Youth at Risk Behavior:
10 Warning Signs Every Teacher Should Know

› Risk Behaviors

What is "youth at risk behavior?"  Would you recognize risky behaviors in the way your students talk and play?

Communication and play behaviors are different in struggling students.  These kids may or may not be in at-risk youth programs, but they need help all the same.

Teachers have to be particularly observant to children who might be in crisis mode - and not just assume that the child is a "bad kid."

Scared child showing at risk behaviors


Often we think of students at risk as teenagers or young adults, but early identification is essential.  

Elementary-age children are highly risk for later developmental and social problems when they come from certain backgrounds.



Ten Warning Signs Every Teacher Should Be Aware Of Are:

  • Economic and social deprivation
  • Community or neighborhood disorganization
  • Alcohol/drug-involved parents
  • Poor parenting styles
  • High impact changes in life situations
  • Lack of friends
  • Early antisocial or withdrawn behaviors
  • High levels of conflict in home/family life
  • Low achievement expectations
  • AD/HD or other neurological issues

Let's say that you know the warning signs and have a great understanding of your students' backgrounds.  What can you do about it in the classroom?  Here's what to do when you directly observe potentially problematic behaviors in how students communicate with each other and play together.


Communication Problems

We all have the kid who looks at us like they have no idea what we just said. We wonder if they even heard us!

Of course they did...they just have no idea what we said.  

Or a child may overtly communicate their feelings by having outbursts, withdrawal or not being able to find the right words to express their feelings or needs.  

All of these are in the communication realm and are warning signs for a student who is at risk.

  • Delayed receptive and expressive language; consult your Speech Therapist
  • Inability to follow age-appropriate directions
  • May not use appropriate language to communicate feelings, wants or needs
  • May express needs, wants and fears through banging, stomping, shouting, or throwing
  • May show listlessness, passivity and/or lack of social awareness
  • Spend more time observing play rather than participating
  • Inappropriately initiates peer interaction by hitting, pushing, biting, swearing or making negative remarks
  • Shows deficits in communication under the social learning theory

What Can the Teacher Do?

  • Use "hands-on" activities to reinforce the child's expressive language
  • Adhere to established classroom routines to create a safe environment
  • Use eye-contact and give simple one step directions
  • Immediately respond to beginning attempts at conversation
  • Acknowledge and reflect the child's feelings
  • Verbally direct the student's behavior
  • Ignore inconsequential verbal behavior
  • Intercede with extra support
  • Provide opportunities for cooperative learning with an adult available for assistance and reassurance
  • Model verbal language for students to use with each other
  • Set consistent limits on inappropriate behavior with a classroom management plan
  • Identify and articulate felines by labeling emotions and helping them express them through role-playing
  • Provide alternatives ways for children to express their feelings, such as writing or art

  • Play Behaviors

    Just watch your kids at indoor recess or go out to the playground.  You can immediately pick out the students who seem completely lost.  They are often on their own or are annoying other children on purpose.

    Is it really on purpose?  Sometimes not.  They often have no idea how to interact with others. Watch out for these signs:

    • Does not organize own play; increased aimless wandering
    • Difficulty in joining others at play
    • Easily over-stimulated by too many people, things, noise or movement
    • Cannot select materials and focus adaptively
    • May appear confused at how to interact with peers
    • May show discontinuity or disorder in how they play
    • Does not understand concepts of sharing or taking turns
    • Initiates play that is inappropriate or dangerous

    What Can the Teacher Do?

    • Provide space and materials that do not need to be shared
    • Model choices for the child with correct verbal cues
    • Model interactive play and how to work with others as part of a classroom management plan
    • Provide opportunities during lessons for sharing and taking turns
    • Provide opportunities for the child to work with others with an adult available for assistance and reassurance
    • Model how to select materials and what to do with them
    • Decrease the amount of choices available to the student during certain times, such as centers, free choice or indoor recess
    • Work on active listening skills in the classroom
    • Provide support and encouragement during play through verbal reinforcement of correct behaviors

    At risk behavior can be redirected and changed in the early elementary classroom.  No doubt, is takes a lot of time and it's often hard to get parents on board, but when you know these kids have the cards stacked against them in certain areas we have to do something.  

    If we don't, who will?



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