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Early Warning Indicators for Grades 1-5: What to Look for and How EWIs for Elementary Differs from High Schoolers

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Early Warning Indicators (EWIs) serve as vital tools in educational interventions. They act as red flags, signaling when a student might be at risk academically, socially, or emotionally. By recognizing these indicators early, educators, parents, and stakeholders can put measures in place to support at-risk students.
But what should you be looking for? And once you see the warning signs, how should you proceed?

The Importance of Early Warning Indicators

The early grades lay the foundation for future academic success. Recognizing signs of struggle in these years can prevent longer-term academic, social, and emotional challenges. Identifying and addressing EWIs early on ensures students receive the support they need to thrive throughout their educational journey.

Key EWIs for Grades 1-5

While there hasn’t been as much research done on the relationship between graduation rates and early warning indicators for younger children, there are three categories of indicators we can use to help give students the best chance at succeeding.
When thinking about EWIs and when to intervene, it’s often a good idea to look at how many co-occurring indicators students are experiencing. A good data analysis tool can help you visualize EWIs at a district, school, and individual level.

Academic Indicators

  • Decline in reading level proficiency: One study found that reading and behavioral problems can cause each other, which means that one might appear as a sort of warning before the other.
  • Struggling with basic math concepts: You may have heard about The Matthew Effect, a theory that suggests students who start out at a higher proficiency level grow at faster rates than students who start out at lower levels. With math, researchers have found that “students with low achievement typically did not close the gap with students with higher achievement over time. Some studies showed a pattern of stable differences in achievement and others showed widening gaps in performance.”
  • Part of the reason for this outcome is that students who start at a higher achievement level tend to want to engage with the subject matter more, thereby continuing to learn at higher rates. So it’s crucial in the earliest years in school to support students who are struggling and help them close that achievement gap.

  • Inconsistent completion of homework or class assignments: While missing an assignment here and there doesn’t necessitate action, if there is a trend emerging that would keep a student from moving into the next grade, that is cause for concern. Students who are retained in the same grade during grades 1-5 are statistically more likely not to graduate from high school.


Behavioral Indicators

  • Regular tardiness or absenteeism: Kindergarteners miss school more often than students in grades 1-5. And while this blog post is focused on grades 1-5, we’d be remiss not to mention that kindergarteners who are chronically absent are likely to experience “lower reading and math achievement outcomes at the end of that year.”
  • Signs of social withdrawal or trouble interacting with peers: Children who experience social isolation are at higher risk of mental health challenges, and that risk increases if they have a pre-existing condition like ADHD.
  • Frequent disciplinary actions or disruptions in class: You might be sensing by now that many if not all of these indicators are connected and overlapping. For example, if a student is disruptive and experiences more disciplinary action to the point of being retained in their grade, their chances of graduating are at risk.


Emotional Indicators

With emotional indicators, it can be difficult for teachers to know when to step in. Sudden changes in academic performance can be a warning for emotional distress, and if a student exhibits any of the following, it’s likely they’ll require additional support to stay on track academically.

  • Low self-esteem or self-worth.
  • Expressions of hopelessness or frequent sadness.
  • Overreacting to small challenges or setbacks.


Related Resource:

Seven Big Ideas to Guide Behavior Management
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How Early Grade EWIs Differ from High School EWIs

Developmental Context

Grades 1-5
Challenges often stem from foundational gaps in academic skills or emotional and social development.
High School
Challenges might arise from external pressures, identity exploration, peer influences, or preparing for post-secondary options.

Nature of Indicators

Grades 1-5
Indicators often revolve around basic skill acquisition, socio-emotional development, and adapting to school routines.
High School
Indicators often involve complex tasks like advanced academic competencies, vocational aspirations, or social relationships.

Intervention Needs

Grades 1-5
Interventions are often centered on foundational skill-building, socio-emotional support, and family involvement.
High School
Interventions may need to address career readiness, mental health challenges, or issues outside school, like job or family responsibilities.


Strategies to Address EWIs in Grades 1-5

Identifcation: In order to address early warning indicators, it’s critical to make sure you’re working with accurate data. Having a system that helps you analyze your student data and visualize trends can go a long way in identifying challenges and trends.

Interventions: Provide support and intervention through the RTI process. This should involve tier 2, or possibly tier 3 interventions to cater to a student’s unique needs and challenges.

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Your RTI and MTSS Academic Screening Process: Performing a Check-Up
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Mentorship Programs: Pair students with teacher mentors who can offer additional academic and emotional support.

Parent-Teacher Collaboration: Engage parents in regular communication to ensure they are aware and involved in their child’s learning journey.

Peer Support: Implement peer tutoring or group activities that promote social interaction and collaborative learning.

Professional Development: Equip teachers with training to recognize and address EWIs effectively.


Early recognition and intervention are crucial to ensuring students in Grades 1-5 don’t fall through the cracks. While some of the challenges faced by younger students might mirror those faced by high schoolers, the context, nature, and required interventions often differ. With a solid understanding of these differences and a proactive approach, educators can offer effective support to students showing early signs of struggle.