Children whose family environment, socioeconomic status, and/or behavioral history place them at a high probability of failing or dropping out of school.
The term "at risk" is used by educators, social service personnel, and others when referring to children who have a high probability of experiencing failure in school. The child may be at risk for any one or a combination of factors that include family environment, socioeconomic status, health, and behavior or emotional problems. Also designated as "at risk" are adolescents who, due to a combination of socioeconomic status, physical and/or mental illness, have a high probability of becoming involved in activities that endanger their psychological health. These activities can include being the perpetrator or victim of violence, engaging in early and unprotected sex, using alcohol and drugs, and becoming truant or delinquent. The set of situations and behaviors associated with failure in school and with later failure to achieve and maintain a productive life are designated "at risk" or "high risk" factors. Evaluative tests for identifying potential dropouts include the Elementary School Pupil Adjustment Scale (ESPAS) for grades K-3, the Dropout Alert Scale (DAS) for grades 4-12, and the Student Sensitivity Index for grades 7-12.
The term "at risk" was popularized with the 1984 publication of the U.S. Department of Education report, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform, which outlined the decline of American students' achievements in science and math as compared to previous generations and as compared to other countries such
Delinquency, drug use, sexual activity, gang activity, and violent and/or criminal behavior are considered at risk or high risk conditions in the sense that they are statistically correlated with failing classes and dropping out of school. The correlates of these situations and behaviors are also isolated and studied—for example, a family's poverty or an adolescent's depression places him her at higher risk for drug use. Drug use places the adolescent at higher risk for dropout. If this does happen, he or she will then be considered at even higher risk for drug use, since teens who are not in school are more likely to use drugs. Thus, children and adolescents can be considered at risk for many problems that interact with the core problem of school failure and dropout.
A 1992 Carnegie Council study found that one-quarter of the 28 million students in middle or junior high schools were considered statistically at risk of failing in school, abusing alcohol and drugs, or engaging in premature and unprotected sexual activity. The report also found a high rate of risk for middle school adolescents being either the perpetrator or the victim of a violent act. Additionally, another quarter (7 million) of the remaining 21 million students were considered at moderate risk due to serious academic, social, or personal problems. A later study by the National Research Council emphasized the importance of home environment in creating risk factors, finding that many home environments failed to provide alternatives to high risk behaviors encountered in the larger community.
A child who has all four risk factors will be four times as likely to fail in school as a child who has only one of them. Thus, even though, according to the National Council on Education Statistics (NCES), the overall dropout rates declined from 15% in 1972 to 11% 1992 and 1993, the dropout rates for certain groups remained high. In 1993 the dropout rate was 8% for white students, 14% for black students, and 28% for Hispanic students. The dropout rate for students with a high family income level was 3%, whereas the dropout rate for students with a low family income level was 24%.
The concept of "at risk" is a useful tool for identifying individual students with the potential for failure in school, so as to target them for preventive services. Yet critics charge that the term can be used to "label" certain groups, in particular urban minority groups. Such labeling may increase the already at-risk student's problems by creating lowered expectations in the minds of teachers and service providers. Further, the concept does not allow for differences among cultural groups that may account for deviant behaviors in so-called at-risk children.
All students are at risk at some time in their lives. A Phi Delta Kappa study found five situations that lead to students' at-risk behavior: personal pain; academic failure; family socioeconomic factors; family instability, such as fighting, separation, or divorce; and family tragedy, such as illness or death. The normal process of development itself imposes high-risk conditions. Social competence—making friends and developing social skills—and maturing sexuality places the adolescent in vulnerable positions that can lead to drug use, fighting, early and unprotected sexual activity, and delinquency. Peer pressure poses risk factors, though participation in extracurricular activities lessens the chance of doing poorly in school or participating in other risky behaviors. Also, urban minorities are not the only high risk socioeconomic groups—rural students are also considered an at-risk group.
The risk factors associated with doing poorly in school are:
- having parents who have not completed high school
- living in a household with annual income below $15,000
- having a brother or sister who is failing in school.
Students who are at risk of school failure tend to perceive their teachers as having low interest in them as people. Though critics of the at-risk label cite isolation as a problem, the most successful programs are those that separate at-risk students from the rest of the student body and have low student-teacher ratios. Programs focus on basic academic and survival skills, such as attending to tasks, following directions, raising one's hand to speak, and writing legibly. Successful programs also relate work to education and provide counseling and support services. Vocational education programs offer many characteristics of effective at-risk programs, including a hands-on performance orientation, low student-teacher ratios, and a high level of support services.
ADDRESSING THE RISKS
In addition to counseling and career planning, successful at-risk programs address basic psychosocia l issues such as self-esteem, communication skills, coping skills, and control issues.
Self-concept and self-esteem. Low achievement in school leads to low self-esteem, and the high-risk adolescent turns to other sources to develop a positive self-concept. Contrary to popular conception, at-risk students often have high self esteem based on their participation in deviant or delinquent social groups. Programs such as peer mediation promote development of high self-esteem based on prosocial rather than antisocial behavior.
Communication skills. At-risk students learn core social skills necessary to develop relationships with peers and with adults. Working on both speaking and listening skills helps students to communicate effectively.
Coping skills. Coping skills include the use of humor and shift in focus. At-risk students learn such techniques to address disappointment, rejection, fear, anger, and loneliness effectively without using drugs, sex, or violence.
Locus of control. Low-risk students have an internal locus of control. They perceive their lives as having an orderliness dependent on their own positive or negative behavior; they believe they have control over their lives. Conversely, at-risk students have an external locus of control, perceiving their lives as under someone else's control. Along with shifting their locus of control, at-risk students must develop the low-risk habits of considering the consequences of their behavior more fully, learning how to delay gratification, and persisting in goal-directed behavior.
Dryfoos, Joy G. Adolescents At-Risk: Prevalence and Prevention. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Hamby, J. V. Vocational Education for the 21st Century. Clemson, SC: National Dropout Prevention Center, 1992.
Helge, Doris. Rural, Exceptional, At Risk. Reston, VA: ERIC Clearinghouse on Handicapped and Gifted Children, 1991.
Kaywell, Joan F. Adolescents At Risk: A Guide to Fiction and Nonfiction for Young Adults, Parents, and Professionals. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993.
Manning, M. L., and L. G. Baruth. Students At Risk. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1995.
McWhirter, J. J., et al. At-Risk Youth: A Comprehensive Response. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole, 1993.
National Research Council. Losing Generations: Adolescents in High-Risk Settings. Panel on High Risk Youth, Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, National Research Council. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1993.
Nicolau, Siobhan, and Carmen Lydia Ramos. Together is Better: Building Strong Partnerships Between Schools and Hispanic Parents. Washington, DC: Hispanic Policy Development Project, Inc., 1990.
Shirley, L. J., and S. G. Pritz. The Lifelong Options Program: A Handbook for Implementing and Managing a Vocational Education Program for Youth At Risk. Clemson, SC: National Dropout Prevention Center, 1992.
National Institute on the Education of At-Risk Students
U.S. Department of Education
Address: OERI/At-Risk Room 610
555 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20208-5521
Telephone: (202) 219-2239