When asked to write about dropout prevention, relationships is the first and most significant word that comes to mind. There are many ways to be of service to youth who are at risk of dropping out of school and there are many different people in a variety of roles who can impact these youth (e.g., teachers, counsellors, administrators, cafeteria workers, janitorial staff).

As the research has concluded, it is not a singular event which leads a student to ‘drop out’, or that ‘causes’ a student to leave school. In fact, it is a longer process of disengagement from education that takes place that leads an individual to leave school (The Silent Epidemic, Bridgeland, DiIulio & Morison, 2006). There are SO many reasons why students drop out. These reasons include being pushed out (by teachers or administrators) for negative behaviours and/or being pulled out (by parents or friends) for needing to do things outside of school (e.g., take care of a sibling or an elder or get a job to help the family financially). There are also many other individual challenges that make attending school incredibly difficult for some (e.g., nothing clean to wear, lack of transportation, anxiety, substance use and addiction). Professionals who want to work with students at-risk for school disengagement need to decide how to support them.

There are some evidence-based programs such as Check and Connect (Christenson & Thurlow, 2004), and adult-youth mentoring, that help a student by meeting with them once a week to check in and monitor school engagement behavior (or call, or make home visits), and intervene with the student with action plans to encourage behavior change. However, when I discuss behavior change, there is only one way to go about helping someone change a behavior.  It is not the usual top-down school commands or demands, but rather, it is Motivational Interviewing (Miller & Rollnick, 1992, 2012). We cannot change anyone or get anyone to change because we want it badly enough, they have to want to change. So, what we can do is help students find their reason for staying in school and graduating. Even if it’s held deep within them, we have to work with them to find their reason, need, ability or desire to change. Only then, we can move through to the next steps together. 

We must also work with students at the level they are at, without getting ahead of them, and we need to tailor our interventions and our strategies to be at their readiness to change level or stage (Prochaska & DiClemente, 1983). That is what my research is about, Motivational Interviewing and attendance behavior change. School administrators need to infuse their schools with SEL (Social Emotional Learning) from kindergarten through each and every grade. Administrators need to consider SEL at each Response to Intervention (RtI) Tier and make specific plans to embody SEL in the school and classroom as an umbrella strategy!

It starts with Tier 1 and school climate (making the school a place where students want to be! A place that embraces everyone!) and programs from primary school with students in every classroom (e.g., The Good Behavior Game, PBIS) to Tier 2 and Tier 3 in primary and secondary schools with additional intervention programs for targeted groups that need social skills, restorative justice, and school-based CBT. School based Tier 3 task forces can make a list of students who are low or sporadic attenders, who have lower grades, and/or those who have frequent discipline referrals. The list of students in these three risk categories will help identify those who need to be mentored or checked in with. The school-based Tier 3 task force should have natural helpers seek out the students flagged as school disaffected and check in with them to see how they are and provide them with what they need to help them to attend school more often.

Yes, school-based professionals may serve as ‘case managers’ to these high-risk students and should be incentivized to do this kind of work. However, the numbers of youth not completing secondary school, especially those from vulnerable populations (e.g., indigenous, racially diverse, differently able, LGBTQ+) is in desperate need of focus and reform. School psychologists need to draw some lines in the sand with administrators, like yearly evaluation of school climate, implementation of interventions at different tiers for those in need, and develop a Tier 3 task force so some people can work closely with the group that needs the most help. 

Dr. Allison Cloth is an Assistant Professor in Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology, and Special Education at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Cloth is a Member of the Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers (MINT). Her areas of research include Truancy and dropout prevention and intervention, school-based consultation and mentoring, populations struggling in traditional education, alternative education systems and settings, social justice in school psychology and motivational enhancement counseling. 

Relationships, Relationships, Relationships!
by Allison Cloth, PhD 

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