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Why Special Needs Students Drop Out--And What You Can Do About It

By Finn Orfano

Do students with special needs drop out of high school more often than regular education students? If so, what can we do to help prevent it? Read on to learn more.

Statistics and Prevention

Why does it seem that the drop-out rate of special education students is higher than with the non-disabled population? There are several factors that contribute to this. Knowing the causes can help us identify interventions that can be put into place in order to prevent drop-outs from occurring.

According to the United States Department of Education, during the 1998-1999 school year the drop-out rate of students with special needs was about 28 percent. That rate was approximately twice that of regular education students. While the number seems alarming, there are several contributing factors.

  • Students with disabilities have lower academic skills. Sometimes they feel that they just can’t keep up with all the academic demands. Many states now require students to pass an exam in order to graduate from high school. This factor alone causes many students to stress out and drop out as a result.
  • Another reason that students with special needs drop out of high school is because they lack motivation. For one reason or another, such as family culture or povery, many students are just not motivated to do well. This can lead to failing grades and eventually will also lead to dropping out.
  • Students that struggle academically and fail classes often end up being retained. Retention is another reason that students drop out. They feel discouraged and also unhappy about not being with their social peers as well as the stigma that is associated with being retained.

Looking at these reasons why students with special needs end up dropping out of high school, what can we do to prevent this from happening in the future? The Department of Education recommends identifying at-risk students as early as possible. Since we know that having a disability is a reason for dropping out, educators and administrators need to do everything possible to help these students.

Mentoring programs are a great idea. At-risk students can be set up with an adult who can help them both inside and outside of school.

Another option would be alternative education settings. Maybe a regular high school is not the right place for some of these students. Alternative schools provide different curricular options as well as more intensive services. This can also include vocational education. If students discover that there is in fact a job that they can learn and do in the future, they may be interested and their motivation may be higher.

Knowing all these facts about the drop-out rates of special education students, educators must recognize that there is much that can be done to prevent our current students from being the drop-outs of the future. Even if one student drops out, that is one too many. If one student decides not to drop out, that is a big success. All students have the capability of graduating from high school; we just need to make sure that happens.


U.S. Department of Education