Who are At-risk Youth?
The term at-risk youth typically implies a future with less than optimal outcomes. Youth are considered at-risk for a number of reasons. Examples include youth who may be:
- Homeless or transient
- Involved in drugs or alcohol
- Abused sexually, physically or emotionally
- Mentally ill
- Neglected at home or live in stressful family environments
- Lacking social or emotional supports
- Involved with delinquent peers
At-risk youth are often identified after running away, skipping school, drinking under age, engaging in sexual behavior, displaying disruptive behavior, bullying/harassment, fighting, and committing acts of vandalism. These behaviors can be precursors to dropping out of school, acquiring low paying jobs and/or unemployment, and adult criminal behavior.
At-Risk Youth and Truancy
According to “Youth out of School: Linking Absence to Delinquency”, unexcused absence is the first symptom that a student is likely to be at risk. If they are not in school, they are not learning and consequently fall behind in their studies. When students fall behind at school it may be difficult, perhaps impossible, to make up lost ground and “catch up”. This leads to disengagement from school and teachers and can ultimately lead to serious anti-social behavior like juvenile delinquency.
Schools typically discipline students’ misbehavior by suspending them. This sends a message that they are in fact not wanted. This “push out” model of discipline tends to make a bad situation worse. By definition, at-risk youth are already likely to be involved in a number of risky behaviors, and the elimination of a structured school day, including having extra free time, perpetuates these behaviors. Schools must be aggressive in their efforts to eliminate truancy instead of perpetuating it.
How to Help At-risk Youth Re-Engage in School
Helping youth re-engage in school requires not only the elimination of school “push out” practices (like suspension for truancy) but a host of other activities. One of the most frequent reasons for suspension is based on student behavior. Meeting students’ mental health needs can curb further behavior problems. Needed services include:
- drug/alcohol treatment,
- family/individual therapy,
- anger management groups,
- and character education components.
Services directed at social/emotional needs are also necessary. Involving youth in social skills groups or outside activities helps to engage them in the school process and redirect their energies toward positive alternatives.
Clearly, academics are a primary concern. Structured learning environments, with smaller than usual teacher to student ratios, are conducive to re-engagement. Students typically benefit from a focus on the core academic skills (reading, writing, and math). Tutoring services and computer programs can also be used to engage youth and help further academic skills.
The connection between home and school is an important factor. When families feel disaffected by the school system, they need help to be able to re-engage in the schooling of their child. Schools should encourage parents to be involved with their children’s school life. For students with serious attendance problems, mandatory parent/family nights on a weekly basis help ensure that parents stay involved.
Truant behavior predicts poor achievement, dropping out, delinquency, and ultimately adult criminality. The good news is that these poor outcomes are preventable. While it makes sense to intervene early, there are positive results gained by turning youth around at any age.
For additional information see our other resources on this website.
NCSE can provide technical assistance in program development and evaluation for supporting struggling students. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for questions and assistance.