A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Education Reforms and Students at Risk: A Review of the Current State of the Art - January 1994

Interactive Risks

Describing a study on the relation between life stresses and psychiatric disorders in children, Rutter (1979) reports that children with only one risk factor -- even if the risk factor was serious -- were no more likely to have emotional problems than children with no risk factors. However, when any two risk factors co-occurred, they appeared to "potentiate" one another and the risk of emotional problems went up fourfold (p. 52).

Benson's (1990) findings also point to the "potentiating" effect of multiple risks. In a survey of predominantly white, Midwestern public school students in grades 6-12 (N=46,799), Benson (1990) finds that students with larger numbers of "deficits" (e.g., physical or sexual abuse, parental addiction, stress, social isolation) are much more likely to engage in at-risk behaviors, such as alcohol use or school absenteeism. At-risk behaviors were found to co-occur, for example, students involved in illicit drug use were also likely to be sexually active (pp. 48-49). Other research finds similar correlations (Frymier, 1992; Mensch and Kandel, 1988; Monk and Ibrahim, 1984).

Many at-risk behaviors co-occur due to cause-and-effect -- young people who skip classes, for example, miss out on instruction, thus they have a harder time passing tests and making good grades. Academic failure may further discourage them from coming to class, thus a downward spiral of absenteeism and poor achievement may ensue. Sometimes the process of becoming at risk may extend back before birth -- as noted in Chapter 2, poor prenatal care may place a child at risk of poor neonatal health, poor neonatal health may place a child at risk of developmental problems and poor parenting, and the combination of these problems over time may place a child at risk of difficulties in school.

At-risk behaviors may also co-occur because of direct or indirect peer influences -- for example, if a young person skips class with friends who use drugs or alcohol, the young person may pick up the habit to fit in. Also, at-risk behaviors -- and the responses of teachers to these behaviors -- may place an entire class at risk, not just the students who choose to engage in at-risk behaviors. For example, Monk and Ibrahim (1984) find that the standardized test performance of students who regularly attended class may be negatively influenced by their classmates' absences. The time teachers spend reviewing lessons with chronic truants, for example, may take time away from educational opportunities for the rest of the class. These findings suggest that we need to explore and address the group contexts, as well as the individual processes, that influence how diverse students become at risk. These findings also suggest that the costs of remediating the effects of at-risk behaviors and poor classroom climates may expand immeasurably if they are not addressed as early as possible.
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[ Chapter 4: Interaction of Risks and Resources] [Table of Contents] [Cumulative Resources]