Children At-Promise

Reimagining the at-risk paradigm

The current at-risk conceptualization

What makes a student "at-risk?"

"...characteristics and circumstances that pre-dispose students to experience risk outcomes (Johnson, 2000)":

  • English as a second language
  • ethnic minority status
  • low socio-economic status
  • inadequate familial and community environment
  • cognitive and behavioral difficulties
  • low test scores
  • history of discipline problems
  • past retention

What are they at risk for?

Risk outcomes:

  • drug abuse
  • teen pregnancy
  • child abuse
  • violence
  • failure in school
  • dropping out
  • adult illiteracy
  • unemployment or underemployment
  • incarceration

The risk factors identified are often linked to the risk outcomes listed. Schools implement a variety of programs to decrease the risk.

How do schools prevent risk outcomes?

Schools intervene!

  • remediation
  • special education
  • sex education
  • substance abuse programs
  • counseling
  • tutoring
  • initiatives to improve parent involvement

So what?

"Social science research has identified poverty, a social problem, as the factor most likely to put a person 'at-risk' for drug abuse, teen pregnancy, child abuse, violence, and school failure. Nonetheless, policy makers, the media, and often researchers themselves have personalized 'at-riskness,' locating it in youth, their families, and their cultures (emphasis added). Even though this approach sometimes succeeds in getting needed services to children and families, it has led to stereotyping, tracking, lowering expectations for many students in urban schools, and even prejudice and discrimination. Looking at children and families through a deficit lens obscures a recognition of their capacities and strengths, as well as their individuality and uniqueness (Benard, n.d.)."

and so we are in need a new conceptualization, a new paradigm

From at-risk to at-promise

As educators, we need to move from focusing on the deficiencies of students to a belief in the potential and resilience of ALL students.

What makes a student "at-promise?"

Characteristics of at-promise students:

  • individual potential
  • individual strengths
  • individual interests
  • cognitive abilities
  • affective strengths

What are they at-promise for?

Promising outcomes:

  • academic success
  • personal success
  • social success

How do schools create promising outcomes?

Schoolwide enrichment!

  • positive, caring relationships
  • positive, high expectations
  • opportunities to participate and contribute
  • curriculum modification

What can teachers do?

We must:

  • focus on student strengths - and in order to do that, we must know student strengths!
  • help students realize their own resilience
  • make learning relevant and meaningful
  • support students in learning to self-assess (Benard, n.d.)


Benard, B. (n.d.) Turning it around for all youth: From risk to resilience. Clearinghouse on Urban Education Digest. Retrieved from

Johnson, G. M. (2000). Improving the education of students at-risk at promise. Teacher Education Quarterly. Retrieved from

Mathews, J. (November 15, 2009). Want to eliminate at-risk kids? Call them something else. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

Sege, I. (May 20, 2012). Moving from "children at risk" to "children at promise." Eye on early education. Retrieved from

Annah Lord

Concordia University