Back when I was 24, I took my first official teaching job.  It was at a head start preschool.  This job changed me in many ways.  But one conversation with a fellow teacher still stands out.  It was the summer of 2017, and I was talking with one of my co-workers, Katie.  I knew right away that Katie was someone I really admired. She was smart, funny, witty, and a talented teacher.  I sensed she had more experience and could share with me some valuable knowledge.

One morning, I was asking about her preschool experiences.  I wanted to know more about her prior experience at other preschools. Katie shared that she had mostly taught in head-start preschools serving kids considered to be at-risk. (For those who are unaware, Head Start is a government funded early childhood program that aims to prepare young children for school.) Katie confessed that she liked working with at-risk children and their families.

I happened to be a more naïve individual, and needed some clarification.  “What does it mean for kids to be “at-risk”? I asked.  This was the first time I’d heard the term “at-risk youth.” 

“‘At-risk youth’ refers to children who statistically speaking have a lower chance of transitioning successfully into adulthood. It includes kids who live in poverty or come from low-income families, children born to teen parents, kids from dysfunctional families, and kids whose parents don’t have much education,” Katie explained.

I came away from that conversation knowing a new term in the educational field.  This was also an eye-opener for the importance of equity in services for disadvantaged kids.  Most of my experience as an educator has been spent working with at-risk kids. Having seen first-hand the dysfunction some of these children live with, I understand the importance of getting them help during their youth.

It’s easy to see for children who come from dysfunctional homes how imperative intervention is.  However, I’d like to propose a broader definition of “at-risk youth.”  This is one that takes into consideration kids who seemingly lead tranquil lives at home.  My proposal comes from a combination of research and personal experiences. 

I by no means would have been considered an at-risk child. I was raised by two parents, both with college degrees. I had access to many opportunities as a kid (not that I took advantage of all of them).  My family lived above the poverty line, and my parents helped me financially through college.  Statistically speaking, my transition into adulthood should have been fairly seamless.

But looks can be deceiving. My transition into adulthood has not been an easy one. Problems that I dealt with in childhood due to an anxiety disorder (Selective Mutism) have followed me into adulthood (surprise, surprise). It’s been a little disheartening learning that if I’d had the needed accommodations in school, my young adult life could have looked different.

My realizations about my school problems has sparked an interest in learning disabilities and developmental disorders. As a result, I’ve turned to listening to podcasts about supporting kids with learning disabilities.  I’ve learned of so many strategies that I can use with my own students.  

I’ve also heard numerous stories of other adults who have learned of a learning disorder they grew up with. What stood out to me is the feeling of emotional trauma felt by most. The adults have shared they had the same problems arise in college and careers they had while attending school. They have also dealt with mental illness, substance abuse, career instability, instability in relationships, etc. And many of these people have come from stable families.  They were the exact kids expected to grow into successful adults.

Research has shown that if kids with learning and developmental disorders receive the support they need, their challenges as adults will be minimized. They will experience a typical transition into adulthood just like their neurotypical peers. It has also been shown that kids with disorders are at risk for problems like substance abuse, financial instability, mental illness, etc. if their learning needs aren’t addressed. This is exactly what programs like Head Start try to tackle by wanting to serve at-risk youth.

I’d like to see the definition for “at-risk youth” be expanded. Generally speaking, when experts study at-risk kids, they take into consideration financial stability and parental education.  Parental education and financial factors are both factors that can potentially influence the success of kids. Data has shown that kids who grow up to less educated and financially unstable parents are at higher risk of not leading successful lives.

This holds true for children who don’t receive the individualized support they desperately need as students. This could be any kid, but students with learning and developmental differences are likely to fly under the rug. We should not only look at financial and education factors, but also individuality, and we should work to meet every student’s learning needs. And if a child is not excelling as a student in spite of having the potential to do so, this should be a red flag for their future. For the problems that kids face in childhood do not simply dissolve in college; they are habits that kids need help outgrowing.

A New Understanding of At-Risk Youth

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