Re-engaging school dropouts with emotional and behavioral disorders  



Helping students with emotional and behavioral disorders return to school to earn a high school diploma is a critical necessity. 


A high school diploma gives students access to postsecondary education and better employment prospects — without which they may endure a lifetime of poverty, welfare dependence, and poor health. Since the mid-1990s, students with emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD) have consistently had the highest dropout rates of students in all disability groups; they also have the worst behavioral and social outcomes. In addition to experiencing unemployment, underemployment, and poor social relationships, over 60% of youth with emotional and behavioral disorders are arrested within four years of leaving high school (Newman et al., 2010).  

Helping students with emotional and behavioral disorders return to school to earn a high school diploma is therefore a critical necessity. Through our work with state directors of education, school district administrators, and teachers, we have identified the characteristics of re-entry programs that show promise in re-engaging out-of-school youth with emotional and behavioral disorders. 

Locating out-of-school youth 

Contacting youth as soon as they stop attending is important. The first steps should involve simple measures such as phoning them, sending text messages, attempting to reach them through social media, and sending personalized letters from teachers with whom the student had a good relationship. School districts have several departments (e.g., homeless education, migrant education) that can help locate youth. Community organizations such as clinics serving pregnant teens, juvenile justice agencies, substance abuse treatment facilities, and employers who hire individuals without a high school diploma also can help refer out-of-school youth. Partnerships with law enforcement officers can help locate youth who are not in school. Some programs have had success using current students to recruit their out-of-school friends. If family members are still in school, they also may be able to provide the location of youth who have dropped out.  

A popular method of re-engaging students is for school districts to organize teams of district and community volunteers to spend a day visiting the homes of out-of-school youth. Some districts host re-engagement fairs with exhibitors from different programs (e.g., charter schools, trade schools, colleges, GED testing centers). In addition, many school districts advertise re-entry programs through flyers, brochures, billboards, electronic marquees, cable television channels, local radio stations, and local newspapers. When distributing flyers, it is important to target locations in which out-of-school youth are likely to be found, such as laundromats, food banks, and low-income housing communities.  

Completing high school 

To provide a pathway to postsecondary education, many re-entry programs have partnered with local community and technical colleges. Students with emotional and behavioral disorders often feel restricted by the “petty” rules of high school and thrive in a more adult college environment. The High School Correspondence Program in Iowa meets the needs of such students by allowing them to enroll at Des Moines Area Community College to earn transfer credits for their home high school. In Aurora Public Schools in Colorado, students learn essential social skills and life skills in high school while attending the local community college one day a week to earn dual high school and college credits.  

Students with emotional and behavioral disorders often feel restricted by the “petty” rules of high school and thrive in a more adult college environment. 

In addition to providing a pathway to postsecondary education, some partnerships with community and technical colleges also help prepare students for the workforce. The Tacoma (Wash.) Business Academy High School offers students career and technical education classes at Bates Technical College and hands-on work experience through local employers. Students can use college credits, job placement experiences, and online classes to accelerate earning their high school diploma. 

Program design 

Critical components of re-entry programs for students with emotional and behavioral disorders include flexible programming, opportunities to accelerate diploma completion, meaningful curricula, a personalized approach, and additional services and supports. 

The lives of young adults with emotional and behavioral disorders are characterized by high rates of unemployment, negative employment experiences, impaired personal relationships, and a need for mental health services (Bullis & Yovanoff, 2006; Zigmond, 2006). Given the range of problems experienced by individuals with emotional and behavioral disorders, it is crucial to address the barriers they face in returning to and remaining in school. Critical components of re-entry programs that can meet the multiple needs of students with emotional and behavioral disorders include flexible programming, opportunities to accelerate diploma completion, meaningful curricula, a personalized approach, and additional services and supports.  

Flexible programming 

Students with serious emotional disturbance can be impulsive in decision making. If they are in a job not to their liking, they may quit suddenly without considering the consequences (Zigmond, 2006). Similarly, if students have to wait too long to re-enroll in school, they may lose interest in returning. Schools can address this by having straightforward admission procedures and year-round enrollment. A one-size-fits-all approach won’t be effective due to students’ individual credit and personal needs. Upon re-entry, a counselor or teacher should evaluate students’ transcripts, conduct academic assessments, identify potential barriers to diploma completion, evaluate students’ personal needs, and identify a program that provides appropriate supports while offering an efficient route to diploma completion.  

For students who are working or have childcare responsibilities, online programs, self-paced curricula, and competency-based programs may offer the most practical options. These students also may benefit from classes offered in the evenings, on weekends, or on partial days. If students are too far behind with credits to complete their diploma in a reasonable timeframe, they should have alternative options, such as a GED with pathways to employment. These students also benefit from real-world learning opportunities, such as work experience and service-learning projects, which help students gain valuable workforce skills and are more motivational for students than traditional classroom-based learning.  

Accelerate diploma completion 

The academic deficits of students with emotional and behavioral disorders in reading, writing, and math have been well documented (Reid et al., 2004; Wagner & Davis, 2006). These students also have poorer attendance and are more likely to be retained in grade than students in any other disability category (Wagner & Davis, 2006). Consequently, students with emotional and behavioral disorders who drop out rarely have enough credits to obtain a high school diploma in a reasonable time frame when they re-enroll. 

Schools need a variety of options for students to accrue credits, as students are likely to drop out again if they feel the likelihood of attaining a diploma is out of reach. 

Schools need a variety of options for students to accrue credits, as students are likely to drop out again if they feel the likelihood of attaining a diploma is out of reach. A particularly successful approach to credit accrual involves competency-based strategies that provide flexibility in how students earn credits, allowing students to progress as they demonstrate mastery of academic content, regardless of time, place, or pace of learning. Competency-based strategies include portfolio assessments and mastery testing through which students can earn credit for classes they previously took but did not earn credit. 

Some schools offer multicredit courses, which also can help students earn credits in a shortened timeframe. Online programs are valuable for students who benefit from working at their own pace in a location that is more convenient than school. Allowing students to earn credit for skill-enhancing classes, such as team building, anger management, and leadership training is also a good way for students to accelerate their diploma completion while learning important life skills. Additionally, when students have opportunities to gain work experience, they can earn credit and increase their chances of finding a job after graduation. Similarly, partnerships with local colleges through which students can earn dual high school/college credits increase the likelihood that students will pursue postsecondary education. 

Meaningful curricula 

Individuals who dropped out of school have subsequently reported that classes in school seemed boring and irrelevant, and that they felt there should be more opportunities in school for real-world learning, such as internships and service-learning projects (Bridgeland, Dilulio, & Morison, 2006). Three-quarters of dropouts never participated in any alternative curriculum, such as job placement assistance, vocational or technical skills training, or dropout prevention (Dalton, Glennie, & Ingels, 2009). Students with emotional and behavioral disorders are also less likely — 51% versus 64% — to take occupationally specific vocational education than general education students (Wagner & Cameto, 2004). 

Students will be more motivated if they understand why they’re learning what they’re learning. The curriculum therefore needs clear real-world applications, with career exploration integrated into curriculum. Some programs provide mentors and instructors from local businesses to help students learn from firsthand sources the relevance of classroom learning to the world of work. Service learning is an effective way to engage students in meaningful learning experiences while helping the community. When students see that they can make a valuable contribution to their school and community, it increases their sense of efficacy and motivation. A career-focused curriculum should not be at the expense of college preparation, however. Exposing students to college classes and incorporating college-going expectations can help students see the variety of options that will be available to them with sustained effort so the focal point is not a diploma but beyond. 

Students who drop out of school in the Los Angeles Unified School District can re-enroll in Alternative Education and Work Centers (AEWC) where they receive individualized educational and career technical training plans as they work toward their high school diploma. AEWCs operate at a variety of sites, including community adult schools, occupational centers, skills centers, and employment preparation centers. To reduce social and emotional barriers that affect student learning, a team of psychiatric social workers provides learning support services at school sites, conducts home-based assessments, and provides counseling for the whole family. Psychiatric social workers also provide mental health consultation to teachers, administrators, and staff and collaborate with community agencies and organizations. 

Personalized approach 

Many students with emotional and behavioral disorders who dropped out of school felt alienated in the school setting (Kortering, Braziel, & Tompkins, 2002), often because they lacked the social skills to interact appropriately with peers and adults. For such students, providing curricula addressing self-determination, social skills, and life skills are critical to student success, both in school and in the world in which they will need to function as independent adults after graduation. 

Previous negative school experiences may cause students to have little faith in their abilities to succeed at school and contribute to low levels of perseverance. These students need teachers who have high expectations for them and provide opportunities for them to experience success. Students’ fears of failure may be well-founded, as many students with emotional and behavioral disorders who drop out have weak academic skills with reading skills well below grade level. 

Small class sizes create a family-like atmosphere and can increase students’ sense of connection to others. Low teacher-student ratios also enable teachers to focus on building relationships with students so that they can pay attention to students’ day-to-day social and emotional needs as well as their academic and credit needs. In working with students, teachers should emphasize the importance of putting forth effort and working hard to reach their goals. 

Many re-entry programs provide students with a mentor or a support team consisting of teachers, counselors, and administrators. A support team should document the strategies that enable individual students to make progress and share these strategies with other teachers and staff. Students, in turn, feel a sense of accomplishment when their achievements are recognized through rewards and awards assemblies. 

Some additional ways teachers can personalize students’ school experiences include: 

  • Listening to their needs and struggles in a nonjudgmental way;
  • Connecting them to social services and community resources;
  • Establishing relationships with their family members; and
  • Being accessible to them in and outside school.

Additional services and supports 

Most dropouts with emotional and behavioral disorders are dealing with a host of personal problems. Students involved in abusive relationships, living in unstable conditions, or who need money to support their children will find it difficult to persist in school despite their best intentions. Students’ chances of success increase if they receive services that meet their nonacademic needs. Students may need on-site childcare, community-based mental health counseling, or transportation in order to attend school. Often, classes in parenting, life skills, conflict resolution, and employment skills are incorporated into the curriculum. When students can earn credit for these practical classes, they not only move closer to diploma completion but also gain essential skills for their personal lives. 

While it is unrealistic to expect students who read well below grade level to obtain a high school diploma without significant effort and support, schools can enhance students’ literacy skills. In addition to incorporating individualized and differentiated instruction into their program, schools can partner with local colleges and adult education centers to provide one-on-one tutoring. To provide counseling, substance abuse treatment, and medical services for students, many programs partner with community-based agencies and provide caseworkers to coordinate service delivery. These agencies also may offer services for the entire family and provide support for students after graduation. 

The Re-engagement Center in Philadelphia is a one-stop center jointly staffed by the Philadelphia School District and the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Mental Health and Department of Human Services. Staff at the center locate dropouts, review their credit histories, administer academic assessments, conduct clinical interviews, devise graduation plans, and make referrals to service providers that can help address students’ academic, behavioral, and emotional needs. After students return to school, caseworkers monitor their progress for four months.  


Individuals who drop out of school are more likely than students who graduate to be unemployed, dependent on welfare, and incarcerated. Therefore, local communities, states, and the country as a whole will benefit from efforts to re-engage youth who have dropped out of school. Developing partnerships with local colleges, businesses, and community agencies is an effective way to meet the needs of returning students while offsetting strain on the school district. Volunteers can be used to contact out-of-school youth, distribute flyers in the community, and provide services such as tutoring and mentoring. Working closely with students with emotional and behavioral disorders who re-enroll can better determine their academic needs, their social and emotional needs, as well as needed accommodations, support services, and related services. A flexible approach is important so students can earn credit in a variety of ways, such as through skill-building classes, work experience, and service learning. Students are more likely to remain in school if they not only participate in meaningful curricula but also have close relationships with adults in the school setting who genuinely care about their success and can help them gain the self-determination and interpersonal skills they need to succeed in the adult world.  


Bridgeland, J.M., Dilulio, J.J., & Morison, K.B. (2006). The silent epidemic: Perspectives of high school dropouts. Washington, DC: Civic Enterprise, LLC. 

Bullis, M. & Yovanoff, P. (2006). Idle hands: Community employment experiences of formerly incarcerated youth. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 14 (2), 71-85. 

Dalton, B., Glennie, E., & Ingels, S.J. (2009). Late high school dropouts: Characteristics, experiences, and changes across cohorts (NCES 2009-307). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics. 

Kortering, L., Braziel, P.M., & Tompkins, J.R. (2002). The challenge of school completion among youths with behavioral disorders: Another side of the story. Behavioral Disorders, 27 (2), 142-54. 

Newman, L., Wagner, M., Cameto, R., Knokey, A.M., & Shaver, D. (2010). Comparisons across time of the outcomes of youth with disabilities up to four years after high school. A report of findings from the National Longitudinal Transition Study (NLTS) and the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2 (NLTS2). (NCSER 2010-3008). Menlo Park, CA: SRI International. 

Reid, R., Gonzalez, J.E., Nordness, P.D., Trout, A., & Epstein, M.H. (2004). A meta-analysis of the academic status of students with emotional/behavioral disturbance. The Journal of Special Education, 38, 130-143. 

Wagner, M. & Cameto, R. (2004). The characteristics, experiences, and outcomes of youth with emotional disturbances. A report from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2, Vol. 3, Issue 2. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Secondary Education and Transition. 

Wagner, M. & Davis, M. (2006). How are we preparing students with emotional disturbances for the transition to young adulthood? Findings from the National Longitudinal Transition Study-2. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 14, 86-98. 

Zigmond, N. (2006). Twenty-four months after high school paths taken by youth diagnosed with severe emotional and behavioral disorders. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 14 (2), 99-107. 


Citation: Wilkins, J. & Bost, L.W. (2014). Re-engaging school dropouts with emotional and behavioral disorders. Phi Delta Kappan, 96 (4), 52-56. 

JULIA WILKINS ( is a former research associate, at the National Dropout Prevention Center for Students with Disabilities (NDPC-SD) at Clemson University, Clemson, S.C.
LOUJEANIA WILLIAMS BOST is director at the National Dropout Prevention Center for Students with Disabilities (NDPC-SD) at Clemson University, Clemson, S.C.

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Lowering the high school dropout rate: Lessons from the research