How to address a student engaging in risky behaviors

8 min read
December 7, 2022

Adolescence is a unique period of time in someone’s life, filled with risks and opportunities. While this may be a daunting period of time for young people, it is also a time when they can explore their limits and test their abilities. This transition from childhood to adulthood makes young people more vulnerable to potentially harmful behaviors that can negatively impact their health and their lives. These consequences can have short- and long-term after-effects like lowered grades or risk of dropping out.

Although this is a time when young people are more susceptible to risky behaviors, it is also an ideal time for these groups to develop healthy behaviors and habits. Schools play a critical role in promoting the health, safety, and well-being of their students, and teachers and administrators alike can help influence their students to make the right choices for each student’s individual values and best interests. 

What is risky behavior?

Risky behavior is any action that has uncertain outcomes and that can put someone or those around them at risk of harm. Here are some examples of risky behaviors you could see in your students: 

  • Unsafe sexual behavior
  • Unhealthy dietary behaviors
  • Selling drugs
  • Weapon use
  • Illegal activities such as stealing or vandalism
  • Smoking or vaping
  • Using marijuana or cocaine
  • Binge drinking
  • Skipping school
  • Dropping out of school
  • Dangerous driving

According to the 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, condom use among students having sex decreased from 61% in 2009 to 54% in 2019, presenting a serious health risk for STIs. This study also found that 7% of U.S. high school students reported current prescription opioid misuse, and 14% reported misusing prescription opioids at least once in their life. Unfortunately, this can lead to overdose and other poor health outcomes. Students who reported current prescription opioid misuse, also commonly reported current use of other substances including marijuana and alcohol, in addition to binge drinking.

Why do teens engage in risky behavior?

It’s natural for teens to want new experiences. While teachers and caregivers may set boundaries for young people, teens may want to test these boundaries. This may be a means to question authority, but it can also be due to a desire to be accepted by one’s peers. Parts of the teenage brain which handle planning and impulse control don’t completely mature until the age of 25. This means that teenagers are sometimes more likely than adults to make quick decisions without thinking about the consequences. 

This is all natural. This is all a part of every young person’s path to becoming independent young adults– young adults with formed identities, who accept responsibility for their actions. Developing one’s sense of self is thought to be one of the biggest undertakings of adolescence. This makes sense given the fact that this may be one of the first times in a young person’s life when they will think about who they are and how they fit into the world around them.

The influence of peer pressure

Friend groups can be a large part of someone’s adolescence and can help them figure out how they fit into the world. It’s all a healthy part of the journey to adulthood; however, it can be troubling when peers influence bad or risky behaviors. Social media and media like T.V. shoes and popular movies can also glorify bad behavior and influence teens and young people to make decisions that can be harmful to their health. Additionally, risky behavior can often result in positive attention and popularity among peers, increasing the likelihood and incentive to “act out”.

How can you address risky behaviors?

Suggest “safe risk-taking”

Try suggesting some safe and constructive activities through sports like boxing, tennis, or basketball. They can even find the “rush” that they might be looking for through more creative mediums like theatre or dance, where they can express themselves freely and with group support. Creative hobbies like these have been shown to increase someone’s well-being, reduce stress, and improve their connection with others. Community is an essential part of mental health, and having people to lean on during tough times can make a huge difference in someone’s mental health and overall well-being. 

Give opportunity for decision making

You can also try giving your students a sense of independence by giving them options and letting them make decisions about things throughout the school day. This can be as simple as asking them how they want to learn about a subject rather than telling them. You could also ask students how they are going to handle any situation or challenge they have at hand: Will they use the internet? Will they ask one of their peers? This sense of autonomy can increase motivation, self-reflection, and levels of engagement both inside and outside of the classroom.

Build rapport and good communication

If you are able to build a strong sense of trust between you and your students, they’ll be more open to coming to you when they’re struggling, rather than keeping it or turning to unhealthy outlets as a means to cope. You can start this by talking about what trust means to both you and your students and have them give you examples of how each of you can work to build trust between each other. 

Reach out for help

Know that you are not alone in helping students likely to engage in risky behaviors. Contact your school psychologist or school social worker for resources and tips on how to better engage with struggling students. Don’t have one in your school? Turn to the internet for answers at evidence-backed organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness or

Tip: Brain Health Basics is a free 1-hr program that you can easily adopt in your classroom to help students understand their mental health, build the vocabulary to talk about it, and self-advocate.

When engaging with youth who engage in risky behaviors, remember the vast number of challenges they face daily as a growing person. As they are trying to navigate their personhood, they are met with choices and pressures from the world around them. Let them know that you are there for them and be consistent in your support. It might take a moment for a student to open up but this consistency can help you be better able to address any risky behaviors you might be worried about.

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