Guidelines for Working with At-Risk Youth

What is it like working with at-risk youth?

Educators teach youth of all different abilities and needs.  As someone with juvenile and adult corrections education experience firsthand, unfortunately, some at-risk youth have had a difficult journey based on their behavioral needs and that has made their education process challenging for all. No worries. In our experience, success is possible for struggling youth if they are given a chance. It will take time, effort and a caring mentor or adult. Is that you?

What follows are helpful guidelines that can be utilized while working with and teaching at-risk youth which can improve their self-resiliency in and outside of school.

Common Behavior of At-Risk Youth

Typical behavior exhibited by youth between the ages of 14 – 21 years old is the result of their developmental growth intellectually, emotionally and socially. Common behaviors of challenging youth include being impulsive in their decision-making process.  Many are searching for and testing the limitations of their environment.  Others may be experimenting with independence.

At-Risk Youth Statistics

Unfortunately, many students who have behavior related issues often experience challenges in adult life.  There is no shortage of statistics on behavior related issues for students who have been labeled as having emotional behavioral disabilities (EBD), or specific learning disabilities (SLD) including:

  • 70% of youth in the juvenile justice system have been labeled as EBD, or SLD
  • Only 35% of youth labeled EBD graduate from high school (compared to 76% of all other general education students)
  • Youth labeled as EBD are twice as likely to live in a youth detention center, correctional program, drug treatment center, halfway house, or on the street
  • Youth labeled EBD are 3 times more likely to be arrested before leaving school
  • 73% of youth labeled as EBD who dropout of high school will be arrested within 5 years

All Important – Teacher-Student Interactions

Well-prepared educators are essential in guiding at-risk and struggling individuals with social or behavioral issues through challenges while also helping establish the groundwork for developing self-resiliency and building a new pathways toward preventing juvenile delinquency. Most important, when a student acts impulsively, the teacher-student interactions cannot become confrontational. Effective teachers respond to negative behavior by establishing appropriate tones while modeling that the teacher is in control. Here are some practices teachers can use to set the appropriate tone:

  • Communicate with a clear voice and calm tone while using common vocabulary.
  • Be firm, fair and consistent.
  • Be objective with decision-making. It can be best to provide a youth with decision-making options and allow for choices to be made.

Below are important ideas to remember when working with at-risk youth

Remember to Breathe

Remember to keep calm and breathe. When encountering challenging behavior remember that the fewer the words, the better. Afterward, find time to conference with fellow staff as guidance.

Remember to Document

Frequent documenting of youth behavior and observations allow for being able to pinpoint causes of negative behavior. Documentation is critical in the mentoring process because it provides valuable feedback towards establishing an understanding with at-risk and struggling youth while informing the teacher how he/she may need to modify or accommodate the curriculum to stimulate improvement.

Remember Expectations

Utilizing proximity while maintaining clear classroom while modeling expectations will curb negative behavior. It is important to model empathy and self-control when reacting to youthful behavior by practicing control under pressure.

Remember Reinforcement

Model the necessary skills that will produce positive behavior from students. In addition, positive reinforcement strategies, early intervention, and mentoring programs are effective ways to improving student behavior.  These strategies have shown to reduce the number of students who experience school failure and lower the odds of at-risk students being incarcerated for juvenile crimes while also reducing the number of adult “career criminals”.

Remember that Transparency is Key

If a difficult incident does occur it is important to remain transparent with the youth and the parents. Establishing and maintaining an open and transparent line of communication not only benefits the student, but it helps maintain clarity between home and the school.


Published by

Mr Resilience

I am an Correctional Educator with an EBD and LD special education background. I always look forward to working with challenging and at-risk youth. I love a good underdog story. Follow Mr. Resilience on Twitter @ResilienceNavi1

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