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Time To Retire The Term ‘At Risk’

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It is time to take back the term “children at risk.” Educators and mental health professionals popularized the term about ten years ago and we need to withdraw it. Labels can be helpful on clothing and shoes but not on children.

What began as a well-intentioned effort to help identify children with problems that were not being adequately addressed has resulted in branding a generation of kids, families, institutions and communities.

There are several reasons why the situation has developed as it has and why the term has run its course. A little background:

In just a couple of generations our community has evolved from accepting plain vanilla as the norm to requiring a year post-high school in Israel, a $5,000 chosson’s watch and a $250,000 down payment on a house.

Keeping up with the Schwartzes is not a cliché and has resulted in an upward spiraling of pressure in our community to do more and be more at all times, beyond the capabilities and resources of most people.

At the same time, our yeshiva system has become too competitive and elitist, with most schools wanting to accept only the best. Where does that leave the average student or, even more so, the youngster with a learning deficit or a lack-of-interest issue?

We have created a caste system of yeshivas and day schools for the best kids – and then some for all the others. Often, a yeshiva principal who wants to give a behaviorally challenged youngster a chance to remain in school feels pressure from other parents to expel that child.

There are boys and girls who were labeled “at risk,” who went to “at risk yeshivas,” and who are now married with children, leading successful, healthy, normal lives as strong members of their shuls and communities.

Conversely, there are boys and girls who went to name-brand yeshiva high schools, the best kollels and seminaries, and while there were involved in aberrant behavior and illicit activities.

A statistical truism is that there will always be a percentage in a group that will fall behind, just as there are those who will excel. Labeling as “at risk” some of the children who are at the bottom percentile – and, moreover, affixing the same label to yeshivas that specialize in educating these children – will perpetuate a cycle of adolescent rebelliousness and foster long-lasting negative relationships with schools and the community.

Some children simply to do not fit in – whether in a group, a yeshiva, or a community. Labeling them only reinforces their negative image of themselves and they begin to fulfill expectations and be the bad boys or girls we expect them to be. They’ll want to hang out with similar kids, go to an “at risk” yeshiva, etc.

Certainly there has been a sea change over the past decade in the way we view children, adolescents and teens who are different. We are quicker to recognize and respond to such difficulties and there are many educational, therapeutic and community supports available

We have a greater number of professionally trained educators and licensed mental health practitioners with specialties in assessing and responding to telltale signs and risk factors. Extensive school-based services are available, as are well-trained mentors to buddy with adolescents who require such extra attention.

Numerous articles, monographs and videotapes provide helpful guidance and information to parents and educators. Special journals, books, studies and workshops at virtually every major conference of Jewish organizations have served to keep this issue on the front burner for many years. My colleagues at Ohel have contributed to these efforts and are to be commended.

At the same time, however, several negative stereotypes have been created that are hard to dispel.

How does a young person lose the “at risk” moniker? If he is no longer using drugs, if he was a “bad kid” who has now become a “good kid,” does he still carry the stigma? Is he referred to as what he once was, or as the good, healthy young man he is today? Better yet, did his family inherit the label?

There can also be an inadvertent misrepresentation of groups. It’s been noted that some youngsters who use drugs or alcohol do so to quell the pain and memory of having been sexually abused. But to assume, therefore, that the overwhelming majority of drug- or alcohol-using youngsters were sexually abused is a quantum leap and not correct.

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