Friday, February 26, 2010

At-Risk Kids: What Are We Really Saying?

I constantly battle an attitude that is displayed by many of my colleagues. I call it the Our Kids syndrome. The symptoms are: a tendency to say "our kids" or "at-risk" when what you mean is poor and minority, an ability to blame educational failures on the fact that "our population" is different, and a well honed ability to generalize and stereotype students by their race and economic situation.

As a part of the annual Minnesota Online Learning Alliance (MNOLA) conference today, I attended a 'break-out" with the super-catchy title, " At-Risk High School Students and Online Learning: Characteristics, Needs, and Instructional Strategies." It was the low light of an exceptional day of learning.

We were treated to a long explanation of a Delphi study that was undertaken by the presenter as a part of a book she is writing. Her purpose was to come up with a definitive list of instructional strategies for at-risk students. The study started out by asking a group of high school educators, parents, and college professors for a list of characteristics of at-risk youth, and to narrow that list down to the characteristics that 80% of them could agree to. Here are some examples:
  • Have a limited or poor ability to read
  • Lack study skills
  • Mistrust the educational system
  • Have self-doubt about their educational abilities
The study went on to name some things that the group thought at-risk kids needed, things like:
  • Frequent contact with instructors and counselors
  • Flexible school work times
  • Curriculum modification
  • Critical thinking skills
At this point, besides being bored out of my skull from the description of the particulars of the study, I was beginning to get annoyed.

Does it occur to anyone that it is unreasonable to assume that because a kid is a so-called at-risk student, that she has a problem reading! What kind of assumption is that? Is it fair to assume that it will be difficult to teach certain students using online methods because they don't have access to a computer or the Internet. Can we assume that? Is it fair to take a group of students who are doing poorly - because of poverty, or teen pregnancy, or abuse, or drug addiction, homelessness, mental illness, or undiagnosed disabilities - and attach "needs" that apply to all of them?

Absolutely not.

Furthermore, as I reread the handout and the terms assigned to at-risk students, I realized that the same set of characteristics and needs could be applied to plenty of non-risk students. So who are the at-risk students? Are there any non-risk students? What the hell do we mean when we say "at-risk?"

As educators, we know that no one strategy works for all of our students. We are talking about individual human beings whose educational and instructional needs are varied and unique. This thinking should never be thrown out the window just because the kid doesn't look and act like the kids on the Disney Channel.

Let's do all of our students a favor and stop referring to them as "our population" and start calling them by their true names: like James, and Latonya, and Raven, and Hank. They are individuals after all, not just members of a group.


  1. I like the approach. I work with urban kids alot too, in a different field. intervention is needed here more than people realize. the 17 year olds coming out of H.S. cannot read as well as they could 20-30 yrs ago.

  2. Labels and generalizations are tricky things. They're part of what makes the human intellect so powerful; we can't live without them. On the other hand, they can blind us to the very things we're looking for. This generalization comes from a legitimate question about how we teach students who aren't successful with what they've been offered so far, but because it didn't ask specific questions about specific needs, the answers it came up with where mostly things we'd already identified as good strategies for all of our students.

  3. RE:Specs

    Keep your style consistent long enough, and coolness comes back to you!

    I'm a public defender, i tell a kid to pull his pants up before he sees the judge about 10x a morning.