The term "at-risk" came into use after the 1983 article "A Nation at Risk," published by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. The article described United States society as being economically and socially endangered. At-risk students are those students who have been labeled, either officially or unofficially, as being in danger of academic failure. In the U.S., different states define "at-risk" differently, so it is difficult to compare the varying state policies on the subject.
Students who are labeled as "at-risk" face a number of challenges that other students do not. According to Becky Smerdon's research for the American Institutes for Research, students, especially boys, with low socioeconomic status (and therefore more likely to be labeled "at-risk") show feelings of isolation and estrangement in their schools. Educational philosopher Gloria Ladson-Billings claimed in a 2006 speech that the label itself actually contributes to the challenges. Her view is that, "We cannot saddle these babies at kindergarten with this label and expect them to proudly wear it for the next 13 years, and think, 'Well, gee, I don't know why they aren't doing good.'"
Youth that come from low socio-economic status are more likely to be labeled “at-risk.” Growing up in poverty is associated with many negative outcomes, which impacts transition into adulthood and may affect later self-sufficiency. The timing, depth, and duration of poverty during adolescence are important when evaluating the likelihood of negative outcomes. Youth living in households with income under 50% of the federal poverty level are those most vulnerable.
Growing up in a stable two-parent household is associated with better health, academic achievement, and social skills like healthy interaction with peers. Studies have shown changes in structure, such as parental divorce, co-habitation, and remarriage, have strong negative relationships between multiple transitions and academic success. Children who are exposed to domestic violence, criminal activity, or substance abuse have a much higher chance of long-term behavioral problems, such as alcoholism and drug abuse and mental health problems.
Schools can place students “at-risk” by leaving them without academic skills and preparedness. School environments can often be places of struggle for many adolescent youth. Bullying in particular is likely to lead to student disengagement putting students at risk for behavioral problems and school dropout.
High poverty neighborhoods are often characterized by high crime rates, limited resources, and underperforming schools. Schools with fewer resources are more likely to be associated with poor academic outcomes. Fewer resources means low teacher student ratios, low student spending, and lower overall academic performance. These neighborhoods often lack the resources needed to help youth overcome risk factors.
Minority youth, particularly African-Americans and Latino youth, face many barriers to self-sufficiency that white students are less likely to face. Racial discrimination often leads to violence, bullying, and also hinders youth employment opportunity. African-Americans and minorities are more likely to live in high poverty environments characterized by underperforming schools with limited resources and therefore have a higher chance of academic failure. Immigrant youth also face several challenges with adapting to the culture and experience intensified problems such as language barriers and legal battles.
To much surprise of the general public in recent years social scientists have realized that it is not simply the minority youth who are at risk, but also affluent youth who come from privileged homes (educated parents beyond college, upper middle class living). “America’s newly identified at-risk group is preteens and teens from affluent, well-educated families," writes Madeline Levine, author of the "Price of Privilege." She goes on to say, "In spite of their economic and social advantages, they experience among the highest rates of depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, somatic complaints, and unhappiness of any group of children in this country…. These new findings should in no way minimize concern about those children traditionally considered to be at risk. Rather it should open our eyes to the fact that money, education, power, prestige, and material goods offers no protection against unhappiness or emotional illness. We need to seriously examine the culture of affluence—what it values, what it neglects, and what it disparages—to find clues to the disrepair of so many of its children.” What we have always assumed to be a problem of poverty, has now become a problem of the privileged, as well. While grades in school may not always be a symptom, other issues such as substance abuse, delinquency, and mental issues may surface in these new "at-risk" youth.
The sooner at-risk students are identified, the more likely that preventative "remediation" measures will be effective. Examples of remediation include:remediation programs
child care services
substance abuse awareness programs
close follow up procedures on truancy and absenteeism.
Psychologists have recognized that many youth adjust properly despite being raised in high risk circumstances. This capacity to cope with adversity, even being strengthened by it, is crucial to developing resilience; or the human capacity to face, overcome, and ultimately be strengthened by life's adversities and challenges.
Psychological resilience is an important character trait for youth trying to mitigate risk factors. Resilience is used to describe the qualities that aid in the successful adaptation, life-transition, and social competence of youth despite risk and adversity. Resilience is manifested by having a strong sense of purpose and a belief in success; including goal direction, education aspirations, motivation, persistence, and optimism. Getting youth involved in extracurricular activities is important in building resilience and remediation. Particularly, those involving cooperative approaches such as peer helping, cross age mentoring, and community service.
Childhood trauma is detrimental and can be damaging during emotional development. Overcoming trauma contributes significantly to resilience. Many youth that have experienced trauma have an inability to cope with and adjust to new surroundings. Trauma overwhelms one’s ability to cope and may lead them to isolate against the fears of modern life, often viewing the world as a threatening or dangerous place. These students distrust others, including adults, and because of traumatic experiences rely on themselves to keep safe. New or unexpected stimuli can often trigger traumatic flash-backs. Slamming doors, loud announcements, students and teachers shouting can trigger instant terror within a child who has suffered from trauma. Teachers are critical in nurturing and building resilience in at-risk students exposed to trauma. Although, being empowered to participate in their own healing, gives young people a sense of self-control, safety, and purpose.
Juvenile delinquency and school dropout are a significant problem in Canada. In 2010 37% of youth self-reported engaging in one or more delinquent behaviors such as acts of violence, acts against property, and the sale of drugs. Canadian boys are twice as likely as girls to engage in violent behavior but about equal in crimes against property. In 2010 the rate of those accused of a crime peaked at 18 years of age and generally decreased with age. School dropout rates between 2009 and 2010 were around 10% of young males and 7% of young women. Only 44% of children in foster care graduate from high school compared to 81% of their peers.
A large percentage of youth in Mexico are considered at-risk and many engage in negative behaviors. 30% of Mexican youth ages 12–24 drop out of school and remain unemployed and inactive after age 18. Another 30% of Mexican youths have never participated in any extra-curricular activities outside of a school setting. Many risk factors for Mexican youth are the same as those identified in the United States, however; poverty is a more prevalent influencing factor.
Launched by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the International Youth Foundation (YIF) the Youth:Work Mexico program focuses on putting youth to work and creating a safe space for disadvantaged youth. By the end of 2014 7,500 Mexican youth will have participated in youth camps and after school programs. Nearly 2,000 at-risk youth will have been prepared by job training programs.
Title I is one of the largest United States federal programs in K-12 education.Title I provides financial resources to schools, particularly those in low socio-economic communities, to ensure that low-income students meet challenging state academic standards.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of America is a program that establishes meaningful monitored mentoring between volunteers and at risk youth ages 6–18. Big Brothers Big Sisters is the largest donor and volunteer supported mentoring network in the United States. The organizations mission is to provide children facing adversity with strong, enduring, and professional one-to-one connections that forever change their lives for the better.
Reading Rockets is a United States government funded project that supports the needs of at-risk youth by offering research based reading strategies, lessons, and activities designed to help children learn to read and read better. The program aims to help struggling readers build fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension skills.