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Some types of children-at-risk.

That children today are growing up faster physically seems to be undebatable (Ware, 1991). This fact is repeatedly documented in the literature and is seemingly recognized by both parents and teachers. Unfortunately, however, "the earlier physical maturation of today's students has not been paralleled by similar social and emotional maturation" (Toepfer, 1986, p. 57). A multiplicity of such societal and environmental factors as teachers' and parents' expectations, peer pressures, media, pop culture, music, and family mobility and instability seem to demand that children act and behave socially and emotionally more precociously than they actually can. One effect of the demand for more precocious behavior is that children are pressured -- indeed, they are at risk earlier -- in certain ways and areas that in previous times were not nearly so widespread, were "reserved" for later ages, or were not prevalent at all.

The purpose here is to (re) acquaint the reader with baseline information (incidence, symptoms, and preventive measures) pertaining to four categorical types of children-at risk. The types are: (a) suicidal, (2) sexually abused, (3) physically/emotionally neglected or abused, and (4) latchkey.


Reports of suicide among children between the ages of 5 and 15 have surfaced only since 1960. Earlier, neither coroners nor physicians reported children's suicides because they believed children could not comprehend the actual meaning of death and/or did not have the means available to end their haves (Bauer & Shea, 1987). Since 1960, the annual reported numbers of youngsters' suicidal attempts have increased dramatically, but remain misleadingly low (Baller & Shea, 1987; Turner, 1992). Currently, suicide ranks as the sixth most frequent cause of death among children. (Turner, 1992). "Twelve thousand children are admitted to psychiatric hospitals each year ... although this number may represent less than 5% of all children who attempt suicide" (Bauer & Shea, 1987, p. 125). Indeed, suicide attempts, particularly among children, are antithetical to American values and mores.

Symptoms of suicidal tendencies among children may range from relatively passive activities, such as playing in streets, near open windows, or near construction sites to such impulsive acts as ingesting a complete bottle of a new medication, running toward an oncoming automobile, or playing with loaded firearms (Bauff, & Shea, 1987). It should be noted that in nearly all cases of children's suicide or attempted suicide parents, peers, and/or teachers were aware of the fact that these children were experiencing social and/or emotional difficulties (Turner, 1992). The principal indicators of these difficulties included: changes in eating and sleeping habits, rebellious behavior, neglecting personal appearance, significant personality changes, and such physical disorders as fatigue, stomachaches, and headaches (Strother, 1986; Turner, 1992).

As is the case with the other three at-risk types identified in this manuscript, administrators and teachers are in a strategic position not only to help identify children's problems but also to help ameliorate them. In the specific case of suicidal children, school personnel can and should discuss the finality of death with children, conduct parent information programs, provide staff development exercises, and coordinate in-school programs with such community personnel as psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers (Bauer & Shea, 1987; Johnson, 1985). Of key importance to educators is keeping firmly in mind the fact that suicidal feelings among children are treatable (Strother, 1986; Turner, 1992).

Sexually Abused

Recent data indicate that there are far more cases of sexual abuse among children than previously had been thought or reported (Sinclair, 1993). According to McNab (1985), annually 300,000 elementary-age youngsters are sexually molested, 50,000 are abducted, and thousands more are involved in prostitution and pomography. Other indications of these insidious data include: (1) "Out of a classroom of 25, it is likely that five children have been or will be sexually abused by the time they finish high school (Roehl & Burns, 1985, p. 19); (2) "One in 10 to 20 school families involves an incestuous relationship. The incest usually begins when the child (overwhelmingly a female child) is 6 to 12 years old and may continue for years" (Roehl & Burns, 1985, p. 19); and (3) "Figures indicate that one in three girls and one in six boys will have had some kind of sexual contact with an adult by age 14" Herman, 1985, p. 169). In a recent unpublished study by the writer involving over 500 elementary schools in the Southeast, it was found that each school's principal was aware of at least one case of sexual abuse in his/her primary-age population.

Most authorities, in writing about the incidence of sexually abused children, seem to agree that the figures cited above are conservative estimates of the actual number of sexual abuse cases (Herman, 1985; Sinclair, 1993). One leading authority, however, believes that perhaps the estimates are too high since children are not able to differentiate fully "...between internal thoughts and external happenings until about age 11" (Emans, 1987, p. 741). This authority further drinks that "people who maintain that children never fabricate with regard to sexual experiences are deluding themselves" (Emans, 1987, p. 741).

Symptoms of sexual abuse include: depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, itching and/or bleeding in the genital area, stained underclothing, and -- of particular note to educators -- refusing to dress out for physical education (Herbert, 1985; Sinclair, 1993). Feelings of guilt also are common among sexually abused children, particularly since the great majority of molestations involve other family members who "are significant" in the lives of these children (Roehl & Burns, 1985; Sinclair, 1993).

From a legal point of view, educators in every state are required to report cases of sexual abuse to appropriate authorities. The requirements for and means of reporting are disparate between local school systems; therefore, administrators and teachers need to be informed about the channels of communication in their respective districts. Additionally, educators and/or other designated personnel must take the lead in discussions with children suspected of being sexually abused since the children themselves will seldom initiate disclosure and will purposely attempt to hide all pertinent data. Finally, school curricula must be planned to include information about sexual abuse. "Good" and "bad" touches can serve as one aspect of such curricula, and trade books increasingly are available to serve as instructional supplements Herman, 1985).

Physically/Emotionally Abused

Each of the past five years, over one million incidents of physical abuse have been reported to officials (Krents et al., 1991), and over 75% of these incidents involved elementary-age children Gladback & Wheeler, 1985). As in the earlier discussed case of sexual abuse, the reported number is probably very conservative (Thomas, 1992). One reason may be "...the reluctance of school officials to recognize that child abuse takes place among the affluent and educated as well as among the disadvantaged and undereducated" (Herbert, 1985, p. 9). Reliable data concerning the incidence of emotional abuse vary considerably. Writers have estimated the range as being from 20% to 60,7c of the school-age population (Cummings, 1991; Lasko, 1986).

Unexplained bums, bites, bruises, broken bones; injuries and bruises noticeable after a weekend; anxiety about going home; and fear of adults are some of the more common symptoms of physical abuse Krents et al., 1987). "Dysphoric mood" (irritable) and "anhedonia" (not interest in usual activities and people) are the two most prominent features of emotional abuse (Lasko, 1986).

It seems to this writer that educators must play three principal roles in attempting to help decrease the incidence of both physical and emotional abuse of children. First, educators must report both types of suspected abuse to appropriate authorities. Second, in the case of physical abuse, educators by themselves and/or through appropriate agencies must involve parents who most likely have caused their children's mistreatment while they themselves were out of control. "After their initial anger at the intervention of the agency, most parents feel a sense of relief that the problem has been identified, and they are usually very willing to work toward a solution" (Meddin & Rosen, 1986, p. 30). Third, in the case of emotional abuse, educators primarily need to take stock of themselves. It is egregious that "much of what has been reported concerning the incidence of emotional abuse in the family system likewise may prove relevant to psychological abuse of students in school settings (Conlee, 1992, p. 67).


"Latchkey children" is a phrase coined during World War Il to describe children who were regularly left without direct supervision before or after school. Many such children were instructed to wear the keys to their houses around their necks, which explains the derivation of the term "latchkey." Although generally considered to be a very conservative estimate, 30% of the nation's elementary-age children are reported to be "latchkey" (Lilly, 1992). Unlike the three previous at-risk types described in this paper, the numbers of latchkey children seem to be just as great among parents with high incomes, high levels of education, with high levels of employment. Too, there is a higher percentage of latchkey children in the white population than in the non-white (Phi Delta Kappan, 1987).

Also unlike previously discussed types of children-at-risk, there is a considerable difference of opinion among professional personnel (Gray & Coolsen, 1987; Lilly, 1992; and Seligason, 1986) regarding the benefits/liabilities of children being without direct adult supervision. Some professionals seem to believe that older latchkey children develop a greater sense of responsibility and a concomitant enhancement of their self-images than do "supervised" children; other professionals think not. However, all do seem to agree that to date so little research has been done in this regard that definitive conclusions are impossible to make.

Whether or not educators choose to become involved in before-school, after-school, and summer-vacation supervision of children (itself a matter of considerable controversy), There would seem to be at least three helpful functions school personnel could and should perform. First, educators should help design curricular programs that would help latchkey children (and their parents) determine the logistical means and the responsibilities of self-care arrangements (Lilly, 1992). Second, since latchkey children do not have access to adult help to assist them in completing their schoolwork correctly, educators should more carefully structure homework assignments. Third, educators should allow more time during school hours for latchkey children to discuss personal mallers with adults.

A Final Thought

Unfortunately, as all educators know, there are many more children-at-risk in the public schools than the four types identified in this paper. The academically impaired, the socially hampered, the substance abusers, the physically handicapped, and the non-promoted are other examples of at-risk types. Certainly, educating these children is no mean task, but it is the single basic function teachers can do better than any other group. Indeed, in this writer's opinion, educating children-at-risk is the most distinguishing characteristic of a distinguished profession.


Alexander. N. (1991). School-age child care: Concerns and challenges. Young Children, 41, 4-10.

Bauer. A.M. and Shea, T.M. (1987). The teacher's role with children at risk for suicide. Educational Horizons, 65. 125-127.

Conlee, K.M. (1992). Emotional abuse: The hidden crime in the classroom. Contemporary Education, 57. 66-71.

Cummings, P.G. (I 99 1). Warning: Emotionally abused children abound. Perspectives on Education, 16, 8-13.

Editor. (1987). Census bureau estimate of number of latchkey children disputed. Phi Delta Kappan, 68, 638.

Gray, E. and Coolsen, P. (1987). How do kids really feel about being at home along? Children Today, 16. 30-32.

Herbert, M. (1985). What principals should know about child abuse. Principal, 65, 9-14.

Herman, P (1991). Educating children about sexual abuse. Childhood Education, 61. 169-174.

Krents, E., Schulman, V., and Brenner, S. (1991). Child abuse and the disabled child. 7he Volta Review, 89, 78-91.

Lasko, C.A. (1986). Childhood depression: Questions and answers. Elementary School Guidance and Counseling, 20, 283-289.

Lilly, E.P. Crisis in the Nation. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992.

Roehl, J.E. and Burns, S.R. (1985). Talking to sexually abuse children. Childhood Education, 62, 19-22,

Sinclair, S. (1993). Data on sexually abused children. Education Quarterly, 26, 13-20.

Strother, D.B. (1986). Latchkey children: The fastest growing interest group in the schools. Journal of School Health, 56, 13-16.

Thomas, R.L. (1992). The physical abuse of young children. Today's Children, 43, 62-68.

Toepfer, C.F. (1986). Suicide in middle level schools: Implications for principals. NASSP Bulletin, 70, 55-60.
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Author:Palardy, J. Michael
Date:Jun 22, 1995
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