While the national high school dropout rate has declined, many school systems still struggle with a high number of students who do not finish high school.
The factors that may lead to a student's decision to leave school are complex, but a new study from the University of Georgia sheds light on how two behaviors—aggression and weak study skills—contribute to the problem.
"What we find in our study is that the students who are dropping out have complex behavioral and academic problems," said Pamela Orpinas, a professor of health promotion and behavior at UGA's College of Public Health and lead author on the study.
The returned benefit of reducing dropout can't be overstated, she said. A good education can level the playing field for students who may face other challenges in their environment, such as living in resource-poor neighborhoods or an unstable home.
"Graduating from high school is almost like a miracle drug," said Orpinas. "If you think of one thing that we could do to improve students' health, it's make sure kids have a good education and graduate from high school."
The key to helping a student stay in school is spotting the signs and behaviors that put students at risk of dropping out earlier in their academic careers, she said.
Students exhibit both aggression and study skills early in school, and both behaviors have been independently associated with learning and success, or lack of it. Orpinas' study is the first to track the two together over a period of seven years.
The researchers randomly selected 620 sixth-graders from northeast Georgia schools. Teachers completed a behavior rating scale for these students every year from sixth through 12th grade. Based on teacher ratings, the students were grouped into low, medium and high aggression trajectories from middle to high school, and into five study skills groups.
Orpinas was particularly interested in tracking behaviors that teachers could observe and, more importantly, affect their classrooms.
"You can examine dysfunction in the family or problems in a neighborhood, but there's very little teachers can do about it. Aggression and study skills are issues that the teachers could manage in the classroom," she said.
Students classified in the high aggression/low study skills group had a 50 percent dropout rate compared to students with low aggression and high study skills who had a dropout rate of less than 2 percent.
"That is a dramatic difference," said Orpinas, "and the study illustrates how well these behaviors were able to predict dropouts across all groups of students."
This study points to the importance of supporting schools and educators with the resources they need to detect and correct all behaviors that put students at risk, Orpinas said. It will not be enough to address just one of them, either aggression or study skills.
"Simple and single solutions do not work," she said.
The study, "Longitudinal Examination of Aggression and Study Skills from Middle to High School: Implications for Dropout Prevention," was published February 2018 in the Journal of School Health.
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Pamela Orpinas et al, Longitudinal Examination of Aggression and Study Skills From Middle to High School: Implications for Dropout Prevention, Journal of School Health (2018). DOI: 10.1111/josh.12602