The construct of being at-risk originated in the field of epidemiology. When epidemiologists conduct studies, they try to identify so-called risk factors (e.g., obesity), which are characteristics of people or environments that are predictive of health problems (e.g., heart disease). After risk factors have been identified in the first wave of studies, epidemiologists then create interventions to reduce the incidence of health problems by targeting the risk factors that are both highly predictive and modifiable.

When the term at-risk is applied to the field of education, it pertains to children who are identified as being more likely than other students to experience undesirable educational outcomes such as low achievement, suspensions, or dropping out of high school. After identifying the children who are particularly at risk for such outcomes, the goal then becomes one of creating interventions to help these children be more successful.


In the 1970s and 1980s, the phrase at-risk students slowly replaced the phrase disadvantaged students in the educational, psychological, and sociological literatures (though the latter continued in use into the early 2000s). Since the early 1990s, however, an increasing number of scholars have advocated using the phrase students placed at risk instead of at-risk students. The reasons for these multiple shifts in reference pertain to arguments that have been made regarding the implications of these expressions for the causes of educational failures, optimal research methodologies, and intervention strategies. For example, it could be argued that the term disadvantaged conveys the idea that group differences in achievement are primarily due to differences in family income and educational opportunity. This term does not seem to commit the speaker to a particular research strategy for revealing the nature of achievement differences, but authors who use the term would presumably agree that achievement differences could be ameliorated by providing increased opportunity to the disadvantaged group.

In contrast, the descriptor at-risk for educational failure focuses the reader's attention on the outcome rather than on the cause of learning problems and does not necessarily imply that income and opportunity are the primary or sole factors that are predictive of educational failure. In addition, authors who use the at-risk phrase seem (intentionally or unintentionally) to commit themselves to endorsing the idea that the epidemiological model is a useful approach for understanding ways to promote educational achievement and prevent educational failure. Endorsement of the epidemiological model, in turn, commits one to acknowledging the benefits of a research strategy in which researchers (a) take a longitudinal, developmental perspective in which they follow children from the time they enter school until they experience educational problems, and (b) gather data on various characteristics of students and their environments to see which factors are most predictive of subsequent educational problems (i.e., risk factors). Moreover, the epidemiological model specifies that interventions should target the most predictive risk factors that are modifiable (as noted earlier).

Although the standard epidemiological approach has remained prevalent in the literature, some scholars have rejected it for several reasons. First, they argue that it seems to place the blame on students themselves by focusing on their personal characteristics (e.g., their poverty or lack of readiness) instead of focusing on the characteristics of schools and other societal institutions (e.g., communities; school systems; legislators and policy makers); in so doing, schools and other societal entities are apparently freed from having any responsibility for children not succeeding. Hence, the perspective suggests that students should be the targets of intervention, and schools do not have to change how they treat at-risk students. Advocates of the placed at risk phrase argue further that many of the predictors of failure that have been identified in epidemiological studies (e.g., poverty) pertain to what is lacking in children and their families. As a result, the focus becomes one of remediating deficiencies in children and using the deficiencies as a reason for restricting access to quality educational experiences.

Critics of the at risk phrase argue for using the substitute phrase students placed at risk because it carries the connotation that others (e.g., teachers, school systems) have placed students at risk by treating them in certain ways. Instead of merely remediating deficiencies, they argue, school systems should focus on building on the strengths that students bring to school (e.g., their knowledge, talents, and interests). Moreover, advocates of the placed at risk phrase argue that educational failure is really the result of a poor fit between student characteristics and the classroom environment. To improve the fit and help students be more successful, interventions should focus on creating changes in both students and the classrooms in which they find themselves.

Other scholars have pointed out two further aspects of the epidemiological model that they believe to be problematic. The first is that the model seems to assume that risk factors work in an additive fashion rather than in an interactive fashion. For example, in an additive model, factors such as poverty and inadequate instruction each increase the risk of failure by a certain amount and the total amount of risk is determined by adding together the amount supplied by each of the two factors. However, if risk is defined by the lack of fit between student characteristics and characteristics of schools, such an additive account fails to capture what is really going on. A more apt account, they argue, would be one that describes the interacting effects of multiple factors. If a school uses ability grouping, for example, and a student comes to school with a high degree of aptitude for learning the material presented to the top ability group (i.e., the student has the prerequisite knowledge and motivation needed to take advantage of this enriched environment), such a combination would lead to highly favorable outcomes. Other combinations, in contrast, would lead to much less favorable outcomes because there would be a poorer fit between students and classrooms.

One additional problematic aspect is that the epide-miological model tends to ignore the fact that risk categories are not perfectly predictive, that individual cases fail to conform to expectations. Although it may be true that many or most children from low-income families fail to attain adequate levels of competencies in reading and mathematics, for example, some do achieve in spite of their circumstances. Conversely, although it is true that many or most children from affluent families attain adequate levels of competence in reading and mathematics, some do not in spite of their access to high quality environments. The focus on the degree of fit between individual children and their potentially unique circumstances at home or school allows one to explain both the cases that conform to expectations and cases that do not conform.


The phenomenon in which children attain favorable developmental or educational outcomes in spite of the adversity they face is called resilience. As noted earlier, variables that increase the probability of negative outcomes (e.g., low achievement) are called risk factors. Studies suggest that the likelihood of academic failure increases dramatically each time additional risk factors accumulate in a child's life. In contrast, variables that counteract or buffer the effects of risk factors are called protective factors. As the level or number of protective factors in students' lives increases, students are increasingly likely to demonstrate resilience. A third class of factors called promotive factors also increase the likelihood of favorable educational outcomes but do not operate to buffer the effects of risk factors per se. Instead, they promote academic achievement in both disadvantaged children (who are exposed to multiple risk factors) and advantaged children (who are not exposed to the same risk factors). The fact that variables in the third category promote achievement in advantaged children means that they are not working to buffer the negative effects of risk factors.

The risk factors that have been found to be predictive of academic failure include poverty, race, gender, presence of a learning disability or attentional disorder, mental health problems, inadequate levels of prerequisite skills upon school entry, exposure to multiple stressful events, living in a single-parent family, alliance with non-academ-ically oriented peers, and repeatedly transferring to new schools. More specifically, children are more likely to experience educational failure if they (a) come from a low-income home, (b) are African American, Hispanic, or Native American, (c) are male, (d) have a learning disability, attentional disorder, or emotional disorder, (e) enter first grade without foundational abilities in language (i.e., a large spoken vocabulary and knowledge of syntax), literacy (i.e., the ability to identify sounds in words and recognize letters), and mathematics (i.e., counting skills), (f) have to repeatedly deal with stressful events such as marital discord, parental job losses, and violent acts, (g) live with just one parent, (h) have friends who are not good role models for academic achievement and engagement, and (i) move to new schools multiple times throughout their elementary school years.


Low Income: Administrators encourage teachers to emphasize basic skills and mastery of those skills before higher level thinking is introduced. Middle/Upper Class Income: Classroom teachers are encouraged to emphasize both basic skills and high level thinking skills.

Low Income: The goals or expectations seem to be lower than the state benchmarks. Middle/Upper Class Income: State mandated benchmarks are the goals for at-risk students in this group.

Low Income: Skills are subject areas are taught as distinct and usually in isolation from each other. Middle/ Upper Class Income: Skills and subjects are integrated and students have the opportunity to experience a more balanced curriculum.

Low Income: An ideal classroom is one where the students are sitting at their desks, quietly working. The teacher is in charge of all information and the dispenser of information. Middle/Upper Class Income: The teacher often sets up situations where there is collaborative learning is encouraged. There is a great deal of conversation and guided practice. Independent learning is the goal in this situation. Peer coaching, group discussions, hands-on activities, differentiated instruction are just a few of the ways that teachers secure success for at-risk students.

Low Income: Programs for at-risk students in Title One or low-income schools often involves the implementation of pull-out programs taught by Special Education Teachers where special skills are addressed away from the context of the regular education classroom. Middle/Upper Class Income: Programs in these schools tend to use the Special Education Teacher as a resource in the regular education classroom. Often the Special Education Teacher acts as a Collaborative Teacher in the regular education classroom. In addition, Special Education Teachers are used as pedagogical consultants.

Low Income: Although individual educational assessment meetings occur, it is difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of the plan by the regular classroom teacher. Often the classroom teacher does not know the accommodations. Middle/Upper Class Income: Because students are usually in a regular education classroom, the teacher is able to monitor the plan developed in the individual educational assessment.

Low Income: For various reasons, lack of parent in the home, transience, and unsettled living situations, there is very little family participation in learning. It is difficult to communicate with parents because they may not have a phone or are unavailable during the school day. Middle/ Upper Class Income: Family participation in learning seems to be a key factor in success of students in this group. There are frequent phone calls and parent conferences. In addition, parents are encouraged to volunteer in the school.

Low Income: The Core Curriculum is static and doesn't reflect current thinking in pedagogy. Although encouraged to do so, the opportunity to attend workshops and seminars is not often presented to the teacher. Middle/Upper Class Income: The Core Curriculum is dynamic and reflects the needs of the school community and the community at large. Teachers are encouraged to investigate new and different ways to make learning happen. Workshops, seminars are made available to classroom teachers.

Low Income: The teacher is the holder to the key to the information or a dispenser of knowledge. Middle/ Upper Class Income: As a partner in learning, the teacher is respected as the “go to” person for information on how to help the child be more successful.

Low Income: There is higher level of violence and non-standard social behavior in the classroom and the school community. Middle/Upper Class Income: In higher income level school communities, programs like Alternative Education or Alternative Schools are possible because of the additional funds available for such programs.

Low Income: For a variety of reasons, students in this population spend more time at home. Some researchers believe that this isolation causes poor academic success. Middle/Upper Class Income: Students who have neighborhood and community support can also find success in school.

Low Income: Students living in areas of extreme poverty often distrust adults, avoid making friendships, seem hopeless or disinterested, and respond only to orders. Middle/Upper Class Income: Students in this population are more open, seem to have a number of friends inside and outside the classroom.

Low Income: Teachers incorporate multicultural elements into the lesson plans. Middle/Upper Class Income: Teachers accept and encourage students' racial, ethnic and cultural differences.

Elizabeth Soby

In contrast, the factors that have been found to play either a promotive or protective role include average or above average levels of general intelligence, average or above average levels of specific academic skills (e.g., math skills), high levels of self-efficacy, positive relationships with teachers and other adults (e.g., clergy, counselors, coaches), engagement in and attachment to, school, alliance with academically oriented peers, parental monitoring and parental engagement in offspring learning process, adaptive coping skills for dealing with stressful life events, and ethnic identity.

These variables, described more fully in the next section, operate at different ecological levels. Whereas some are characteristics of neighborhoods, others pertain to family, peers, classrooms and schools. Moreover, some are modifiable and others are not. Of particular importance are those factors that have been found to mediate between risk factors and undesirable educational outcomes. Studies suggest, for example, that some children manage to fare well in school even though they live in low-income, high crime neighborhoods and attend schools that are plagued with staffing problems and lack resources. Those children who achieve in spite of such circumstances come from homes in which their parents demonstrate optimal parenting practices and utilize community resources (e.g., sport teams, church groups, libraries). School improvement programs can also be effective for mediating between risk and outcomes.

However, researchers are still in the process of determining the complete and definitive list of such factors and their relative importance (i.e., which ones are more strongly predictive than others). The provisional state of knowledge in this regard derives from the fact that researchers have generally not taken a comprehensive approach in which they assessed the role of all of the above factors in the same study. It has often been found that certain factors (e.g., parent involvement in their child's school) are predictive of academic outcomes when examined alone or in combination with a few other factors that do not predict strongly, but are no longer predictive when a larger list of factors is examined or when particularly powerful predictors are included in addition to the focal factor (e.g., prior achievement). Moreover, many of the risk factors listed above co-occur in the same individual. For example, African American students (risk factor 1) are more likely than European American students to enter school without the foundational skills they need to be successful (risk factor 2) and are also more likely to live in a low-income (risk-factor 3), single parent home (risk factor 4) and attend a school with a higher percentage of uncertified teachers (risk-factor 5) and peers who eventually drop out of school (risk-factor 6). When only one of the risk factors is studied in isolation and is found to be predictive (e.g., race), its predictive role may actually reflect its association with other predictors that are more authentically connected to, or causally responsible for, academic failure (e.g., poverty or lack of foundational skills).


Identification of the complete set of authentic and modifiable factors in the risk, promotive, and protective categories is the first step in creating more effective forms of intervention. The second step is to identify the most powerful of these predictors so that interventionists can know which factors should be specifically targeted as a means of producing more immediate or larger effects. The third step is to combine the set of identified factors into a coherent causal story using an integrative theoretical model. In other words, it is useful to know that particular factors are predictive, but it is even more useful to understand why these factors are predictive and how they conspire over time to produce educational outcomes. When the association between a predictor and an outcome is somewhat mysterious, it is not clear how one should intervene and some inferences could lead to the implementation of ineffective strategies. For example, in the association between poverty and low achievement, it does not follow that higher achievement would immediately ensue if additional funds were to be supplied to low-income families. The association may be due to the fact that high income parents provide opportunities at home that instill prerequisite skills in their preschoolers before they start first grade. If so, a more effective form of intervention than simply providing funds would be one in which parents of low-income preschoolers are taught how to instill reading and math readiness skills in their children.

A number of scholars have suggested that Urie Bron-fenbrenner's Ecological Model can be used to integrate various factors into a coherent explanatory account of educational success or failure. In this model, factors are categorized in terms of the sociocultural level at which they influence developmental outcomes. The most proximal factors that operate within a student's immediate environment are said to be part of the microsystem of influences. This level includes factors such as a student's personal characteristics and behaviors (e.g., current knowledge and beliefs) and relationships with others such as parents. Operating at a more distal level are factors that influence other students in the same community and subculture such as local cultural norms, local educational policies, and belief systems shared by the local community. Collectively, such variables comprise the mesosystem of influences. At the most distal level are influences that comprise the macrosystem of the model such as national school policies and the belief systems shared by the larger culture of an embedded local subculture. Advocates of the Ecological Model argue that interventions must target factors from each of these levels in order to be effective and that certain factors at specific levels can mediate between risks and outcomes.

Alternatively, factors can also be integrated within an Opportunity-Propensity framework. Opportunity factors are those variables pertaining to the provision of high quality educational experiences. Students have been given excellent opportunities to learn when they are presented with the content required on achievement tests in an accurate and effective manner by a skilled teacher. Propensity factors are characteristics of students that pertain to their ability and willingness to take advantage of opportunities to learn (e.g., intelligence, prerequisite skills, motivation, and self-regulation). Factors in a third category explain the emergence of opportunities and propensities (i.e., why some students are given more opportunities and are more likely to take advantage of these opportunities): family socio-economic status, parental expectations, gender, race, and school policies regarding ability grouping. Because the latter factors operate earlier in time than opportunity factors and propensity factors, they are called distal factors. The Opportunity-Propensity framework suggests that interventions are more effective when they target opportunity factors, propensity factors, and distal factors.


Arthur J. Reynolds of the University of Minnesota examined the extensive literature on early interventions and developed the following eight principles of effective early childhood programs: (1) target the children who are at highest risk of school difficulties, (2) begin participation early and continue until second or third grade, (3) provide comprehensive child development services, (4) encourage active and multi-faceted parent involvement, (5) use a child-centered, structured curriculum approach, (6) limit class size and teacher/child ratios, (7) include regular staff development and in-service training for certified teachers, and (8) engage in systematic evaluation and monitoring. Programs that conform to these principles and produce significant effects (according to meta-analytic reviews) include the High Scope/Perry Preschool program, the Abecedarian Project, and the Chicago Child-Parent Center program. All of these programs target a number of factors identified earlier as being promotive, protective, or relevant to educational opportunities and propensities.

In terms of programs for elementary and middle school students, Olatokunbo Fashola and Robert Slavin in 1997 published a best evidence synthesis of the effectiveness literature in which they included any program in which (a) the performance of students in the intervention schools was compared to the performance of students in appropriate comparison schools, (b) the program was implemented in more than one school and success did not appear to depend on unique or specifically favorable conditions at one school, and (c) the program was found to be effective for low-income and minority students. Thirty programs were found to meet these three criteria for inclusion. Fashola and Slavin concluded that programs tend to be more successful when they (a) have clear goals and monitor student progress toward these goals, (b) have well specified programs, materials, and professional development procedures, and (c) are disseminated by organizations that monitor fidelity of implementation.

In terms of interventions for older students, Fashola and Slavin published a follow-up best evidence synthesis of the literature on dropout prevention programs and college attendance programs for at-risk high school students. Two dropout prevention programs met the inclusion criteria for having credible comparison groups, being effective, and being replicable across settings: the Coca Cola Valued Youth Program and the Achievement for Latinos for Academic Success program. Four college attendance programs met these criteria as well: Upward Bound, SCORE, Project Advancement via Individual Determination, and Graduation Really Achieves Dreams. These programs were apparently successful because they focused on multiple causes of these educational outcomes such as self-efficacy, relationships with others, school-parent connections, and enhancement of prerequisite skills.


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