George Lucas Educational Foundation

Should You Use “At-Risk” to Describe Students?

Professor Ivory Toldson says you shouldn’t—here’s why.

May 30, 2019
Gary Waters / Ikon Images

The language we use in educational settings can be thorny. There’s plenty of evidence that pejorative labels—and well-intentioned descriptors that unconsciously emphasize student deficits—can negatively affect student performance, impacting self-esteem, confidence, and even cognitive processing. 

So should you use the common phrase “at-risk” when talking about students of color, poor students, or students who have faced trauma? 

When paired with “good data,” the phrase is “practically useful and generally accepted in professional and academic settings,” says Professor Ivory Toldson, writing recently for the publication The Conversation. But when used non-specifically, it becomes a “a catch-all phrase to describe a cluster of ill-defined conditions or characteristics,” and carries a social stigma that can do real damage to student psyches—and to their long-term prospects.

The bottom line: Situations or conditions may be at-risk, but children never are. The better question, Toldson argues, is “What are they at risk of?” A little more specificity—“research suggests that poverty places a child at risk,” for example—mitigates the stigma, makes the culture accountable instead of the student, and “puts educators and others in a better position to strategically confront” the issue. 

To those who suggest replacing “at-risk” with “at-promise,” Toldson says that feels condescending. Instead, just use “students” and be clear about both the risks, and the considerable resources, of the community under discussion. 

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  • Diversity
  • Culturally Responsive Teaching

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