New Voice Scholars: Perspectives

How can we best support our at-risk students

All students are entitled to a quality education. Educators and educational leaders are expected to provide targeted support for all students, including identifying and supporting those students at risk of achieving below the ‘norm’ or of not fulfilling their potential. In this edition of Perspectives, Christine Cawsey, Jane Bourne and Kate Axten will provide their perspective on how to best support at-risk students.

Christine Cawsey AM
Rooty Hill High School, NSW

When the OECD (OECD, 2016) has released information in the last decade about the well-being of Australians and the positive engagement of Australian students in education, the average figures place Australia at or near the top of international ratings. In each state and sector there is detailed evidence on a range of measures about both the “averages” and the equity gap between those students whose learning trajectory is at or above that expected and those who fall below.

Systems of education, school sectors and Australia’s major charities know which school communities have significant numbers of students who are progressing at rates below or well below “average” and school records on disability, attendance, performance and progress are now regularly reported by systems and schools.

At-risk students are present in every school if schools consider the following indicators: physical and mental health, out of home care, learning disabilities, social isolation, domestic violence and parental illness. Students with these family and personal indicators have, in the past, been far less likely to achieve their potential. When poverty and social disadvantage are also present the risk is magnified. In its 2016 report, Improving the Educational Outcomes of Young Australians (The Smith Family, 2016), The Smith Family reported that up to one third of the most disadvantaged students start school not meeting the expected developmental milestones compared to fifteen per cent for the whole community.

For principals, the number and characteristics of at-risk students in the school is important information in considering the learning, social and cultural planning to include those students in planning for all students. For individual parents, students, teachers, school learning support staff and community organisations it is the needs and accommodations for each individual student that matter most. It is at the school and classroom level that the school delivers its moral contract with parents and students to help each student achieve his or her best and schools increasingly understand what this requires in terms of class and individual learning plans. It is also at the classroom level that teachers and students identify students who may be at risk.

In their report, Schools for all Children and Young People, (Shaddock A, Packer S and Roy A, 2015) the expert panel reported on the challenges facing schools in being inclusive of all students, especially those whose complex and challenging needs disrupted their own capacity or the capacity of other students to learn. The panel recognised that these students, more than any others, were likely to be suspended from school, have exemptions for whole or part days and disengage early. This type of at-risk behaviour contrasts with the challenges schools face in supporting students who are anxious, have poor physical or mental health or a family crisis that affects their attendance and progress.

One of the most powerful strategies being used in secondary schools that want to be inclusive of all students is to adopt a personalised learning approach. This is more than a whole school approach to knowing every student and designing universal, targeted and intensive programs for learning and support. It is also a commitment and way of thinking about learners and their complex learning needs. It is a disposition by school leaders and teaching staff to the use of data and evidence combined with a deep understanding of adolescent needs to develop personalised learning plans for each student in the school. Starting from extended enrolment interviews with students and their parents and data sharing with partner K-6 schools, schools collect information on student progress against the ACARA capabilities (Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority ACARA, 2010) on student strengths, on health issues, on behavioural patterns and goals for learning. From the basic personalised plans some students will then need health plans, out of home care plans, learning support plans, behaviour management plans and, in the case of Aboriginal students, non-English background speakers and refugee students a personalised plan that responds to cultural and linguistic diversity.

In most schools using this approach, data is tracked by teachers and reviewed across each semester with students having the opportunity to meet regularly with mentors to review their progress and plan for future learning. Teachers have detailed class profiles and access to individualised strategies for students and students are given greater control over their learning choices.

In the most successful secondary schools creating a personalised learning culture one or more of the following initiatives can also be observed:

  • Ongoing teacher coaching and professional learning to adjust teaching, learning and assessment programs to accommodate the range of student needs in each classroom.
  • Structured lesson outlines and expectations displayed for students to make learning visible. For at risk students in secondary schools there is security in knowing that they will be able to see what they are to do in each lesson, especially when they might have up to 10 teachers and different classes each week.
  • Purpose designed targeted and intensive learning support and interpersonal development programs. These can include behavioural coaching, homework support, additional reading support programs and programs that develop collaboration, teamwork, leadership and other 21st century skills.
  • An increased focus on the teaching, learning and assessment of all the ACARA capabilities to ensure that students have the opportunity to leave the school as educated citizens with prospects for the future.

Where schools have adopted personalised learning approaches there has been a measurable improvement in student completion rates, attendance, student progress (as measured by student learning trajectories) and transition to post school tertiary options. Having said that, it must also be said that schools cannot do this work alone. If governments want the big data for Australian schools then they must also commit the funding to support all students, including all at-risk students. Some estimates suggest that up to 30% of Australian students could be at-risk as learners and that in some school communities this could be as high as 70%. Allocating needs based funding, using data already held by systems and sectors, to support teachers and schools working with at-risk students and then holding themselves accountable for the impact of that funding is the next step governments must take if schools are to have the flexibility to design and deliver strategies that take many more at-risk students from where they start to being educated and successful 19 year olds.


Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority ACARA, General Capabilities in the Learning Areas, 2010,

OECD, OECD Better Life Index: Australia, 2016,

Shaddock A, Packer S and Roy A, Schools for all Children and Young People - Report of the expert panel on students with complex needs and challenging behaviour, 2015,

The Smith Family, Improving the educational outcomes of disadvantaged young Australians: The Learning for Life program, The Smith Family Research Report, 2016,


Jane Bourne
Lady Gowrie, QLD

Lady Gowrie QLD, believes that it is everyone’s responsibility to support each other to give our children from birth to six years, their right to firm foundations.

We believe the families and the communities from whence a child comes from are the most important factors in providing a child confidence to succeed.

Lady Gowrie was started some 76 years ago. A group of women, supported by Lady Zara Gowrie (The then Governor General’s wife) opened a demonstration centre in each state of Australia. The focus of these centres was to give families a place to go for early childhood education, and health. Men were away at war and the families at home, needed community, understanding and support for their children and for themselves.

This has been our mission ever since and as the Leader of this amazing organisation I work with all teams to make sure this continues in order to give credence to our philosophy and our values.

There is a strong presence in all our services of the value of security. Each member of staff has been guided through the principles of the Circle of Security. Parents and families very much become a part of this approach.

‘Fifty years of research has shown that children who are more securely attached:

  • Enjoy more happiness with their parents
  • Feel less anger at their parents
  • Get along better with friends
  • Have stronger friendships
  • Are able to solve problems with friends
  • Have better relationships with brothers and sisters
  • Have a higher self esteem
  • Know that most problems will have an answer
  • Trust that good things will come their way

(The Circle of Security Intervention. Page 20)

We as Educators/Teachers have learnt that we have a limited influence on children. The challenge belongs in context to the families and in many cases community, however we know that a positive secure attachment and an emotionally available adult can have a significant impact on children from birth.

In our services there is a Primary Caregiver for each child, known to the family, who will build strong and genuine relationships. Primary Caregiving is about supporting children’s social and emotional development and wellbeing and building collaborative partnerships with families.

Lady Gowrie Qld opened the first Early Years Centre (of which there are four in Queensland fully funded by the Government) situated in Caboolture in 2009. We operate programs to support families to become more involved with their children, such as prenatal groups, young father’s groups, groups where we teach parents to ‘play’ with their babies, cooking groups, and groups where parents can come to just chat to one another without boundaries. This has been a most successful Centre and continues to grow in small satellites all through the Caboolture area.

From this very site we started a program known as Get Set for Prep. Parents could bring their children free of charge, in the last term before Prep, to learn to be a part of a greater social and emotional setting, play harmoniously and to learn through the enjoyment of play. This program was made available in Vincent in Townsville for all children in 2016 but very much supported by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families. No boundaries for anyone, play to learn. At this program Lady Gowrie has worked with Hear and Say (NFP Organisation, Brisbane) to support children with hearing difficulties, so that they would have a better opportunity of attending Prep with confidence in 2017.

We have worked hard in all our services to encourage attendance of all families. We are aware of children at risk and work with their families and communities to engage in creating a safe place where children can gain a strong sense of identity and feel connected to the World becoming confident communicators.

Learning needs to engage and motivate children on an ongoing basis (Siraj-Blatchford, 2007). We believe this can only happen if we all work together, to acknowledge children’s fears and anxieties so they can move forward in confidence to focus on their learning, however young they are. Children need that focus.

The last five years have seen the introduction of Universal Access, enabling all four year olds to access a Kindergarten program. This has been a huge undertaking by our Qld Department of Education and Training and our teachers in kindergartens throughout the state. An undertaking also to families who may never have used such a facility before. With all its well overdue benefits this has also brought challenges. There are many more ‘at risk children’ entering pre-school, who maywell have stayed at home, on properties, in towns and cities, for many reasons. Teachers are trying to understand children with many differing needs, where relationships are so important to everyone, however, this can be a slow and often unsure journey and assistance and guidance is needed. We make every effort to assist our teachers to better understand the signs of children in stress, at risk.

The success of these years has been incredible. Still a long way to go, however, it is again about relationships, about listening, conversing, understanding community and giving of yourself to instil confidence. Creativity, imagination and flexibility have a huge role in the successful outcomes. I believe all children, families and Educators/Teachers need to understand these concepts, and value and retain relationships, which will guide our most vulnerable children through their educational years with confidence and surety that there is always someone to reach out to, someone to be comforted by and someone who will acknowledge success however large or small.


Bert Powell, Glen Cooper, Kent Hoffman, Bob Marvin (2014-pg 20) The Circle of Security Intervention. Enhancing Attachment in Early Parent-Child Relationships

Sylvia,K.,Taggart, B., Siraj-Blatchford, I., Totsika, V., Ereky-Stevens, K., Gilden, R. and Bell, D. (2007).Circular quality and day to day learning activities in preschool. Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework.


Kate Axten
Middle Years Teacher
Centralian Middle School, NT
2017 ACEL New Voice Scholar

At-risk students around the globe deserve the best teachers in the profession. There are many factors within young people’s lives that contribute to them being considered ‘at risk’ students, such as being from a low socio-economic background, having a history of domestic and family violence, history of mental health concerns for themselves or parents/caregivers and intellectual and cognitive impairments just to name a few. For these students having the ‘best educators’ does not equate to an individual that has achieved the highest marks academically or knows the curriculum inside out, but an educator that has the understanding of the importance of relational connections and the complexities of young people’s lives and how they might shift or alter their approach to meet the needs of their students.

A large proportion of students may be considered at risk, though move in and out of periods of vulnerability within this. We can often observe this through shifts in their wellbeing. For example changes in behavioural responses, behaviours that might be viewed as attention seeking, withdrawing from activities they previously enjoyed, displaying feelings of low self-esteem, inadequacy and self-worth, as well as falling behind academically.

As a teacher working to ensure all students on their roll have their individual needs catered for it is at times difficult to recognise the vulnerability of some students, particularly when they are trying their hardest not to be seen. I have included below 3 key areas that I focus on and strategies within this that I implement in my classrooms to support students. What I have learned overtime is that the strategies that you implement for at risk and vulnerable students are supportive and useful for all students.

1. Building Strong Student Teacher Relationships

At times of high risk we may be the only positive relationship and support that a young person is receiving at the time. Without the relational connection that supports students to feel valued and cared for they may disengage from school and increase the areas of risk within their lives. I support these relationships by making a conscious effort to have a discussion with all students about their interests and events that they participate in outside of school. Living in a small close knit community means that often I will see students outside of school so when I do that is generally used as a conversation starter. I am very open with my students, I am me, I am real and I am a human being just like them, my students know my story, they know that I like to get involved in whatever I can and I will always explain to them why I do the crazy things I do. I like to have a joke, share stories and make connections between the events in students’ lives and the events that have either occurred in mine or are happening at the time.

In my class we often laugh until we cry. I am far from perfect and they know that just like them I make mistakes, so when I do I am the first to apologise. Saying sorry at the best of times can be extremely difficult especially when you are both in the wrong. I have noticed that when I have pulled a student aside to apologise for the way in which I reacted to something that they said or did we find a new level of understanding for each other. Children are constantly bombarded with adults telling them they need to apologise for being inquisitive and making ‘mistakes.’ Much the same as the ones we all would have made at that age. It is not very often that an adult will turn to a child and tell them that in actual fact it was not them that stuffed up, it was me and for that I am sorry.

2. Predictability, Consistency and Structure

When our students are most at risk it is likely that their home environments may be in spaces of high unpredictability and uncertainty. It is important that at school we provide an environment that is highly predictable and consistent. This allows students over time to feel calmer and more in control of what is happening around them. Within my classroom I utilise these strategies to create an environment that feels safe, predictable and consistent. Whether I teach the same class all day in the same room or teach a number of different classes in a number of different classrooms I maintain a consistent and structured approach. There is obviously an element of fun and flexibility especially when a ‘teachable moment’ presents itself. However in the early stages of each year I make a conscious effort to ensure all students are aware of my teaching style and adjust my practices to suit the students in my class. After a few weeks of strict routine, with explanation students become more relaxed and are able to predict what is going to happen in the classroom.

3. High Expectations

For many students that are viewed as ‘at risk’ they are often given up on. I feel that it is important to ensure that each student is supportively pushed to reach for their best and achieve all that they can. Students respond well to high expectations, they may display resistant behaviours initially, however this can be linked with their low self-esteem and self-worth. With the foundations of strong relationships and predictable, consistent and structured classrooms I have found students respond well and push themselves to meet those high expectations. It is important that expectations are constantly modelled to all students whether they are 5 years of age or 15. Having expectations is one thing but explaining to students why it is that way allows us to engage in conversation about how actions lead to consequences or positive outcomes. Research shows that students who are at-risk do not do well with traditional behaviour management methods. I am fortunate enough to be in a school that implements a ‘School Wide Positive Behaviour Support’ model (SWPBS). Through this there is consistency and predictability in the way in which processes work as well as very clear expectations that all students are aware of. I am aware that each school has a model that suits their procedures and students, but I think the most important thing is that students know and understand the whole process so that when an issue arises they are able to predict the fallout from that.

These areas of focus and the strategies I use within them don’t come without their challenges and not every day works as well as the last, we all have our moments. The biggest challenges I face when working with ‘at-risk’ students is bringing them back down from a heightened state and supporting them to regulate after they have been in environments where they have become dysregulated. This is where a school wide approach to targeting students emotional needs plays a major part in assisting both students and teachers.

All students have the capability to achieve beyond what they ever thought was possible - all they need is one person to believe in them and encourage them to be the best that they can be. I am sure all of us have a teacher that we can remember that saw something in us and helped us believe that we could achieve. I most definitely do. Being that teacher in a student who is at-risk’s life could be the difference between them treating your sick child in hospital 10 years down the track or them being caught in the cycle of disadvantage and becoming another statistic.