Shifting From At-Risk to School-Dependent

“Watch your thoughts, for they become words.

Watch your words, for they become actions.

Watch your actions, for they become habits.

Watch your habits, for they become character.

Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

I believe that the words you use are extremely powerful.  The message you construct for your staff, community, etc. should reflect the vision/mission of the school.  There is a term that is frequently used that I am officially banning from my vocabulary.  The term that I am referring to is ‘at risk’. I spend a great deal of time talking to teachers, principals, etc. about students who are not successful. Invariably, the discussion comes around to the students being ‘at risk’.
The term ‘at risk’ typically involves a list of things that we are not directly in control of.  While those variables may impact success, they are largely out of our control.  I find that success is directly tied to the effort put into your circle of influence.  The focus of our efforts as leaders should be on those variables that we do have control over.  Our superintendent introduced us to the term ‘school dependent’ children.

We work with students each and every day that are ‘school dependent’.  This simply means that their success/failure is dependent on the school that they attend.  After all, the greatest predictor of student success is the classroom teacher.  Yet, many conversations still focus on the factors that are outside of our control.

This shift from ‘at risk’ to ‘school dependent’ puts the focus on the variables that we have control of.  These variables include:

  • quality of instruction
  • interventions provided
  • opportunities to engage in clubs/activities
  • mentorship programs

Many of our students our ‘school dependent’.   Our conversations, initiatives, and development efforts MUST focus on the variables that we have control of.  Please join the movement! Let’s acknowledge that there our factors outside of our control. Then move forward with the things that we are in charge of. Success is far more likely with this approach!

16 comments for “Shifting From At-Risk to School-Dependent

  1. February 1, 2011 at 8:28 pm

    Brian – I also lead a school that is deemed “at risk” with 90% of my students receiving free and reduced lunch. I think that his change in terminology from “at-risk” to “school-dependent” is a great way to lead forth with a positive culture that focuses on the things that we can control. Thank you for sharing this post – it has really stirred my thinking!
    Jennifer Patterson, St. Joseph, MO

    • February 1, 2011 at 8:53 pm


      Webster turned the corner when we no longer put our energy into those items out of our control. We called the group SOS “Sick of Stress” Every teacher was required to attend SOS meetings. The first exercise was to list all the items that were out of our control. That list was then shreaded and we vowed to no longer discuss them inside the school walls. We then made a whole list of items within our control and started concentrating on those issues.

      The last step was to hold each grade level accountable for teaching with rigor and having high expectations for every student and every teacher.

      This change of thinking greatly benefited our students along with benefiting the outlook of each teacher. Work started becoming an enviornment of success instead of an enviornment of impossiblities and excuses.

    • Suzanne Tiemann
      February 1, 2011 at 9:39 pm

      I totally agree! We have incredible kids, with incredible minds. With the help of our powerful teaching staff, the sky is the limit. Schools are the only answer for many. Thus, if they are school dependent, let’s meet them at the door.

    • February 2, 2011 at 2:04 am

      Thanks Jennifer. The school-dependent model definitely provides a context to shift people’s thinking.

  2. February 1, 2011 at 8:53 pm

    Words certainly do matter. I appreciate your focus on making a real difference for students, while understanding that some things may feel very much outside of our ability to influence. The only caution is that we must continue to recognize that part of our role in making a real difference does, in fact, include being appropriately active in positively making change happen to benefit the youth we serve. When we remove the feeling of “ownership,” then we can tend to incorrectly feel that we have no ability to influence. This feeling then leads to potentially abandoning the thought that we all must play a role in not only helping our “at risk” or “school dependent” students, but also in being responsive to them as well. Our instruction, interventions, accessible opportunities, and programs are successful only if we truly know and understand our students and families. The power and privilege that is an embedded part of our institution (education) includes the ability to affect change both inside and outside the walls of the classrooms.

  3. February 2, 2011 at 1:12 am

    I have to say that I have always disliked the term “at risk.” So many of our kids, especially in Title I schools, come to us that way. Meaning, they are labeled “at risk” because of their socio-economic status, the fact that they are LEP, etc. Many times it has nothing to do with academics. I like your way of looking at those kids. They are “school dependent.” We need to ask ourselves what we can do to help this child succeed academically, because as much as we’d like to, we can not change their home lives.

  4. February 2, 2011 at 6:55 pm

    I too have a very high poverty school that is labeled at-risk. I love how changing the label from at-risk to school dependent changes the shift in ownership too. At-risk defines the child while school dependent defines the solution. Thanks – there is going to be a change in vocabulary at our building.

  5. Mary Rice-Boothe
    February 6, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    Thank you for your post. I have disliked this phrase for a long time. I think as educators we need to use a strengths-based approach in working with kids. Students have too many negative labels already why should school add more?

  6. February 6, 2011 at 6:43 pm

    Wow, this post is amazing. What a shift to bring to staff! I start today with shifting my language!

  7. February 7, 2011 at 3:32 am

    Brian, great stuff. I have been speaking and writing about resiliency for a very long time and you are addressing a couple of important resiliency concepts.

    Many in the resiliency research domain have adopted “kids from at-risk environments” as their term of choice, including me. The title of my blog, KARE Givers ( is a twist on that. Using the term “at-risk” unfairly puts the responsibility of said risk on the child- grossly unfair and inaccurate as in almost every case, some environmental element is undoubtedly the risk factor.

    FUll-service schools are a practical and effective response to the needs of kids from at-risk environments. A group of Twitter thought-brokers are mulling a lot the last while aobut a concept. I’m calling Edukare and it’s gaining traction. #Ecosys has been buzzing the last two Wednesday chats in awsome dialog around the concept. I’d appreciate your POV.

    You also touched on “high expectations” as a pivotal step toward helping KARE kids succeed, and I agree. High expectations are a primary element of the Resiliency Wheel, a model of risk mitigation and strength-based focus. It is entirely true that KARE kids are capable and willing to make an effort as long as we can ensure there are significant supportive others in their lives- what the research proves resoundingly as the most effective and lasting support in a resiliency-building model.

    I believe I mirror Tom’s view in saying that I believe that “school dependent” may not be the best term to use in a resiliency-based model. I think the role of the school is to support the growing independence of all kids, but in particular the KARE kids. I believe hope is an action word, and revolving around hope as action are 4 main stages of maturation: dependence, independence, interdependence and maintenance. These align with respect, understanding, relationships and responsibility on a diagrammatic wheel I ahve devloped based on the Aboriginal medicine wheel. Dependency is undoubtedly a stage many find themselves in, but also one they need to evolve from as fast as possible to develop a resilient perspective.

    Anyway, would love to hear from you at #EduKare, and keep up the stellar thinking.
    Sean Grainger

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