At Risk Kids: A Road Map to Intervention

Summary: Children of poverty often need more intensive services to succeed in school; a blueprint for doing so out of the University of Oregon School of Education merits a review.

In the early morning of the early days of school, in each school year, teachers encounter new students with a fresh hope for each of progress and good relationships. In reality, the same teachers know that the higher the rate of poverty in their classroom, the greater the likelihood of troubled narratives, despite their earnest efforts.

The story line extends to the national perplexity — stagnant academic skills, unacceptable graduation and dropout rates, and an economy that has outstripped all but those whom our schools and culture have managed to prepare to the requisite level. A disproportionate number of kids of color, but also plenty of poor whites fall short of that measure.

All teachers – elementary, middle, and high school — will recognize the opening scenes, but as kids age into upper grades, those whose transit has been erratic either disappear from view, or discover their fitful growth leaves them unready for the increasingly sophisticated academic demands of the upper grades. Failure and discouragement loom; dropping out becomes the danger, or at best underemployment.

Interventions ideally begin with the very youngest kids, before their psychic and academic setbacks accumulate and set a path increasingly more difficult to alter.

Over time I have referred to promising schema from charter and public schools – team teaching in grades K-3, as in a KIPP charter sequence in Newark, community outreach to pregnant mothers in the Harlem Children’s Zone, various mentoring programs in Seattle. And so on.

An older but sibling model out of the University of Oregon School of Education (1996) anticipated many such initiatives. Interestingly, the proposal reflects the prevailing bipartisan concerns of the time with criminal violence, and the accompanying preoccupation with incarceration. In order to appeal to the reigning anti-crime funding sources of the time, the researchers’ clarion call was to recognize the potential of school based programs to attack the nativity of violence in its early stages in young kids, which often as now meant poor young kids.

Today we target the same demographics, but now the funding bywords are low skills, drop outs, graduation rates, and the needs of the economy for skilled workers. Same at risk, more often than not low income kids, same problems.

All students in the Oregon model will need what the authors call “primary” prevention, which amounts to a well-conceived and capably run school with strong instruction and curriculum and a clearly promulgated and consistently applied discipline system. The authors emphasize discipline is designed to remedy behavior, not exclusively to punish and certainly not to exclude, and refer to studies that find punishment itself rarely results in more than further misbehavior, most particularly at the more antisocial end of the spectrum.

Such “primary” prevention is a high enough water mark in itself, but necessary to give at risk kids what we intend once we have accommodated to their deficits.

In the “primary” prevention sector also are school wide curricula such as anger management, conflict resolution, and general attention to pro-social skills, including those necessary to school success such as doing one’s homework, being to class on time, and other such nitty-gritty items each student may or may not arrive at school having mastered.

The already laden teacher will nod with apprehension that she has little enough time for reading, writing, and arithmetic without another set of such lessons for which to prepare. The Oregon folks only tangentially acknowledge the need for additional staffing to implement their vision, though that need is crystal clear to anyone with even a passing familiarity with life in schools; the price tag goes up even here.

Nonetheless, these systems establish a baseline for a school that will meet the needs of the majority of kids, those well ready for school, and those whose at risk burden is manageable enough to leave them in a normal orbit.

“Primary” prevention in effect acknowledges that many nominally at risk kids are not aberrant or in need of clinical attention, but are thus far doing the best they can on a tilted playing field. “Primary” prevention engages “protective” factors designed to enhance kids’ resilience — their ability to respond to manageable adversity and persevere against headwinds — an in-the-nick-of-time redemption.

Regardless of these “primary” efforts, early screening of young kids will soon identify some who just can’t quite adapt to the school social structure or to an escalating series of academic markers, and so will need more intensive 1:1 attention.

At this point the Oregon schema shifts into an individualized mode of “secondary” prevention which makes use of a variety of techniques tailored to each identified student’s deficits. Tutoring, remedial reading or mentoring may be useful. Behavioral contracts might be employed, or counseling encouraged. The interventions are more intensive; the cost in professional time dedicated rises still further.

“Tertiary” prevention is reserved for “life course persistent” patterns of antisocial behavior and or chronic academic maladjustment. A commitment to long term interventions, again gauged to individual circumstances, is one principal characteristic of this level. A typical “wraparound” plan pulls together outside agencies such as child welfare, juvenile corrections, therapists, and parents as well as various school personnel. Specialized or alternative schools with low teacher/student ratios may be necessary. Communication and integration of plans is the leitmotif; even more funding, though for fewer kids, is the enabler.

Critics charge correctly that we already spend more per student than most if not all first world brethren societies, and get inferior results in the bargain.

The counter is that our schools shoulder the burden of inequalities in society that are yet poorly addressed, or are addressed poorly in the mammoth costs of incarceration, welfare, and subsidized health care.

To create not partial remedies, but to make full commitment to troubled kids where we gather them in schools – well, then we are intervening in income inequality at the bedrock, before the potential of poor kids to thrive in a rapidly morphing employment environment can disintegrate.

This may be one issue where spending too little is money wasted; the amount falls short of a tipping point after which the composite efforts against poverty – in schools, job training, income credit, even tax reform — start to show unequivocal results.

At the onset of the school year, as the proverbial teacher surveys her incoming young students, all bright and shiny, her experience tells her a certain percentage of the kids will demand more than she can give. How might it enliven her own outlook to know that within her school exists a plan for each kid, depending on need and circumstance?

First, an inter-meshed set of systems to amplify and complement her efforts. Second, a set of ready made supports she does not have to create herself can be moved into place where a kid needs something extra. Third, in her good heart she can know that each kid she faces that new September morning has a chance in her school, which is up to the task, and assuages her native guilt at never doing enough; she can rest more easily in her profession.

That just might keep her in teaching, perhaps even lure her to an inner city school, and do the right thing by her students at the same time.

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