BLOG: At-Risk Students: How to Spot Them, and What to Do

BLOG: At-Risk Students: How to Spot Them, and What to Do

“At-risk students” is a catchphrase that gets thrown around without much explanation. “At risk” of what, exactly?

The term is usually used to describe students in danger of failing or dropping out of school. While there can be a correlation, this is different from the possibility of substance abuse, criminality, or victimization. 

What does “at-risk” look like? Here are three major signs to watch out for as a P.E. teacher.


P.E. teachers may not know their students’ math or English scores. Those scores could become very relevant, though, if you are about to lose a star athlete due to low grades. 

We walk a fine line here. We don’t want to present the impression that we only care about those grades to protect our lineup or a shot at a championship. Remember, character counts on any team. A student-athlete who is academically failing may feel “stupid” and not have the strategies to tackle a challenging subject.

Conversely, a pupil who performs poorly in P.E. may just not like P.E. Consider other approaches to motivating such a student. However, you may want to have a conversation with the student’s other teachers and see if the poor performance is reflected across the board. A student might avoid talking to a math teacher about being “bad at math.” He or she might open up to “Coach” about it, though.


You might not notice a student’s poor math scores. It is a lot easier to notice, however, if a student is not showing up at all. Absenteeism is a warning sign for numerous risk factors that could imperil the student’s prospects.

Take attendance seriously. A student might consider P.E. a “throwaway” class, easy to justify cutting. Make it clear that you disagree. P.E. class is valuable and you hold your students to high standards. They can meet those standards by showing up and doing their best. 


P.E. teachers have a unique perspective on who the disruptive students are. You may be in a position to observe bullying or antisocial behavior. Students may try to “disappear” from P.E. class to engage in risky behavior. A student may get into fights easily, especially if his or her adrenaline is up from a sporting activity. He or she may have difficulty following rules or demonstrate disrespect for authority. 


As teachers, we are committed to every student’s success. If a student demonstrates signs of academic failure, we owe it to him or her to intervene. A one-on-one conversation showing that you care may be all it takes. You might be able to provide a sounding board, model coping strategies, or refer the student to counseling services.

If a student resists, a call to the parents might be warranted. Try not to pre-judge — just make contact. Can you be of any help? The parents might be surprised to learn of their child’s risk profile and may take steps to correct course. Run it by a trusted administrator if you are unsure of your footing.

You may discover a home environment that does not value education. It might be appropriate to take a more involved role to get an at-risk student back on track. Consider alternate study schedules and partnerships with high-performing students they respect.

Many young people crave mentorship from an attentive adult. As a P.E. teacher, you are in pole position to offer this. While it can be fun to focus on successful students, helping at-risk students find their feet will be a source of great satisfaction throughout your career.


Posted in The Whistle: PE Blog