Risk Factors for Dropping Out
Identifying students who are most likely to drop out is not a precise process. Some students with no risk factors leave school, and some with many risk factors complete school.
Although risk factors are not precise predictors, parents should be aware of them. More importantly, they should become involved or seek assistance if they repeatedly see risky behaviors such as skipping school, failing classes, having significant discipline problems, or being involved in illegal activities.
Students with disabilities are at greater risk of dropping out if:
Among students with disabilities, students with emotional and/or behavioral disorders (EBD) and students with learning disabilities (LD) are at greatest risk of dropping out (Lehr, Johnson, Bremer, Cosio, & Thompson, 2004; Wagner, 1995; Wagner & Cameto, 2004; Wagner et al., 1991).
Why Do Youth Drop Out?
When youth drop out of school, it isn’t always an intentional decision. Many say they simply stopped going to school one day and no one objected. Some youth may drop out because they have problems with teachers, dislike school, or receive low grades. Other youth, however, leave school because of problems not directly related to academics, such as financial needs, family caretaking responsibilities, employment, or pregnancy. Others drop out because they think that principals or teachers wanted them to (Dynarski & Gleason, 1999; National Center on Secondary Education and Transition, 2004; Williams Bost, 2004).
Most students who drop out have not fully considered the consequences and typically are not prepared for what happens to them afterward. Although they are not finished maturing physically and emotionally, these adolescents often face the challenging transition to independent living and adulthood without the benefit of adult guidance, support systems, or services. As a result, they are more likely to face poor job prospects, experience lifelong dependence on social service systems, use illicit drugs, become involved in the juvenile justice system, and become teen parents (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2003; American Youth Policy Forum, 1998; Hair, Ling, & Cochran, 2003; Harlow, 2003).
Family Involvement and School Completion
Family involvement is one of the most important contributors to school completion and success. The most accurate predictor of a student’s school achievement is the extent to which his/her family encourages learning. Success is more likely if the family communicates high, yet reasonable, expectations for the student’s education and future career and becomes involved in his/her education. Middle school and high school students whose parents remain involved tend to:
(Clark, 1993; Henderson & Mapp, 2002; Mapp, 2004; Schargel & Smink, 2001; Williams Bost, 2004).
Strategies Parents of At-Risk Youth Should Know About
The following strategies promote achievement and help students stay in school.
Supporting Student Engagement
Students who actively participate in and identify with their school are more motivated to stay in school and more likely to graduate than those who are not involved with their school. Poor attendance, academic failure, emotional withdrawal, or other inappropriate conduct all can indicate that a student has disengaged from school (Edgar & Johnson, 1995). After-school and extracurricular activities can be an effective way of engaging students who find academics frustrating.
Learning styles, learning disabilities, and life experiences may all contribute to low academic achievement or problem behavior (Kerka, 2003). Many students with disabilities have trouble passing standard assessment tests. One means of promoting student engagement is to identify and accommodate disabilities so a student’s academic knowledge can be accurately assessed (Hayes, 1999; Thurlow, Sinclair, & Johnson, 2002).
Tailoring instruction to meet the needs of individual students also supports student engagement. Many at-risk youth are not well served by mainstream education (Raywid, 2001). The traditional approach to education is well-suited to students with strong language and math abilities. However, teachers can help students find other creative ways to learn, solve problems, demonstrate their talents, and achieve success. Technology and classroom materials designed for use by students of varying abilities can support individualized instruction that engages all students in learning (Smink, 2004). Parents can advocate for their school districts to adopt such “universal design” practices.
Parents or caring adults can also advocate for individualized discipline procedures and modification of school policies, such as alternatives to out-of-school suspension. Another approach is to include students in problem-solving. Engaging students in the development and enforcement of school rules can help youth learn to evaluate possible consequences and make good decisions (Edgar & Johnson, 1995).
Exploring Career Education/Workforce Readiness
Integrated academic and vocational education, career development, and work-based learning can also promote success for at-risk students (James & Jurich, 1999; Wonacott, 2002). Students with EBD are often more successful in schools that provide training for competitive employment and maintain high expectations (Hair et al., 2003; Kerka, 2003). Participation in service learning can also improve grades, school attendance, social responsibility, and community-oriented attitudes (Giles & Eyler, 1994; Hamilton & Fenzel, 1998; Schumer, 1994).
Youth Need Adults Who Care
Students who drop out often feel that teachers, administrators, and others are not interested in them (Grobe, Niles, & Weisstein, 2001). Caring, knowledgeable adults can establish a climate of trust and support that lets youth know someone is paying attention. These adults can be “teachers, counselors, mentors, case workers, community members . . . who understand and deeply care about youth and provide significant time and attention” (James & Jurich, 1999, p. 340). School programs offering services over a long period foster such trusting relationships between students and adults (Kerka, 2003).
It may be especially important for youth who do not have family support to develop such relationships. All students can benefit from them, however. This includes youth who may find it difficult to confide in their parents as well as children of actively engaged parents (Roehlkepartain, Mannes, Scales, Lewis, & Bolstrom, 2004).
In their middle and high school years, teens want and need more privacy and independence. As they accept increased responsibility for and have opportunities to learn from their own decisions, they may need less parent involvement. Even so, they still need their parents.
Graduating from high school is a cornerstone of future success. Although students with disabilities may face obstacles to completing their education, parents can play a key role in helping their children achieve this goal. By staying involved, focusing on individual strengths, finding the right school setting, and holding high expectations, parents can help their children prepare for successful adulthood.
Tips for Parents: Helping Students Succeed in School
Reading, writing, and math skills are the foundation for learning in all subjects. One of the most important things parents can do is help their children build these skills in their elementary school years.
For Middle School Students
The transition from elementary school to middle school is traumatic for many students and their families (Wells, 1989). By only eighth grade, 20% of all students with disabilities and 40% of Hispanic students with disabilities have dropped out (Williams Bost, 2004). Below are some tips for parents of middle school students with disabilities:
For High School Students
Only 57% of youth with disabilities graduated from high school in the 2001-02 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education (2002). To help ensure successful completion of high school, try the following tips, which are based on current dropout prevention research.
When There’s a Problem
If your child is not doing well or is beginning to have behavioral problems in school:
Alternative School Settings
For some students, an alternative school program is the right choice. Students who are unmotivated or have been labeled troublemakers or failures in traditional schools may thrive in smaller, more individualized settings. Research indicates that about 12% of all students attending alternative schools in the United States are students with disabilities (Lehr, 2004). Here are some options for youth and their families to consider.
Alternative School Settings: Options to Consider
Magnet schools have a unique theme or focus. Theme-based programs can help keep students interested in learning (U.S. Department of Education, 2004), preventing the disengagement that can lead to dropout.
Alternative schools may be an appropriate option for at-risk students who want to succeed. About 12% of students in alternative schools for at-risk students are special education students with IEPs—typically students with LD or EBD (Lehr, 2004; Lehr & Lange, 2003). Alternative schools that promote school completion and graduation typically feature smaller and more personal settings, individualized supports, counseling, positive relationships with adults, meaningful educational and transition goals, and an emphasis on vocational and living skills (Lehr, 2004). The IEP should continue to be followed and services should continue after placement in an alternative school. Parents should make sure that their child’s IEP is updated if necessary.
Charter schools are set up independently by teachers, parents, or other concerned people who have ideas for improving learning. Their boards of directors are elected by parents and school staff. Charter schools stress parent involvement. As for serving students with disabilities, charter schools have mixed results. Some parents have questions and concerns; others report having more positive experiences than they had in their previous, noncharter schools (Ahearn, 2001; Fiore, Harwell, Blackorby, & Finnegan, 2000; Lehr, 2004).
Career Academies connect school to work through vocational education, career development, and work-based learning. They provide many students with both the motivation to graduate from high school and a solid foundation from which to pursue their college and career goals. Career Academies have contributed to successful results for many at-risk youth with disabilities (Conchas & Clark, 2002; James & Jurich, 1999; Kemple, 2001; Kerka, 2003).
GED programs may be an appropriate educational environment for older students whose needs cannot be met in the regular school setting. Some students may just need an alternative way to pursue their education. Recent studies suggest that some students with EBD can be more successful in adult education settings that have smaller classes, individualized instruction, an informal classroom climate, and a shorter school day (Imel, 2003; Scanlon & Mellard, 2002). However, a diploma or GED should only be the first step to finishing one’s education. The future workforce will require postsecondary education for even entry-level jobs. All youth who go on to college, including those who have a GED, have better outcomes (Orfield, Losen, Wald, & Swanson, 2004).
Author: Deborah Leuchovius, PACER Center
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