STOP Using the Term At-Risk to Label Our Students

Dr. John Hamilton

As educators, I hope we are always trying to move the needle in the positive direction.  The nation always clings to the mantra “the children are our future.”  We may need not only to demonstrate this in our actions, but our choice of words.  When we think of the achievement gap and the digital divide within the K-12 and higher education systems, administrators, educators, and researchers are often trying to examine approaches to address our “at-risk” youth.  The term "at risk" defines those students who are in jeopardy of being unsuccessful.   As more and more students are becoming labeled “at risk”, a focus on prevention and intervention, in the form of social services, tutoring, and related programs are swiftly becoming the norm. 

I would like to challenge educators and other stakeholders to reexamine this deficit label. Students and stakeholders assign a connotative meaning of "at-risk" labeling students unable to learn, unmotivated, and/or delinquent.  In an assets approach, youth are seen as having resources rather than deficits. Research demonstrates that children with more assets, or social capital, are less likely to engage in risky behavior.  “Opportunity youth” is a term being used to move beyond the deficit perspective.

The Aspen Institute, among others, has funded "opportunity youth" initiatives that seek to bring together schools, community groups, foster care programs, family court and the juvenile justice system to provide support to young people.  Other terms being used are "It's About Time for Kids", which seeks to infuse youth asset development into human-services programming. There are powerful examples of the effectiveness of this model in numerous communities around the country.  Another term and program is "Project Lift-Off”, which creates quality out-of-school programs for children and youth during critical after-school hours, and is pioneering innovative funding strategies for this purpose.

Where do you or your school stand?  I would love for you to share what your school is doing to change the deficit model and term, we have been taught and now must unlearn to offer our students a positive setting to succeed.  Please share your innovative work. 

Post Author: Challenging Minds

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