"It is important for teachers to have more open conversations around the topic of disclosure, and letting the students know that they can come to them for help and support."
Dr. Alana Butler is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education at Queen’s University. She has 15 years of teaching experience in a variety of different settings, including kindergarten, ESL, secondary school, adult literacy, and university. She has dedicated much time to researching the experiences of Black students in American and Canadian higher education and was a research collaborator on the SSHRC funded study, "Can We Talk About Race? Confronting Colour-blindness in Early Childhood Education." Currently, Dr. Butler is researching at-risk students and their families in elementary and secondary school settings.
SWY: What does your research focus on?
AB: My research right now focuses on mostly low SES [Socioeconomic status] as a risk factor for children and youth in terms of their educational attainment. I'm focusing right now on Ontario in particular, so I have a few research projects that address that issue, but mostly I look at SES as well as mental health and trauma.Things like abuse and family dysfunction that may have a traumatic impact on children and youth are part of my research. Generally, the scope is low-income [youth] and the things that go with it as well.
SWY: What does it mean to be an at-risk youth?
AB: There are many different definitions, but generally, a lot of the formal definitions say that [the individual] is at risk of not achieving their goals of education and career attainment and that they are at risk of not becoming a self-functioning adult, meaning that they’re basically a person who is self-sufficient and able to function very well as an adult. This means that you can take on responsibilities, have a job, things like that. So being "At-risk" means you are impaired in some way from achieving that. This can also increase chances of ending up in the criminal justice system or unemployed. One of my research projects is looking at a population called NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training). These are people who don’t have a job or an education, so they kind of face a barrier since they don’t have a chance to access that. So, they would be considered an at-risk population too.
SWY: In terms of the education system, what are the main existing issues pertaining to at-risk youth? How can these be combatted?
AB: I think some of the main issues have to do with the resources made available to them, to support them; especially since they may need a lot of resources. Resources can mean anything from the availability of nutritious food to tutoring resources they may need. Especially with trauma, for instance, many don’t even have access to counselling, so just providing resources is kind of the main barrier - lack of availability and resources for communities. I should also note that in Northern communities and Indigenous communities, it’s worse; there aren't a lot of resources for the youth and then we can see the risk factors for what happens in those populations too. In an ideal world, there would be more funding dedicated to resources to support these students - they need financial, psychological resources that address their physical health as well as their mental health and their academic growth.
SWY: How do you think the current education system responds to students experiencing abuse? Is there anything you think the education system can do better to help students experiencing abuse?
AB: I think right now most teachers are pretty responsive. I think that individual teachers are doing good jobs but I think collectively more needs to be done to raise awareness because I think some children right now kind of suffer in silence and don’t necessarily share their concerns or feel comfortable doing that. A lot of it depends on individual teachers, but I think we need to have more awareness around abuse so that more students feel comfortable coming forward. It is important for teachers to have more open conversations around the topic of disclosure, and letting the students know that they can come to them for help and support.
SWY: If a teacher is made aware of a student experiencing abuse what is the current protocol they would follow?
AB: All teachers have a duty to report. So even if a child tells the teacher to "keep it quiet," the teacher has an obligation to protect the child and report the abuse to the local Children's Aid Society in the area. Under the teacher rules in the OCT (Ontario College of Teachers), the teacher has a responsibility.
"All teachers have a duty to report."
SWY: How does the foster care system affect a student's experience within the education system?
AB: Foster care is a huge risk factor because typically the person has had a lot of disruption, problems with attachment, sometimes with the parents because they may lose that attachment, and they tend to have quite a few other issues. The reason one ends up in foster care sometimes is because, in some ways, the parents are unable to care for the child. That’s why a foster child has a disadvantage because you just don’t have that stability at home, which helps with academics and everything else. So for foster children, they have higher dropout rates and lower rates of them accessing higher education because they have experienced these problems.
SWY: What is the most important thing you want educators to understand about at-risk youth?
AB: I think the most important thing for educators is to recognize their potential. So many people who were once considered at-risk are very successful, so it’s important to set high standards for them and have high expectations and not think that they are limited in what they can accomplish - that with support, they can accomplish the same, if not better, than anyone else. Just like we would think about individuals with disabilities that require an accommodation, if they have a supportive teacher and school system to help them, they can overcome their challenges and become successful and fulfill the goals that they want for themselves.
"So many people who were once considered at-risk are very successful, so it’s important to set high standards for them and have high expectations and not think that they are limited in what they can accomplish - that with support, they can accomplish the same, if not better, than anyone else."
SWY: If you could say one piece of advice to an at-risk student or a student experiencing abuse, what would you say?
AB: The advice I would give is to try as best you can to seek out the presence of caring adults who are going to support you. So, if you disclose to one adult and they shut you down or ignore you, keep trying because eventually, you will find that person that is going to be willing to support you.
SWY: Is there anything you would like to add to raise awareness about at-risk youth, childhood abuse, and the effects it has on youth?
AB: I think I have probably said most of it already, but just providing support for individuals where one can, and as educators, the most important thing is to provide resources for those students and at the same time set high expectations for them and for what they can achieve. Don’t think that they cannot achieve a lot. For the students themselves, to believe in themselves and try to seek out individuals that can support them and help them overcome a lot of the challenges that they experience.