Differentiating Instruction for At-Risk Students

Dr. Felicia Bolden
Dr. Felicia Bolden
Elementary School Principal; Ed.D. in Teacher Leadership
Teacher helping a young student working at her desk.

What is an At-Risk Student?

At-risk students may struggle with academic achievement in school settings and lag behind their grade-level peers in instruction. They may experience failure because of external school factors beyond their control. Low socio-economic status, excessive absences, domestic violence, language barriers, and behavioral or mental health challenges may contribute to the learning deficits of at-risk students. According to McMillan and Reed (1994), “At-risk students show persistent patterns of underachievement and of social maladjustment in school, leading to their failure to finish high school,” (p. 137). Educators must identify the challenges at-risk students face and provide differentiated instructional strategies to help them experience academic success in the school setting.

Instructional Challenges At-Risk Students Face

At-risk students may have instructional challenges related to comprehension, active listening, numeracy, language development, and content vocabulary. The instructional challenges can be present in all content areas such as reading, writing, math, science, and social studies. Negative behaviors and lack of motivation may also contribute to the instructional challenges of at-risk students. Therefore, social-emotional support must be integrated into their daily instruction (Groves, 1998). Many schools are staffed with counselors and social workers to support the social-emotional needs of at-risk students and their families so that educators can better address their instructional needs (PBIS, 2019). Educators must provide academic and social-emotional support to all at-risk students to ensure their overall success in school.

Differentiated Instructional Strategies for At-Risk Students

Implementing differentiated instructional strategies ensures at-risk students are provided with adequate individualized learning supports. Differentiated support plans should include but are not limited to small group instruction, technology, and culturally responsive instruction. Differentiating content for at-risk students will provide them with the opportunity to experience equity. Therefore, at-risk students are more likely to participate in class and feel valued in the educational setting.

At-risk students may benefit from small group instruction when they receive individualized instructional supports directly from their classroom teacher. The instructional groups typically have 4-5 students who receive differentiated content alongside peers on or near the same ability level. The lessons are more explicit and intensive to accommodate their individual learning needs (Foorman & Torgesen, 2002).

This personalized instruction allows at-risk students to ask questions in a comfortable and safe setting without fear of judgement or ridicule from peers. Teachers can readily redirect or reteach at-risk students instead of waiting until the end of the lesson to provide support in an individualized setting. Teachers also have the opportunity to check for understanding and ask direct probing questions to elicit responses from at-risk students. Small group instruction for at-risk students should include current learning standards, spiraled reviews, interventions, accelerated learning, and manipulatives. Providing the additional cognitive supports ensures at-risk students are able to make connections and retain content over time.

Implementing technology in math, reading, writing, science, and social studies is another instructional method to differentiate instruction for at-risk students. According to Darling-Hammong, Zielezinski & Goldman (2014), the use of technology with at-risk students increases engagement, develops higher interests in academics, and increases academic performance. Technology applications and virtual experiences help at-risk students make conceptual connections to instructional content that they may not have access to in their home or community. Teachers use a variety of technology resources such as online webinars, discussion posts, and media albums to engage at-risk students at deeper levels.

Last but not least, at-risk students may benefit from culturally responsive instruction. If the content of lessons is not relatable to at-risk students, they are more likely to become disengaged and experience behavior challenges. Educators should find topics that interest at-risk students and are related to their culture. Culturally responsive instruction ensures at-risk students can make connections to subject area content and is beneficial for teachers as well (Ford & Kea, 2009). Culturally responsive instructional practices allow teachers to have a deepened awareness of the culture of their students, which fosters meaningful relationships. When at-risk students are authentically engaged, they become resilient to the obstacles that can hinder them from experiencing academic success.


At-risk students need educators who are dedicated to their specific learning needs and are knowledgeable about curriculum and instruction. Providing skilled educators for at-risk students helps to minimize the instructional challenges they may face in the classroom. Educators must not only be skilled but willing to provide quality instruction to at-risk students even when they are reluctant to learn (Jackson, 2013). Dedicated and compassionate educators are needed in every classroom to ensure that learning is equitable for all at-risk students.

Darling-Hammond, L., Zielezinski, M. B., & Goldman, S. (September, 2014). Using technology to support at-risk students’ learning. Alliance for Excellent Educators. Scope Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education. Retrieved from https://all4ed.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/UsingTechnology.pdf
Ford, D. & Kea, C. D. (2009). Creating culturally responsive instruction: For students’ and teachers’ sakes. Focus on Exceptional Children, 41(9), 1-16. https://doi.org/10.17161/fec.v41i9.6841
Foorman, B. R. & Torgesen, J. (2002). Critical elements of classroom and small-group instruction promote reading success in all children. Learning Disabilities Research and Practice 16(4), 203-212. https://doi.org/10.1111/0938-8982.00020
Groves, P. (1998). Meeting the needs of ‘at risk’ students: The day and night school.
The High School Journal, 81(4), 251-257. Retrieved May 3, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/40364472
McMillan & Reed (1994). At-risk students and resiliency: Factors contributing to academic success.
The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas 67(3), 137-140. https://doi.org/10.1080/00098655.1994.9956043
Jackson, R. (2013). Never underestimate your teachers: Instructional leadership for excellence in every classroom. ASCD
Positive Behavior Intervention Supports (2019). Retrieved May, 2020 from http://www.pbis.org.
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