‘Severe stressor’ may boost teens’ odds of dropping out of school, study finds

MONTREAL — Students who drop out of high school often do so shortly after experiencing “severe stressors” in their lives, a new study finds.

Researchers at the University of Montreal in Canada looked at a group of 545 local adolescents about 16 years old from a dozen public high schools, many of whom were from disadvantaged backgrounds. The average dropout rate among their peers was 36 percent.

One-third of the students had recently dropped out of school; one-third had a similar profile to those who had dropped out; and another third were not considered at-risk to drop out.

Teen riding bicycle in sunset
A new study finds that students who drop out of school often do so within three months after experiencing a “severe stressor” in their lives.

To try to determine which stressors may prompt an individual to drop out, researchers tested for both “discrete” stressors (e.g. the sudden onset of a mental health episode) and chronic stressors that lasted at least a month (e.g. sustaining a concussion). The students were interviewed about events that caused stress in their lives over the past year.

A wide range of stressors were examined, ranging from those experienced in one’s personal, work, and school life.

It was ultimately found that 40 percent of those who had dropped out had experienced a severe stressor in the preceding three months, making them more than twice as likely to have experienced a significant adverse event than their peers in the other two categories examined.

Experiencing multiple severe stressors only further increased one’s likelihood to drop out; just two events, for example, made one about 12 times more as likely.

Having trouble academically and family conflicts were particularly cited as being reasons that students dropped out, representing a third and a quarter of the primary factors for dropouts, respectively. Health problems were the main factor for about 18 percent of the participants, while personal relationships sparking the stress for 16 percent.

“These findings show that the risk of high school dropout is not predetermined over the long run,” says psychoeducation professor Véronique Dupéré in a university news release. “Rather, it fluctuates and becomes higher when adolescents have to deal with challenging situations in their lives. School personnel thus need to be aware of their students’ changing needs in and out of school to provide them with the right kind of support at the right time.”

Previous studies had found that life events such as pregnancy, arrest, hospitalization, and changing high schools had a profound effect on dropout rates.

This study not only helps expand the understanding of what traumatic events prompt dropping out, but it helps illustrate how dropping out is usually considered an option by students for many months before they actually take action.

The study’s results were published last month in the journal Child Development.