Is Dropping out of High School More Likely after Stressful Life Events?
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High school dropout is associated with negative individual and social consequences. For example, dropping out of high school can lead to long-term economic hardships that can weaken health and family functioning. Dropout is typically viewed as the result of long-held vulnerabilities such as learning problems. But little is known about the immediate circumstances triggering high school dropout. Taking into account adolescents’ circumstances at the time of dropping out and comparing those circumstances with similar students who do not drop out could illuminate why dropout sometimes occurs in the absence of long-term vulnerabilities or why vulnerable adolescents drop out at a specific point in time. This comparison might also help explain why only a fraction of vulnerable adolescents actually drop out. The goal of this study is to examine whether recent exposure to stressful life events precipitate high school dropout over and above, or in interaction with, previous vulnerabilities. The authors used data from a case–control study of Canadian adolescents recruited from 12 disadvantaged public schools. Students were divided into three equal-sized groups: those who had just dropped out of high school (referred to as “dropouts”); students with a similar academic profile and family background as dropouts (“matched at-risk students”); and students with scores on the risk index that were close to their school’s average (“average, not-at-risk students”). After a recent dropout was identified and interviewed, a matched at-risk student was interviewed, as was an average, not-at-risk student. During the interview, the students were asked about all the stressful situations that they had experienced in the past year. Their answers were then coded to identify the moment when these stressors occurred as well as the severity of the stressors, from mild to severe. For example, mild stressors included not being selected for an extracurricular activity or minor arguments with parents; moderate stressors were life events such as a significant conflict with a teacher or peer bullying; and severe stressors included teenage pregnancy, placement in foster care, or rape.