Group Publishing
Subscribe Button

Reaching Kids at Risk

Jennifer Hooks

Labels and Love

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.

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 Disagreements

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.

Print Article Print Article Blog network
Copyright © 2014 by Group Publishing, Inc.