3 Ways to Help Your Failing Students Find Success [Episode 47]


Here's What to Expect In This Episode:

Let’s talk about a really common challenge that we face as high school counselors. It’s a challenge that often leaves us feeling defeated and put under a whole lot of (sometimes self-inflicted) pressure. Can you guess what it is? I’m talking about working with failing students.

We all have these students on our caseloads. They are the students who are behind in their classes, short on the credits they need to graduate, and reluctant to trust that we actually want to help them.

And yet, our failing students are also the ones who we get to know the best after earning their trust. We push them because we want to see them succeed, and it’s the best feeling in the world when they do. But let’s be real. This is tough work! Sometimes it feels like you’re fighting an uphill battle and that you’re the only one who cares. 

If you’re feeling that way about some of your students, let’s change that today! Inside this episode you’ll hear my top three suggestions for helping your failing students find success. After listening, I think you’ll realize that you are doing more than enough, my friend!

Topics Covered in This Episode:

  • 3 practical ways that you can help your failing students find success
  • A reminder that the success or failures of your students does not rest solely on your shoulders
  • The various definitions of success, and the power in having your students decide what success means to them
  • Questions to ask yourself when you hit a roadblock with failing students
  • Examples of small groups that could benefit your failing students
  • The massive transformations that can happen when you establish mentor relationships

Resources Mentioned in This Episode:

Read the transcript for this episode:

Hi there, you’re listening to Episode 47 of High School Counseling Conversations. In this week’s episode, I want to talk about working with failing students. Let me preface this with I don’t think I’m going to have these revolutionary ideas in this episode that you’ve never considered before.

But don’t let that make you stop listening now. My hope is that you’ll leave feeling inspired with a mindset shift or just a new way of looking at a problem that high school counselors face all the time. If you could see me, I’m clapping my hands after that, like you know, it’s true.

Maybe you just need a few reminders that you’re on the right track and you’re doing the things that everyone else is doing so that you can reassure yourself. You are doing all right at this high school counseling thing, my friend.

High School Counseling Conversations is a podcast where we talk about exactly that… a casual potpourri of  school counseling topics intended to grow us as school counselors, but also give us space to enjoy each other’s company. I’m Lauren from Counselor Clique, and I’m sharing my experiences and perspectives as a high school counselor. No topic is off limits. And I’m certain we’ll cover it all.

I’m your high school counseling hype girl here to help you energize your school counseling program and remind you of how much you love your job. Whether you’re just getting your feet wet as an intern, or you’re nearing retirement, you’ll feel like you’re just popping in to catch up with your school counseling bestie. Let’s go.

With huge case loads of students, I think outsiders would be surprised to know that we spend so much time with our failing students. We often end up knowing them best or desiring to know them best of all of our students, because we want to know like, what is the problem? Where is it stemming from, and we try and get to know them.

Yes, we have frequent flyer high achieving students. But once we get to know those failing or off grade level students, don’t use feel like they’re the ones who are hanging out in your office all the time? They’re reluctant to know you for a long time, probably. But then once you earn their trust, and they know that you’ve got their back, you’ll see a lot more of them. Even if it’s that tough love kind of thing that you’re giving them.

I found that it’s definitely a case of that 8020 principle, I think that’s more of like a business thing. I don’t know, I have heard of it recently. And maybe I was the last one to hear about it. In this case, I mean, 80% of your direct time with students is spent on 20% of students. In my mind, these failing students doesn’t that sound about right?

From tracking them down at school, to calling their cell phones to see why they’re not at school you really get to know this student and their habits. You memorize their schedule, and you know when their big budgeting project is coming up in econ, because, hey, they’re not going to graduate, if they don’t turn it in. I may be speaking from experience with that one.

You check in with their teachers to see how “our friend” is doing. Like my air quotes for that? I feel like I’ve had so many of those conversations in the past! Let’s paint a picture of a student. You meet them because they transferred into your school after the year started, which means they’re behind before they even started at your school. They’ve technically been in school for three years, but they only have enough credit to be called a sophomore. But it’s okay, nothing could scare you. You’ve definitely seen worse than that.

After someone signed some papers and drops them off, you never hear from that adult again, phone numbers are changed and disconnected. Teachers are calling you asking you if you have a different number than they have in the system. You wonder if you’re going to make it to graduation with this one. And I say “this one” because there are 35 others on your caseload with a very similar story.

It’s another situation where you’re left swimming upstream, seemingly the only person who cares. That’s just what it feels like sometimes, right? The one who gets the responsibility of getting them across that stage, whether it’s limping or dragging, you’re gonna try and get them there. I want you to consider these three ways to help your failing students find success.

Like I said, I guarantee you’ve tried one or all of these before, maybe they’ve worked with one or all of your students, I don’t think one person has that magic touch to help every student find success. So let’s remember that each of your students successes or failures does not all rest on your shoulders. You’re a superhero, but no one expects that of you, or they shouldn’t expect that of you.

There are others who you can tag team to help. And ultimately, you know this, a student is responsible for the direction that they go in high school and in their life after high school. If they take the tools or the opportunities that you’re offering or that we’re offering as a group of people to them, I guarantee that they’ll find their definition of success.

That leads us into this next part. Maybe we should define success while we’re at it. I think the vision of success that I have for students varies. It’s different maybe from what they want for their lives. When you’re seniors are starting to have conversations about what’s next for life after high school, you’re all for hearing about it in their senior meetings.

If you want more details about how I have held senior meetings in the past, head back and give episode 39 a listen. It’s all about setting up and facilitating senior meetings. For your failing students though maybe there hasn’t even been a moment where They have decided what success is for them. Maybe no one has asked them before. So they haven’t voiced that out loud to anyone or maybe even given any thought to it themselves. There’s got to be power in speaking that out loud.

After you have some relational credibility established, have these conversations with your failing students. I found that because these students are often in survival mode, they don’t connect those shorter term day to day dots very well to help them get through and see out those long term goals. It’s almost a rewiring of the brain from the trauma they’ve been through.

And let me pause. Trauma could sound like a really bold word choice here. But consider some of the situations some of your off grade level or failing students are going through – poverty, truancy, unstable housing, physical or emotional abuse from family members or peer relationships, divorce, violence, addiction, pregnancy, loss, like those are just things I’m thinking of off the top of my head, I could go on and on. And I know that you could too.

You know the level of trauma that exists in your students lives, you have a front row seat to see it. But you’re also the person who gets to help them navigate through these things. You are the person put in their life to see them, to see those struggles, and to let them know that you care. Now I’ve seen wonders that one caring individual in a student’s life can make and I know that you have too.

You can think of that student who caring for them really did this work for. When you ask questions, like especially being mindful of all that trauma, you’d realize that your support could go a long way for that student. And I know it’s tough, it’s hard work to be the one who shows up and invest in that relationship when others have strayed. It’s hard when you invest a lot of time and effort when the student moves in mid school year, and then they leave, again.

Your efforts are not in vain, and they’re not wasted. Of course, it is a huge bonus if a student says thank you, but we can’t wait on that to do the work. I know we’d all say that seeing a failing students start to turn things around based on our conversations and in individual counseling can be extremely intrinsically rewarding like for us as a counselor.

So ask yourself, am I showing up for these students? Am I asking the questions to get to know those root issues? Like where that trauma is stemming from? Am I caring about their progress? I bet that you already are doing these things. But those are always good questions to ask yourself around working with these students who maybe it seems like you’re hitting a roadblock with.

One more resource for these conversations. I’ll link it in the show notes. But it’s an article that I found from ASCA that I enjoyed reading called Support Traumatize Students and it has some more ideas on asking thoughtful questions to the students in particular. And yes, I’m linking these together it is not every failing student is not a traumatized student. But I’d be willing to bet that there is something tied in here that you might get a good idea from this article after you read it. So head over to the shownotes and read that article when you get a chance.

Are you looking for some resources to send your students home with over the upcoming Thanksgiving and winter breaks? Check out all of my digital resources. I bundle them all together in one big digital mega bundle. Inside you’ll find 20 Digital check ins, activities and interactive resources for your secondary students.

Topics are comprehensive. They cover academic topics, social emotional wellness, and college and career readiness. Get ready to reach all of your learners with these lessons. From the high achievers to your most disengaged students use these activities to teach skills and check in with your students growth and mental health. When you buy all 20 together, you’ll receive a 20% discount. So head over to counselorclique.com/digitalmega to see all 20 digital resources. Now back to the show.

A second way that you could consider supporting your students to aid them in their successes would be small group counseling. Now remember, we all may have different definitions of success. So this does not have to be an academic small group. Like maybe that’s how you found these students because they were failing their classes. But that does not need to be the small group that you run with all of them.

Let’s figure out something else that the students have in common. Maybe it’s a grief and loss small group because after your individual conversations, you’re realizing that you have some students who haven’t fully processed the loss of a family member or a friend,. You know as good as anyone that if a student can have the space to think and talk through some of that emotional junk going on in their life, that they can go back to class a little more prepared to participate in the academics.

Now if your immediate gut reaction to all of this is, I can never do small groups in my school or I’ve never done them in my school, teachers would never let me borrow their students for small groups, I want you to head back to episodes 8, 9, 10, and 11. Those are all about small groups and a lot of y’all found those to be helpful. So if you need a refresher or if you haven’t listened to them, head back after this episode.

You could run a career exploration small group or a stress management group of these students. But be strategic about how you choose the group when you have it. Just start somewhere with these groups. I think any small wins that you can take from these will be helpful for you. Any growth that you see in your students from small groups is so worth it here. They’ll gain so much from their peer to peer interaction. And that just adds to the benefits of running small groups.

Here’s my last tip to helping your failing students succeed. Help them find a relational connection with anyone else in the building. It could be the resource officer, a custodian, it could be a club sponsor, a teacher they’ve never had, but seems cool in the hallway. They’ll laugh when you ask him that, like they’ll say, I don’t have any teachers that like me, I don’t like any of my teachers. Okay, well, give me someone who seems cool.

Maybe the attendance clerk, someone who knows their name, and that the student seems to like already figure out who this could be for that student. Even if you have to do a little digging, I ran a large scale attendance initiative once based around student and adult relationships in the school, because I wanted to intrinsically incentivize attendance, okay, there was extrinsic motivations to we did have some prizes.

But the thing we did with this attendance initiative that paid off long term was the mentor type relationships that we established. And yes, we had to establish them ourselves, I had to pair people together. If you want to hear more about this, maybe I can do a whole episode on this. So let me know if this sounds interesting to you.

It was a total trial and error sort of thing. Like I had never seen it done before. I didn’t have a framework for this. But I knew that I had to try something to help our failing students. The one thing that all of them had in common was attendance. So hence, an attendance initiative. I thought if I could get them connected to someone at school, who they look forward to seeing, or they knew that that adult would come looking for them to check in because they cared about them, maybe we’d see a shift. And guess what? We did.

As humans, we know how powerful human connection is. And then as school counselors, we see it firsthand. If you can help facilitate and put some of those relationships in place for a student who may not know how to do that themselves, you’re setting up a safe landing space for a student to be supported by not only you, but by at least one other person. Then, maybe an entire village of people can gather around.

You help get the supports in place, and then you take a baby step back. Yes, I know, this is an ideal world. But hear me out. If you can do this for one student, two students, three students, maybe you’ll have all 35 of those students being helped, you’re helping them find success with healthy relationships while they’re in your school building. And then maybe even potentially, beyond that.

Ya’ll, I’m pumped up now! Sometimes these failing students seem like the most defeating part of your job, it’s okay to admit that they don’t hear you when you tell them the importance of getting a high school diploma. You do everything short of doing the work for them, which I also like to remind them listen, I’ve already done this, and I don’t need to go back and get a high school diploma again, please do the work.

But if you can picture with me for a second, your group of highest flying failing students and think how can I chisel away at this little by little to make a long lasting impact? I believe you can do this in three ways. Individual counseling when you ask the right questions, small group counseling so that their peers can speak in with similar experiences, and relational connection with other adults in your building so that they know that they’re cared for by someone who notices them.

I hope these three ideas shifted your mindset about helping your failing students. You are doing good and meaningful work even with your toughest students.

Thanks for tuning in this week. If this episode pumped you up like it pumped me up recording it, would you be so kind to head over to Apple podcasts and leave a review? It’s an easy way to show your support for the show and let me know that you’re listening. Come back next week for a special guest episode with Sarah from the Responsive Counselor. I know you won’t want to miss it.

Thanks for listening to today’s episode of High School Counseling Conversations. All of the links I talked about today can be found in the show notes and also at counselorclique.com/podcast. Be sure to hit follow or subscribe wherever you listen to your podcast so that you never miss a new episode. Connect with me over on Instagram, send me a DM at counselor clique, that’s c-l-i-q-u-e. Thanks so much for hanging out with me. I’ll see you next time.

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