Sometimes, at-risk youth aren’t who we might imagine them to be. They can come from all walks of life: rich, poor, middle class, black, white, or Native American; the list can go on ad infinitum.
It’s essential not to get bogged down with stereotypes, shame-based behaviors, or feel like you have failed as a parent. I have two sons, earn a low-middle-class wage, have a college education, and love my kids more than life itself. They were raised the same, in the same house, with the same parents, and yet, my youngest is an at-risk youth while his brother basically had an uneventful school experience.
Symptoms of an at-risk youth can manifest at any time. Here are some to look out for:
- Significant drop in grades, despite trying or not
- Fear and anxiety over going to school, to sleep, or taking part in age-appropriate activities
- Repeated physical complaints
- Tremendous amount of difficulty with concentrating at school or home
- Acting out sexually or with eating disorders
- Depression which includes sustained, prolonged negative mood and attitude shifts and is typically followed by a poor appetite, difficulty sleeping, or thoughts of death/suicide
- Erratic mood swings
- Spending time worrying and feeling anxious that gets in the way of daily life, such as at school or in socializing with peers
- Isolation, withdrawal, not participating in activities they once enjoyed (which goes along with depression)
My youngest son has struggled with many of the above since entering middle school. Could it be the hormones or his struggles with ADHD and Tourette’s? Or it could be that his parents went through a divorce during the COVID-19 pandemic – whatever the reason, it does not matter now. What matters is what we can do about it today, focusing on the solution, not the problem.
The first thing we sought out was therapy, an outpatient behavioral rehabilitation program, as well as any support we could garner from his school and community outreach programs. He also struggled academically, so we needed to find tutoring and summer school to get him caught up.
Let’s look at some of the possible examples.
When should I seek professional mental health services? Suppose the child’s behavior is deplorable. In that case, they may need a temporary stay in a residential treatment facility to get to the bottom of the emotions that could be driving the behavior. Getting help through treatment programs is one of the most loving things people who care about at-risk youth can do.
Remember to provide a safe place to go. Adults who want to empower at-risk youth can help by creating environments where kids feel safe and free from abuse, violence, and abandonment. It’s critically important not to make promises you are unable to keep. Be honest about the support you will provide, but absolutely do not create expectations you cannot fulfill.
When should I consider outside academic help? At-risk students may benefit from extra help with their coursework, extra time to complete assignments or accommodations for learning disabilities, and counseling or other social or emotional support to help them cope with challenges and succeed academically.
One of the ways we found the needed support for my son was by establishing grounds for an IEP and then going through the actions to see it through and implement with a team of professionals at his school.
What is an IEP in education?
Ok, so I mentioned an IEP. According to The State of Michigan Department of Education: An Individualized Education Program (IEP) is a written statement of the educational program designed to meet a child’s individual needs. Every child who receives special education services must have an IEP. That’s why the process of developing this vital document is of great interest and importance to educators, administrators, and families alike.
For further clarification, here is how they describe what is in an IEP:
- Present levels of academic achievement and functional performance (PLAAFP), which is information on how the student is doing in school and how their disability may affect progress in the general education curriculum.
- Specific skills or sets of skills to be taught are called ‘goals.’ These goals must be reasonable and achievable for the student.
- A description of how the student’s progress on these goals will be measured.
- Special education and related services (such as speech therapy), including supplementary (or additional) aids and services the student will receive (also called accommodations).
- Amount of time during the school day, if any, the student will spend apart from their peers without disabilities.
- The student’s participation in state and district tests, including test accommodations.
- The projected start date for the services and modifications provided to the student, including where, how often, and how long.
Once we demonstrated that my son qualified for an IEP, we were contacted by a wonderful organization in our state – Michigan Alliance for Families. According to their breakdown, an IEP should cover the following:
- Present level of academic achievement and functional performance statement in the IEP is a snapshot of the child’s current abilities and skills.
- Goals and objectives are the specific, measurable skills or behaviors that the student will master in one year’s time. The student’s progress will be monitored.
- Accommodations and modifications allow the student to participate and be successful.
- Special Education and Related Services are the programs and supports provided so the child can meet their goals.
- Students will be part of the general education curriculum and included in extracurricular activities as part of being educated in the least restrictive environment.
- The IEP also addresses assistive technology, behavior considerations, and participation in statewide assessments.
- As part of the IEP process, parents should receive a copy of their procedural safeguards, which includes providing prior written notice and information on resolving disagreements. For students who are 16 or older, a transition plan is part of the IEP.
Michigan Alliance for Families is our state’s federally funded Parent Training and Information Center and is a Michigan Department of Education IDEA Grant Funded Initiative. The efforts of Michigan Alliance for Families align with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to help improve results for children with disabilities and can assist in knowing your rights, effectively communicating your child’s needs, and advising how to help your child develop and learn.
I am proud to say that after implementing their suggestions and attending their free workshops, my once “at risk” youth is now a thriving teen in high school. He is back to his adventurous self; skateboarding, BMX riding, swimming, and going on off road adventures with friends. We are proof that there is always hope.
Helping at-risk youth succeed
In conclusion, it is essential to recognize that at-risk youth can come from any background and face various challenges. However, as parents and caregivers, it is crucial to focus on finding solutions and providing the necessary support to help them succeed.