Revisiting “at-risk”

For a novice or a teacher without teaching credential, the work of dealing with idiosyncrasies in children’s learning behavior is the duty of either school administration or counselor. Every little difference in social-emotional experiences and/or behavior of students (compared to the norm) could be seen as a possible warning sign. Hence, these teachers are quick to refer students, after having them labeled as extremely withdrawn, hyperactive, slow, deviant, etc.

However, when schools resort to such a referral system and permit the mindset that go with it, they are actually condoning a wrong-doing in how students are educated, especially the so-called “at-risk” learners. This approach places the blame for academic failure solely on students. But countless research findings indicate that academic success is determined by both student and teacher characteristics. What teachers do and/or do not do is equally responsible for under-achievement as what students do and/or do not do – a truth conveniently overlooked in the past.

For many decades, it was believed that students are fully responsible for their own failures. While this may be partly true, it is a narrow way of looking at the issue. There has been no breakthrough in dealing with students with specific learning difficulties because educators have been looking for the answer in the wrong place.


The term “at-risk” is used to refer to students who are not experiencing success in school and are potential academic failure. When a child is suspected to be at-risk of failing, teachers, administrators and counselors examine the child’s family background, home environment, past achievement records, etc. All attention turns to the child. School personnel consult with internal as well as external departments or agencies to come up with scientifically sound educational intervention to help the child. At least this is what happened in the old system.

New paradigm

Experienced and/or teachers with teaching credential usually understand the term “at-risk” differently. For these individuals, the condition is preventable. They correctly know that many at-risk students ended up being such because of what teachers do or do not do.


When a teacher is boring and monotonous, he could expect young learners to lose focus and engage in behaviors similar to hyperactive-attention-deficit conditions. Because of ignorance and oversight, the teacher then refers children who display such behaviors as ADHD cases and label them as at-risk of failing in test/exam.

Teachers who speak too softly place children at-risk of hearing impairment, and potential academic failure. Ineffective use of whiteboard (e.g. very small or illegible handwriting, disorganized presentation of points, etc.) increases potential difficulties in reading, following instructions and completing homework assignments.

Teachers with unpleasant personality and negative attitude discourage students from seeking help, hence increasing possibilities of under-performance. In this example, it is students’ refusal to seek guidance, rather than their actual intellectual prowess that places them in the at-risk category. This could be easily averted if a teacher is approachable and friendly.

Way ahead

Since most at-risk students are the direct outcome of teacher characteristics, teachers must start looking at themselves as active agents of students’ academic successes and failures in a more responsible manner. Teachers must become more perceptive of each student’s strengths and weaknesses and provide differentiated, individualized attention to each child to maximize his/her potential. They should reflect on their profession, understand its seriousness and accept to do all that it takes to help every child to succeed.

Change of expectation and attitude, engaging students in active, meaningful learning, getting students interested in lessons without judging/labeling them, believing that every child can and does learn, and utilizing multiple approaches to reaching out to students are some effective ways to prevent academic failure, successfully!

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