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Review of dropout risk factors from an ecological perspective breanna m dailey


Breanna M. Dailey

Ball State University


The purpose of this presentation is to summarize the literature concerning students at risk of dropping out by viewing these factors from an ecological perspective. This summary will include the personal, family, and home life as well as school and social life risks. The participants will gain a better understanding of the complexities involved in early intervention as well as the multidimensional platform that these students are operating under. This understanding, paired with the scientifically-based interventions will allow school psychologists to successfully consult with teachers and school administrators to decreases the chance of students dropping out.


Protective factors

Risk Factors


School psychologists may receive many requests for consultation in working with a student who is at risk for dropping out. In order to help the student, the school psychologist needs to understand the ecological components that go into how the student functions as those with more risk factors are more likely to drop out (Sparks, Johnson, & Akos, 2010; Suh & Suh, 2007). Current research typically focuses on one risk factor, while broadening that understanding to multiple factors is a more multidimensional and successful approach (Fortin et al, 2006; Hernandez Jozefowicz-Simbeni, 2008; Knesting, 2008; Sparks, Johnson, & Akos, 2010).Major risk factors such as academic failure, low socioeconomic status, and behavioral problems (Suh & Suh, 2007) are just part of the puzzle making up student drop out risk. A contemporary, consolidated update of the literature to inform consultation efforts to prevent drop out is helpful for school psychologists.

First, an understanding of the student’s home and personal life is essential. This will include the individual’s ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, family cohesion, family resources, and sense of self (Jozefowicz-Simbeni, 2008). Specifically boys in the first two years of high school who have little support from their family and friends in addition to performing in the failing levels in school, are at a greater risk than those who are in older grades without family and friend support (Lagana, 2004). It is also important to understand the student’s social life such as friends, romantic relationships, self-confidence, and necessity to work as they greatly impact their decision to stay in school (Jozefowicz-Simbeni, 2008). It is especially important to understand that it is not solely the person’s personality and aptitude to deal with difficult situations, but the situations themselves that can be the most difficult and significant predictors of drop out (Fortin et al., 2006).

Second, an understanding of the student within the school is necessary. This understanding will include grades and interactions with teachers and other students. Teacher-assigned grades have been shown to be a good predictor of students who are at risk of dropping out (Bowers, 2010). However, GPA itself is not a significant predictor of achievement as other interpersonal and family factors sometimes play a greater role (Somers, Owens, & Piliawsky, 2009). Additionally, teacher interactions play a large part in student risk (Lanaga-Riordan et al. 2011). For example, teachers need to be open to communicating and discussing the student’s outcomes as well as reaching out to the family.

Finally, specific interventions that can help once a student who is at risk of dropping out are identified. Charmaraman and Hall (2011) identified helpful interventions as those that include development of life skills and a healthy family relationship. These researchers also found community-based programs to be effective as extra-curricular programs to discuss with students at risk. School-wide interventions can be successful, especially for students who do not display traditional drop out risk factors yet still drop out (Suh & Suh, 2007).

  • School

    • Retained a grade (Sparks, Johnson, & Akos, 2010)

    • Low School Performance (Hernandez Jozefowicz-Simbeni, 2008; Sparks, Johnson, & Akos, 2010; Suh & Suh, 2007)

    • Low expectations of student (Suh & Suh, 2007)

    • Behavioral problems including suspension and fighting (Hernandez Jozefowicz-Simbeni, 2008; Sparks, Johnson, & Akos, 2010; Suh & Suh, 2007)

    • Low perceived order and organization of the classroom (Fortin et al., 2006)

    • Learning difficulty (Fortin et al., 2006)

  • Family

    • Low socioeconomic status (Suh & Suh, 2007)

    • School Achievement not a priority (Fortin et al., 2006)

    • Lack of help on homework (Fortin et al., 2006)

  • Personal

    • Lack of motivation (Hernandez Jozefowicz-Simbeni, 2008)

    • Depression (Fortin et al., 2006)

    • Internalize behavior (Fortin et al., 2006)

    • Has a child or is having a child while in school (Lanaga, 2004)

  • School

    • Positive learning environment (Charmaraman & Hall, 2011)

    • Purpose for graduating (Knesting, 2008)

    • Postive adult mentor (Charmaraman & Hall, 2011)

    • Enrichment/extracurricular activities (Sparks, Johnson, & Akos, 2010; Suh & Suh, 2007)

    • Able to voice an opinion and be hard (Knesting, 2008)

  • Family

    • Postive adult mentor (Charmaraman & Hall, 2011; Lagana, 2004)

    • Family cohesion (Lagana, 2004)

  • Personal

    • Respect for self/body (Suh & Suh, 2007)

    • Feel respected and cared for (Knesting, 2008)

  • Social

    • Positive peer mentor (Lagana, 2004)

Some schools choose to implement school-wide interventions. School-wide interventions may take different forms, from being an actual program to school-wide policy. Creating a positive learning environment where communication is emphasized can contribute to persistence in education (Knesting, 2008).

Targeting specific groups can be very helpful when chosen correctly. While students who are male, African American, and have low socioeconomic status may be more likely to dropout, only targeting these groups will lead to missing crucial individuals (Sparks, Johnson, & Akos, 2010) Extracurricular activities and transition programs can be useful group interventions. Charmaraman and Hall (2011) used an arts-based extracurricular program to decrease drop out among students identified at risk. These students had positive mentors, worked in a positive environment, and were re-engaged in school. These programs are not disruptive to the school and can make a big impact. Effective transition programs can reduce dropout rate of students with risk factors (Sparks, Johnson, & Akos, 2010). Group tutoring was not identified as a successful intervention as it is not statistically proven to increase GPA or improve attitudes (Somers, Owens, & Piliawsky, 2009).

Once an individual is identified as having drop out risk, a mentor relationship can significantly improve their personal goals and beliefs (Hernandez Jozefowicz-Simbeni, 2008). Surprisingly individual tutoring is not scientifically supported to improve GPA , however it can help improve the student’s perceptions if a mentoring relationship develops (Somers, Owens, & Piliawsky, 2009).


There are many different risk and protective factors for students who are at risk for dropping out. Taking a step back and carefully evaluating all possible risks is the best way to identify individuals who are in need of intervention. Sparks, Johnson, and Akos (2010) showed that looking at only demographics can miss crucial students in need for intervention. These researchers reported that within a school, those being served by dropout prevention programs did not have any of the three major risk factors that were identified in their article (being retained, failing end of year tests, and serving a suspension of 10 or more days). Therefore, the students currently receiving intervention were not the students who needed it most. In general, low academics at any point in the student’s career was the most frequently mentioned risk (Fortin et al., 2006; Hernandez Jozefowicz-Simbeni, 2008; Sparks, Johnson, & Akos, 2010; Suh & Suh, 2007). However, lack of motivation or expectations was also frequently mentioned (Fortin et al., 2006; Hernandez Jozefowicz-Simbeni, 2008; Suh & Suh, 2007).

Among the protective factors, having a positive adult or peer mentor was mentioned multiple times (Charmaraman & Hall, 2011; Lagana, 2004; Knesting, 2008). It is important to note that just one protective factor from any domain (personal, home, school, social) can help the student decide to stay in school. Schools can help by increasing their support of the student, increasing parental awareness and responsibility, and creating a peer support system.


  • School psychologists can…

    • Demonstrate a willingness to listen to students

    • Create and implement school-wide interventions for dropout prevention

    • Introduce activities to engage students in schools

    • Provide consultation to teachers and administrators concerning student drop out

    • Work with staff during professional development on how to work with students at risk for dropping out

  • Recommendations for school psychologists include

    • Remembering that low motivation and academic achievement is a high risk factor for dropping out

    • Using prevention and school-wide interventions

    • Look at all of the factors before working directly or indirectly with someone who is at risk for drop out

    • Discuss communication skills for those working with this population


A review of literature was conducted from the Ball State University databases. The reviewer searched Academic Search Premier and OneSearch using the terms “dropout risk” “dropout prevention”, “dropout intervention”, “dropout school psychology”, “dropout consultation” and “dropout prevention school psychology”. The reviewer checked the boxes for “Full Text Only” and “Scholarly (Peer Reviewed) Journals”. A summary of drop out risk factors from an ecological perspective will showcase the many differences between students who drop out. These factors will be devised by school and non-school based aspects. Scientifically-based interventions and dropout factors will then be summarized to help understand, identify, and target students at risk of dropping out. See references on the handout.

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