Catching Up At-Risk Students: How Do You Move Them Forward Quickly and Effectively?

catching up at kids and at-risk students

Schools and school districts know the importance of communicating a shared vision of success for their students, staff, and community. This vision often focuses on the idea of preparing students for their future. But what happens to that future when students struggle, year after year, and fall continuously behind? How do we teach “at-risk” learners so that they too can be prepared for the future? 

How Do Exemplary School Leaders Support At-Risk Students?

Today, we recognize that students are entering school with greater needs that require definitive skills from teachers, which means that school leaders must be able to accurately assess those needs and provide the necessary professional development for teachers so they may meet them in a timely manner. Most exemplary leaders have accomplished this by giving their teachers professional development in Acceleration strategies that “Catch Kids Up”. 

These strategies include Previewing, Scaffolding, and Differentiated Assignments. This article is addressing the first of these strategies, Previewing, and how it is connected with other research-based learning strategies, such as: 

  • vocabulary instruction
  • advance organizers
  • activating thinking

These strategies work together to build students’ self-efficacy and self-esteem, as opposed to relying on remediation to overcome learning loss and close achievement gaps. 

Why Does Remediation Alone Not Work? 

Most classrooms have students with a wide range of knowledge and skills. The range typically goes from struggling students to high-performing students, with everything in between. Teachers often “teach to the middle” and then try to provide support to the upper and lower ends of the range when possible. Often, remediation or review is provided to the struggling students, while the higher-performing students are left to their own devices. But clearly, in most schools, there is not a systematic method for catching struggling students up so they are consistently learning grade level content and concepts when their peers are getting it.

For many years, schools have relied on remediation to close learning gaps and increase students’ achievement. However, remediation alone does not work and is not sufficient for catching struggling students up to grade level for a number of reasons:

  • Remediation causes students to go backward in the curriculum.
  • The longer students are in a traditional remediation program, the further they fall below grade level.
  • Traditional remediation programs are dependent on students first having to fail to learn before getting learning support.
  • Remediation consistently produces negative effects on self-esteem and motivation.
  • It is nearly impossible to go backward and remediate what was not learned, and at the same time, to catch up.
  • Struggling students consistently experience trouble learning because of the continuous stopping and restarting of concepts and skills.

How is Previewing An Intervention For At-Risk Students?

previewing intervention example

Schools cannot rely solely on remediation to close the achievement gaps of students that are potentially one, two, or even three grades below grade level. Exemplary Schools have learned to shift their instructional paradigm from remediation to proactively planning with Previewing Strategies to accelerate learning for all of their students! Previewing, which is not pre-teaching, is a must for every student in need of more support, but it is especially important for “at-risk students.”

Previewing and Vocabulary Instruction

Students are taught key vocabulary using researched-based vocabulary strategies (i.e., Frayer Model, Word Map) prior to the teaching of the lesson. Learning key vocabulary is important to acquiring foundational knowledge so that students can “hook” to the learning of new knowledge.

vocabulary and previewing instruction example

This is critical for every classroom, but especially content area classes such as social studies and science, as they are loaded with domain-specific vocabulary, and math where students are often given vocabulary at the same time they are trying to learn new mathematical processes. When vocabulary is not taught prior to the lesson, learning becomes too overwhelming for the students and they stop trying. Previewing vocabulary helps build students’ self-confidence and competency prior to the lesson. It provides a time to motivate students. This is when teachers can encourage students to be excited about the new words and information that they will be learning. There is nothing like success to build motivation.

Previewing Advance Organizers 

previewing advance organizer example

Advance Organizers are another strategy that when previewed increases students’ motivation and success. This strategy is often mistaken as simply a graphic organizer. Advance Organizers are organizers, questions, or learning tools that are given prior to the lesson to create a mental framework for students and guide their learning. 

For example:

  • If a student is given a graphic organizer prior to using it in the lesson, it becomes an Advance Organizer. 
  • “At risk” students often do not understand the structure of a graphic organizer. This inhibits their use of it for learning. 
  • To accelerate students’ learning, the structure of a graphic organizer is previewed by using content that is very familiar to the student. 
  • Later this same graphic organizer will be used during the lesson with grade level content to lift out key concepts and ideas. 
lesson essential question example

Another Advance Organizer is the Lesson Essential Question. Previewing it provides students an opportunity to acquire a bit of mental Velcro before the lesson begins, a way of making the content stick in their minds as they filter what is important for the lesson and their answer to the Lesson Essential Question. For a unit, an Advance Organizer can be a Student Learning Map. Teachers preview the Unit Essential Question, Key Learning and Major Concepts that the students will be using in the unit. Through the use of the Student Learning Map, students are able to “see” connections in the learning.

Previewing and Activating Thinking

Previewing can also activate students’ thinking. Teachers should pre-assess whether students have background knowledge of the upcoming content. If background knowledge is present, teachers will link to the students’ prior knowledge and then hook to the new information. 

When background knowledge is not present for some or all students, teachers can accelerate learning by creating it. This may be done by reading a story, showing a picture, or watching a short video clip. The brain is a pattern-seeking device. Anytime new information is received it immediately begins to search for associations that can be made with previous knowledge.

example for activating thinking
activating thinking in math

It is imperative that educators have strategies that can be used with students to create background knowledge. 

Helping at-risk students: “How do we move them forward quickly and effectively?” 

It is not enough to simply know what Previewing is and the types of strategies that may be used with it. Teachers will need to understand:

  • the purpose of each strategy
  • how to effectively incorporate it into a preview plan

When Previewing is purposefully planned, and proactive instruction is provided, teachers and schools start to quickly move at-risk students forward. One of our favorite stories is about an 8th grade teacher who responded after implementing Previewing, “It was a miracle, just a miracle!”  This “miracle” occurred because she understood the connections between planning, purpose, and previewing. 

Ready to implement Previewing Strategies in your classroom or school? 

Learning-Focused uses two models in order to ensure we meet the learning needs of every student!

  1. First, the teacher model. Previewing Strategies are used in every new unit or lesson to prime students for learning! Teachers dramatically improve their Tier 1 instruction as they infuse top research-based learning strategies and evidence-based practices purposefully throughout their teaching.
  2. Second, as a systematic school-wide model. Schools learn to transform time periods before, during, and after school that may be in place (i.e. study halls, remediation periods, after school programs, Saturday classes, and summer school) into Previewing Labs, that focuses on providing students with what they need to succeed, instead of waiting for them to fail! 

Contact us today to learn more about the Catching Kids Up! Training of Trainers Virtual Institute, and how we can help you learn to leverage the “miracle” of Acceleration and Previewing in your school and classroom! 

Don Marlett

Don has been an educator for 20 years. Before joining Learning-Focused, he taught High School and Middle School Science and worked as a school administrator. Don has participated in school evaluations focused on the implementation of High Yield Strategies. Don leads product development, provides leadership training, and coaches educators in the implementation of the Learning-Focused Instructional Framework. @MarlettDon

Leave a Comment