Reaching Kids at Risk


Labels and Love

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At-risk children are often labeled, and labels can hinder their
ability to find the love and care they need.

Show kids they matter. I remember listening to
a 12-year-old who was in juvenile detention for molesting a younger
cousin. Between tears and the hiccups of hyperventilation, she
screamed, “I know I’m a monster! I know I’m no good!” She, too, had
been molested by a family member, and to counteract her feelings of
helplessness and rage, she’d become the predator in control.

Imagine being thought of as a “throwaway.” These children feel
worthless, problematic, a nuisance, and of no value. Sadly our
society attaches this unspoken label to thousands of at-risk kids.
These kids may have discipline issues, social challenges, and much
more. They may require more love, patience, and nurturing than the
“normal” kids. But rather than embrace them, our tendency is to be
exasperated by them. Eliminate the “throwaway” mentality by
establishing these four filters in your classroom environment.

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1. Stay positive. Create a positive, inviting
classroom. Be encouraging, friendly, helpful, and patient, and
require that all your kids treat each other in these same ways.

2. Defeat the Pygmalion Effect. Other­wise
known as the self-fulfilling prophecy, the Pygmalion Effect holds
that when we’re given negative expectations, we’ll fulfill them
every time. So don’t expect that an at-risk child will show up
late, cause problems, or ditch your class. Instead, expect that
this child will be the best classroom assistant you’ve ever had,
will learn more than any other child in your class, and will one
day be teaching others about Jesus — and express those admirable
expectations to the child.

3. Discipline — don’t punish. There’s a big
difference between the two. Punishment meted out as retribution
sends a defeating message to any child. Discipline is a tool that
proactively prevents problems, respects all individuals involved,
provides natural consequences for actions, and reinforces or builds
on a child’s developing inner values. Punishment, on the other
hand, is reactive, expects unquestioned obedience to authority
figures, relies on control by rules rather than inner values, and
has arbitrary consequences.

4. Banish boredom. Make your time together an
adventure. Stimulate kids’ imaginations, challenge their spirits,
and get them physically moving. Children who are stimulated and
challenged won’t find their entertainment in challenging you or
acting out. No child thrives in boredom. Make creative, active
learning your standard of teaching.

Don’t label. Tossing around labels is a lot like name-calling.
We don’t allow our children to call each other “stupid,” “lazy,” or
“liar.” Why then does it seem acceptable for an adult to call a
child “disruptive,” “hateful,” or “aggressive”? A child may exhibit
these behaviors, but they don’t make up the child’s being. Good
labels such as “beautiful,” “smart,” and “created by God” are the
only kinds of acceptable labels for kids. Anything else is a
characteristic, behavior, or demeanor exhibited by the child.

Discipline, Deeds, and

The way you handle a child’s discipline, deeds, and
disagreements will largely determine whether you’ll ever connect
with that child.

Monitor your behavior. David was a
self-proclaimed teacher’s nightmare. He interrupted, mimicked,
name-called, and randomly walked out of class. One day he threw a
pen at a classmate’s head. The teacher, Mr. Adams, blew up. In a
rage, Mr. Adams punched the chalkboard and shattered it. To the
other kids’ dismay and fear, he hauled David out of the classroom
by his shirt, calling him worthless, stupid, and “out of here.”

All over a thrown pen.

Adults are more likely to overreact to a child’s behavior when
that child has a history of poor behavior. Don’t fall into this
pattern. With each instance of misbehavior or conflict, assess the
infraction independently and follow your discipline policy as you
would with any child. For a sample discipline policy, go to Web
Extras at

• Don’t be indulgent, permissive, or indifferent. Kids can’t
build healthy self-esteem when they don’t understand which
behaviors warrant value because everything they do is praised,
rewarded, or ignored. Poor behaviors typically increase if adults
constantly award “another chance.” Kids’ aggression is viewed as
appropriate when it’s paired with an adult’s retaliatory
aggression. A child’s inattention becomes status quo when it’s
constantly overlooked.

• Don’t be lured into conflict. Often children at risk initiate
conflict as a self-protective mechanism. Rather than entering into
conflict, use the issue to make a personal connection. Earn your
kids’ trust. Wield your power selectively and compassionately. Be
predictable. Set fair limits and maintain them. Show kids respect,
and you’ll earn theirs.


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