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Keep students with disabilities from dropping out of school

Try these strategies to engage students at risk

High school graduation rates have risen to an all-time high for students across the board—that’s the good news!—but rates for students with disabilities still lag, putting them at a distinct disadvantage in their adult lives. Unfortunately, when students drop out, future opportunities for success are severely limited.

Why do students drop out of school, and what can educators do to keep them engaged?

Take a look at these causes, red flags, and resources you can use to help ensure students graduate, drawn from the new book Your Complete Guide to Transition Planning and Services.


Understanding why students drop out is the first step toward developing strategies to keep them engaged in school


In the 2014 report Don’t Call Them Dropouts, thousands of young people disclosed why they left school and what supports they needed to complete their education. Dropping out is rarely the result of one quick or impulsive decision; it is usually the result of compounding pressures that lead students to gradually disengage from school and eventually drop out: home and neighborhood violence, absent parents, negative peer influences, caretaking responsibilities, and a lack of a sense of relevance to their own lives.

Students with disabilities often contend with a higher incidence of bullying, academic challenges, and social disconnectedness.

Red Flags

There are usually warning signs that a student is not engaged. Three universally used predictors of students at risk of dropping out are attendance, behavior, and course completion (ABC).

Most students who drop out believed at one time they could succeed in school. The most common reasons they cite for dropping out are because they were bored, disengaged, or not inspired or motivated to persevere. In particular, they describe inadequate support from school during complex personal and educational circumstances.

Many students who left school describe toxic environmental factors, quite often at school itself, that outweigh school attendance.

What structures and supports can educators put in place to help students reengage?


Adolescent learners are very different from elementary students, especially in terms of their motivation to engage in learning. They are more engaged when personal experiences and activities outside of school are linked with what they are learning in school. Students must see themselves as members of the learning community if they are to succeed.

Here are some resources you can employ—at the individual, class, or school level—to bolster students’ chances of graduation:

  1. Put an early warning system in place. Monitor the ABC indicators beginning in middle school with tools such as the no-cost Early Warning System Toolkit to track students at risk of dropping out.
  2. Ask your students. Have your student complete a survey about school or class climate to guide program improvements. The free and confidential Gallup Student Poll asks students 20 questions that provide data about what they do in school and how they feel about school life.
  3. Make it relevant: Share other young people’s stories about what drove them to leave school and what resources helped them get back on track on the Boost Up YouTube Channel and in the Don’t Call Them Dropouts documentary.
  4. Match students with meaningful supports. Have students complete a “My Good Day Plan” to define what makes a good school day for them, and then use that to guide interventions.
  5. Motivate them to stay committed to graduating. The Get Schooled website uses social media, messages, and tools such as wake-up calls from celebrities and attendance calculators to encourage students to stay on track.

In the IES Dropout Prevention: A Practice Guide, the Institute of Education Sciences provides clear, practical guidance on intervention practices that have a proven track record in preventing dropout:

  1. Utilize data systems to track the number of students dropping out and identify at-risk students.
  2. Provide adult mentors/advocates for at-risk students.
  3. Provide academic supports to improve academic performance.
  4. Implement programs to improve student behavior and social skills.
  5. Personalize the learning environment and instruction.
  6. Provide students the instruction and skills needed for graduation and future success after graduation, making learning relevant and engaging.


Find many more tips and resources in Your Complete Guide to Transition Planning and Services to give students their best chance at success as they strive for independence and self-sufficiency in adulthood.

Originally published: December 2017