Stress and Violence: At-Risk Youth

Stress and Violence: At Risk Youth

Stress is of course ubiquitous in school. Indeed, stress is everywhere in life and at all stages of it, in every situation and in every place. It is unavoidable. Not all stress is bad nor are all sources of stress negative; but the types of stress which we concern ourselves with here in this class are those that have the potential to put young people "at-risk" for being "in danger of future negative outcomes" (McWhirter, et al, 2013, p. 6). Those kinds of stressors are everywhere! Risk is, to put it bluntly, "inherent in [both] … children and families" (ibid, p. 11).

Some of these stressors are unique to the school environment (for example, being bullied or excluded), and some are separate from it (latch-key children, dysfunctional families, etc), but many of the most pernicious are pervasive to every aspect of the life of an individual and follow them everywhere the go: poverty, gangs, broken and dysfunctional families, incest, rape, drug and/or alcohol abuse by family members and/or themselves.

Add to that problems such as racism, cyber-bullying, gender- and/or identity-issues and we see clearly before us a real problem consisting of wide-ranging and difficult to address issues, many of them exacerbated by long-standing socio-economic problems, some persisting for many generations.

When young people are dealing with these kinds of issues, there frankly isn't a place where they do NOT have to deal with them, at least on some level. It would be nice if our classrooms could be a "Safe Haven" of sorts, at least offering temporary relief from the unrelenting pressures that so many of these kids have to deal with day in and day out. In researching this subject, it became obvious that an overarching goal for educators is to develop some of the knowledge, awareness and related skills to be empathetic with the challenges our students are facing and to—when and wherever possible—offer encouragement, counsel, support and possibly real tangible assistance.

This is becoming more important as society changes because, increasingly, teachers are expected to teach and school are expected to provide many of the essential life skills and moral instruction that in the past was taught by parents and churches (ibid, p. 19). For a young person with limited life experience, maturity and developing coping skills to have to deal with even a single one of these risk factors would be difficult. Many of our students are dealing with several of them all at once. And as educational researchers such as the McWhirters point out, "risk factors are multiplicative," in other words having two of them to deal with them isn't twice as hard as one, it's four times as hard; three is nine times as difficult. Their challenges increase exponentially (ibid, p 10).

With this in mind, it's surprising that many of our students are able to succeed at all in school, but the truth is many are doing exceptionally well, some in spite of their challenges.

When students that seem otherwise bright become disengaged, when young people that show great potential begin to fall short of their abilities, when formerly active and happy individuals become sullen, withdrawn and oppositional, then it makes sense that there are likely factors in their family life and/or at school that have precipitated these changes in our students. 

In response to this, educators should strive to become more aware of the various possible "at-risk" factors, but more importantly, then need to learn how to identify and address them in ways that can help our students to "have the courage to change what they can, accept what they cannot and have the wisdom to know the difference."

Daniel O'Brien

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Source: McWhirter, J., McWhirter, B., McWhirter, E., & McWhirter, R. (2013). At-risk youth: a comprehensive response for counselors, teachers, psychologists, and human service professionals (5th ed.). Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole.

© 2014 Daniel O'Brien