STUDENTS on the path toward dropping out of high school often exhibit signals that they are at risk well before they stop engaging in school. As school closures due to COVID-19 separate students from structured routines and educational supports, the number of disengaged students may continue to grow.
Educators should be aware of and look for signs of disengagement and act to maximize engagement and supports for at-risk students during COVID-19 closures.
While all this is especially challenging to educators working remotely, Preventing Dropout in Secondary Schools, a report published by the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education, provides recommendations for educators that we have adapted for the circumstances of the COVID crisis.
What can educators do now and throughout the summer to help prevent students from dropping out?
Monitor student engagement
During a typical academic year, educators can use routinely collected data to monitor student performance on three indicators predictive of dropping out: attendance, poor behavior, and failing grades.
With data from these indicators, schools and districts can offer personalized support for those who need it.
Educators can use pre-COVID-19 data to identify students who were at-risk of dropping out before the pandemic and deliver personalized supports to help students overcome their current challenges.
Unfortunately, the pandemic is likely to introduce significant new challenges for still more youth, prompting a need to continue capturing data that can help educators identify and connect with students who disengage from school or otherwise fall off track during this time.
While closures may hamper schools’ ability to collect some types of data, educators can collect data aligned with indicators that evidence suggests will predict high risk of dropping out and use those data to identify and reach out to students who may need additional support.
Build trusted relationships
Developmental research finds that the presence of a caring, trusted adult in the life of a child contributes to engagement in school and resilience in the face of adverse circumstances.
Further, such relationships are most consequential for marginalized youth.
Strengthening bonds with students—and forging connections with those signaling they are on the path to dropout—is particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Until schools re-open, pay attention, open lines of communication, and demonstrate care for students.
The proactive monitoring and engagement efforts described here will position educators to target intensive services on those who need it most when we construct our new normal.
Do not wait until school resumes to make more purposeful attempts to engage students. The following ideas, based on examples from the dropout prevention literature, can help educators connect with and reengage youth.
1. Let students know they matter, they are missed, and support is available
- Send a personalized text or make a personal call—reach out to let students know you are concerned about their well-being. Consider using leading questions to assess their situation, such as:
- How are you feeling?
- How is your family adjusting?
- Are there home responsibilities that are interfering with your learning (for example, caring for siblings or other family members, working a job, etc.)?
- Do you need anything?
- What can I do to help you?
- Use creative, informal modes of outreach—students who struggle in school may have difficulty dealing with traditional models of schooling. Consider nonthreatening strategies to engage with students, such as:
- Dropping off a care package with a personal note with an invitation to connect.
- Using social media to communicate with students in a venue in which they are comfortable.
- Setting up regular check-in calls with students and families, or groups of students, and be prepared to suggest topics that will interest participants ready for discussion.
2. Address potential barriers to student engagement
- Consider students’ home situation—layoffs and social distancing may introduce economic and personal stressors that manifest poor school engagement. Where possible, offer information to help students and their families cope with challenges introduced by COVID-19, for example:
- Provide information on school meal distribution points.
- Identify school counselors or therapists who may provide psychological support.
- Connect families to community groups that provide social services (e.g., YMCA, Boys & Girls Club, faith-based groups, etc.).
- Assess students’ home learning environments—determine the root cause of student disengagement. Poor attendance, behavior, or bad grades might be due to external factors. Ask about students’:
- Access to Wi-Fi and computers.
- Ability to access hard-copy packets.
- Configuration of their home learning space (i.e., do they have a quiet place to work?).
- Provide personalized instructional supports—students may struggle to engage in online instruction or be afraid to engage in a public discussion. Take steps to customize instruction to individual student needs, for example by:
- Offering one-on-one tutoring using a videoconferencing platform to share screens.
- Structuring assignments to address known learning challenges.
- Assigning work related to a student’s specific area of interest (e.g., cars, gardening).
- Identifying students dealing with similar challenges and, if appropriate, engaging them in a supportive group chat so they feel less alone.
3. Engage students in their learning community
- Create innovative approaches to motivate student participation—online instruction of complex academic topics can be daunting and dull. Find ways to excite students to participate. Potential strategies could include:
- Theme-based instruction organized around sports, the arts, current events, pop culture, career exploration, or anything that sparks student interest. Hold a discussion of a book or consider a graphic novel for reluctant readers, such as March about the Civil Rights Movement, Nimona about a shape-shifting girl who wants to be the sidekick of a supervillain, or even Animal Farm: The Graphic Novel.For a twist, consider discussing a podcast your students would find interesting such as Story Corps, This American Life, Stuff You Should Know, or The Moth.
- Have students write and share pandemic-inspired poetry during an open mic virtual poetry slam.
- Join a watch party of a movie (rated PG or lower) and share a laugh while discussing literary themes.
- Invite mystery guest speakers to join virtual class sessions and provide clues to their identity leading up to the big reveal when you meet online.
(SOURCE: The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) is the statistics, research, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Education)