Set Up for Success: Identifying Early Warning Signs In Elementary School Students

Posted by Jeff WatsonO

October 25, 2017

Identifying early warning signs in elementary school students helps educators position them for long-term success.


Elementary school provides the foundation of knowledge upon which all academic success rests. That’s why it’s incredibly important for districts and schools to take the steps necessary to ensure every student thrives in the classroom.

It may not be immediately obvious when elementary school students begin to disengage — especially in classes of over 20 students. For this reason, implementing an early risk identification system in elementary schools is often crucial to enabling meaningful interventions during the early stages of an issue. Not only can such systems track the severity of risk indicators over time, but they can aid in implementing effective Response to Intervention (RTI) models.


Identifying Behavioral Early Warning Signs


A student’s behavior can serve as a key indicator of long term success. When it comes to aggression, especially, catching early signs that a student copes with unpleasant emotions in unhealthy ways can stem the development of a larger problem. Research shows that most children who are violent towards their peers feel rejected, and that if these children are not given support, they become increasingly aggressive with age. However, when these children form a positive connection to an adult — whether it’s in the classroom, the guidance counselor’s office, or the home — they are far less likely to exhibit severe aggression.

Educators can similarly reduce other behavioral issues, such as hyperactivity, poor self control, and antisocial behavior, if they properly identify and address them. Unsurprisingly, the earlier these educators are able to intervene, the better. In a 2013 study, the Montgomery County School District — located just outside of Washington D.C. — found that students were five times as likely to drop out of high school if they were suspended once in first grade. Similarly, students with nine or more absences in first grade were twice as likely to drop out of high school.


Identifying Academic Early Warning Signs


In many ways, it’s easier to identify behavioral risk factors in elementary school students than it is to identify academic risk factors. Research in brain maturation shows that, in the same way that bodies grow at different rates, brains mature at different speeds. Just because all of the students in an elementary school classroom are the same age doesn’t mean that they’ll all progress at the same pace — and in many cases, those who progress more slowly may not experience long-term academic challenges. This makes it difficult to pinpoint which students require intervention and which do not.

But there are certain academic benchmarks that, should a student fail to reach them, consistently indicate a need for intervention. Early high school dropouts, for example, can often be predicted by low grades as early as first and second grade.


Staging Meaningful Interventions


All told, a combination of grades, attendance, and behavior indicators in Montgomery School District’s first graders predicted about 75 percent of the students who dropped out of the high school graduating classes of 2011 and 2012. What’s more, one-quarter to one-third of students who had at least one warning sign in first grade exhibited more risk indicators in the sixth and ninth grades.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. If early warning signs are properly identified and an intervention is administered, elementary students are still malleable enough to get back on track. In some cases, that intervention may simply entail additional tutoring. In others, it may also involve working with a student’s parent or guardian to minimize absences.



A RTI support model begins with quality classroom instruction and universal, data-driven academic assessment of every student. Once identified, struggling students (or groups of students) are provided with supplemental, targeted skill interventions at increasing levels of intensity. Educators should closely monitor students’ response to instruction to determine necessary intensity and duration.


Often, tracking the success or failure of an intervention over the course of several grades and teachers can prove challenging. With the help of data-driven early warning tools, educators can not only identify and address risk sooner, but they can also track an intervention’s efficacy over time by consistently adhering to a specific RTI support model. If a student’s performance is not improving or they begin to exhibit additional risk indicators, educators can quickly take action.


Interested in learning more about emerging advanced early warning systems? Download our white paper, Facilitating Effective Intervention.


Hoonuit’s Early Warning solution leverages student data and predictive analytics to proactively reveal risk at all age levels of your school or district. Our intuitive, easy-to-use dashboard enables teachers to match students to effective interventions, track the student’s success over time, and gain insight into why certain students are at risk in the first place.

Click here to learn more about how Early Warning can help your school or district.

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