The label: “at risk” student…. What does this concept look like? Who does it look like, and do we know when, where or how to make this determination?
The term at-risk is often used to describe students or groups of students who are considered to have a higher probability of failing academically or dropping out of school. The term may be applied to students who face circumstances that could jeopardize their ability to complete school, such as homelessness, incarceration, teenage pregnancy, serious health issues, domestic violence, transiency (as in migrant-worker families), or other conditions. It may refer to learning disabilities, low test scores, disciplinary problems, grade retentions, or other learning-related factors that could adversely affect the educational performance of some students.
While educators often use the term at-risk to refer to general populations or categories of students, they may also apply the term to individual students who have raised concerns—based on specific behaviors observed over time—that indicate they are more likely to fail or drop out.
When the term is used in educational contexts without qualification, specific examples, or additional explanation, it may be difficult to determine precisely what “at-risk” is referring to. In fact, “at-risk” can encompass so many possible characteristics and conditions that the term, if left undefined, could be rendered effectively meaningless.
Yet in certain technical, academic, and policy contexts—such as when federal or state agencies delineate “at-risk categories” to determine which students will receive specialized educational services, the term is usually used in a precise and clearly defined manner. States, school districts, or research studies may create definitions that can encompass a broad range of characteristic ‘risk factors’, such as the following:
- Physical disabilities and learning disabilities
- Prolonged or persistent health issues
- Habitual truancy, incarceration history, or adjudicated delinquency
- Family welfare or marital status
- Parental educational, income levels, employment or immigration status
- Homes in which the primary language spoken is not English
In most cases, “risk factors” are situational rather than innate. With the exception of certain characteristics such as learning disabilities, a student’s perceived risk status is rarely related to his or her ability to learn or succeed academically, and largely or entirely related to a student’s life circumstances. Attending a low-performing school could be considered a risk factor. If a school is under-resourced, under-funded and cannot provide essential services, or its teacher performance record is poor, the school could contribute to higher rates of student absenteeism, failures, and attrition.
If these factors are largely circumstantial, the best thing that we can do for these students, in order to meet their needs, is to address these circumstances. Generally speaking, the behaviors and characteristics associated with being an “at-risk student” are, in most cases, based on research and observable patterns in student demographics and school performance. Numerous studies have demonstrated correlations between certain risk factors and a student’s likelihood of succeeding academically, graduating from high school, or pursuing postsecondary education.
Quite imprecise, I dislike the term at-risk because it may stigmatize students AND may perpetuate the very kinds of societal perceptions, and stereotypes that contribute to students being at greater risk of failure. If students from lower-income households are consistently labeled “at-risk,” schools and educators may respond by treating them in ways that could inadvertently perpetuate their at-risk status. And believe me, it happens!
Schools may enroll ELL students in specialized programs that separate them from their English-speaking peers. While the intention is to provide the specialized language instruction that the students need, the program may also give rise to feelings of cultural isolation, or it may lower academic expectations so that they can fall behind academically even more. Consequently, these students may drop out because they don’t feel connected to the larger school culture or see the value of education, or they may lose hope that they will ever catch up or graduate. Ever heard of “Pygmalion in the Classroom”?
Different individuals within the same demographic or risk categories may have very different innate abilities, familial resources, support systems, or other personal or situational characteristics that can lead them to be more resilient or successful than others; consequently, these students would be less “at-risk” than many of their peers. In this view, at-risk is an overly broad label that inevitably fails to take into account the true complexity of any particular student’s situation.
If we act on general assumptions, rather than diagnosing the specific learning needs of individual students and using that information to provide targeted academic support or more personalized learning experiences, we will certainly continue to be ineffective educators. Otherwise, we will continue to fail our children To help ensure that at risk students succeed, schools will need a clear understanding that collaborative, comprehensive, and community-based services, providers and resources must supplement, reinforce and co-exist along with the curriculum. The range of services offered to students and families must extend to areas beyond academics and more than a nurse in the building.
Establishing collaborative partnerships across systems is a great start. With access to service providers and community-based resources at or near the school, student performance may result in more engaged, active learners. In turn, ‘AT RISK’ students graduate high school better prepared for college, career and life success. By the way, aren’t all students “at risk” for academic failure?