What are At-Risk Students?

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What are At-Risk Students

The term “at-risk” is used to describe a student, or a group of students, with a higher than normal likelihood of academic failure, or dropping out of school. It has been used to describe students whose circumstances make it more likely for them to be unable to finish their education.

These circumstances could include homelessness, incarceration, teenage pregnancy, serious health issues, domestic violence, transiency, or it may refer to learning disabilities, low test scores, disciplinary problems, grade retentions, or other learning-related factors that could adversely impact their educational performance.

While generally used to describe a group of students, teachers also use the term to describe a specific student, in whom some of the above listed circumstances or disabilities have been observed. 


Different states define at-risk status differently. This is important as the term could have so many different meanings, that leaving it without a specified definition could render it entirely meaningless.

To combat this, school districts generally create different, broad definitions of at-risk, so as to make these students easier to identify. These definitions typically include:

  • Physical and learning disabilities
  • Persistent health issues
  • Habitual truancy, incarceration history, or delinquency
  • Family welfare or marital status
  • Parental educational, income levels, and employment status

While these definitions can help in classifying students as at-risk, this status is generally dependent on the circumstances, and life situation of the student in question. It is impossible to come up with a generalized definition, as the circumstances can vary wildly from student to student.

In higher education, it often refers to students who are less likely to graduate, such as first-generation college students (neither parent got at least a Bachelor’s degree), underrepresented students, low-income students, students from single-parent households, delayed enrollment in postsecondary education after graduation from high school, did not obtain a high school diploma, part-time enrollment, full-time employment, independent student status, and student is a single parent.
My book, Who Graduates from College? Who Doesn’t?identifies many additional predictors of degree attainment. For example, students who belonged to a gang or involved in drug and alcohol use in high school are less likely to graduate. Students who live on campus are more likely to graduate than students who live off campus or with their parents. The book includes more than 700 tables and charts about specific predictors of college completion. I highlighted some of the more significant findings at and will have a more in-depth article at the College Investor website soon.
Mark Kantrowitz
Author, How to Appeal for More College Financial Aid
Author, Who Graduates from College? Who Doesn’t?

To make them easier to identify, Dr. Cheryl Burleigh, who spent 27 years in the education field, and now serves as a faculty member for the School of Extended Education at Brandman University, has identified the following warning signs of at-risk students that all educators should be aware of:

  • Slipping grades
  • Tardiness or absenteeism
  • Disruptive, disrespectful or risky behavior
  • Failure to complete assignments
  • Feeling overwhelmed by tasks
  • Inability to comprehend the instruction provided
  • Unwillingness to engage in classroom activities
  • Lacking self-confidence

She also notes that at-risk students generally act out as a result of wanting attention, and thus teachers should engage with these students, and their parents, in positive ways. This can help improve academic performance and attendance, and, hopefully, lead to these students losing their at-risk status.

The aim for any educator should be to provide these students the individual help and attention they need, to give them the best chance at success. Here are some ways to help:

Make Reachable Goals

Media and popular culture can often lead to children developing unrealistic personal and career goals. With the 24/7 news cycle and the rise of social media, children are inundated with stories of exceptionalism, and expect the same from themselves.

Add this to the list of factors that lead to a child being classified as at-risk, and you have a recipe for disaster. And so, societal and peer pressure are real problems faced by kids these days, and helping them set realistic, reachable goals is the first step in combatting this. 

While doing so, it is important to recognize that changing one’s path can be an extremely difficult thing, and at-risk factors can make it even harder on the child. These cases must be handled on an individual basis, with goals and targets being customized to suit the needs and circumstances of an individual student. 


At-risk students can often find it hard to share their problems with others. This could be due to a variety of reasons, they may feel ashamed of their circumstances, or their lack of social skills might make it hard for them to open up to others.

As a teacher or parent, it is important to create an environment where the student feels safe expressing their feelings, fears, and hopes. Positive social interaction is required to make the student feel comfortable, with successes being praised, and failures treated as an opportunity to learn, rather than a cause for punishment. 


To be engaged means that one is devoting their entire attention to the task at hand. For a student, this often means making studying fun, with plenty of opportunity for praise and reward. For students already struggling with their studies, engagement can be difficult. Their circumstances and struggles can lead to them losing interest in and questioning the very value of education.

At-risk students often feel isolated, and so it is important for them to have chances to spend time in a positive, supportive environment, to make connections with supportive adults and make friendships with those their own age, who may be in similar situations. This can be achieved both in the classroom, and in an after school setting, through extracurricular activities such as sports, or music. 

Be Proactive

If as a teacher you feel your student might be at-risk, or even as a parent, it is important to be proactive. Don’t allow your child to fall behind, or drop out of school, or lose faith in their education.

Try and identify the causes as soon as possible, and come up with solutions that could alleviate some of their problems. Teachers and parents need to work together in order to create the best possible environment for the child, and to give them the best chance at success. 

The purpose of this blog post was to educate readers about at-risk students, to give parents and teachers a way to identify the factors that can lead to students becoming at-risk, and to provide some ways to help a child in this situation. And if you’re a student who feels they’re at-risk or that you fit some of the above criteria, don’t worry.

You’re not alone, a lot of people go through difficult periods in life, and it’s ok to ask those around you for help. The important thing isn’t for you to excel academically, it’s for you to be able to lead a happy, and fulfilling life. We may not understand your individual problems, but you can help those around you who want to try and understand, and are willing to do all they can to help. 

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Austin has 10+ years of experience in teaching. He has researched on thousands of students-related topics, issues, and concerns. You will often find him writing about the common concerns of students, their nutrition, and what is beneficial for their academics and health both.