3 H’s. I could not agree more. I am just starting my credential, but teaching Dance at the same time. I see so much, with our at Risk youth, so it is true that teaching with Kindness is what our students will remember. b.


October 18, 2014

Great article. I enjoy making a difference in children’s life. This is the reason I am following my dream to teach after 25 years in the corporate world.

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