20 March 2018

The damage caused by school dropout

They are known as ‘stay-at-homes’ (Dutch: thuiszitters): pupils who don’t attend school for a period longer than three months. Last school year there were more than 4000 of them, and this figure is not falling. There is a variety of reasons for staying at home, but for the group as a whole we can say that missing school on a long-term basis disrupts development. Remedial educationalist and clinical psychologist Dr Yvonne Stikkelbroek numbers stay-at-homes among her clients in her therapeutic practice: "School dropout negatively affects the health and well-being of young people, whatever the cause." What can enable these children to pick up the thread again?

Thuiszittende kinderen

The actual effect of staying at home depends in part on the reason, which can vary from behavioural problems to issues such as autism, fatigue complaints or depression. Stikkelbroek: "Depending on the underlying reason, staying at home can have a range of effects. But what applies to all these children is that they end up in an exceptional position and lose contact with their peers."

School dropout creates a sense of isolation that can permeate all aspects of life.

Disrupted and isolated

School dropout is highest in the group aged 12 to 14, reports Stikkelbroek: "This is precisely the phase in which peers become very important, also for the development of social skills." So when children lose contact with their fellow school pupils that cannot fail to have consequences. Generally speaking the likelihood of unemployment in adulthood increases. In the case of children who display outwardly directed behavioural problems there is also a higher likelihood of involvement in crime. Stikkelbroek: "In all young people, school dropout increases the risk of negative impacts on their well-being and health, whatever of the cause."

Cognitive deficits can, to a certain extent, be made up for later in life. "But a child retains the sense of being different, of not belonging", says Stikkelbroek. "He or she is no longer part of the conversation, and misses important moments such as school celebrations and final examinations. This creates a sense of isolation that can permeate all aspects of life. It disrupts, it gives you a feeling of not sufficing."

The importance of tailor-made education

Young people who can’t keep up with lessons now often receive supported or special-needs education. This is not automatically the best solution for everyone, believes Stikkelbroek. "It can mean that a child with serious dyslexia ends up among young people with major behavioural problems, with whom the child can’t identify." Individual education (as formerly available at the VMBO-T and HAVO levels, i.e. ‘preparatory secondary vocational education, theoretical learning path’ and ‘senior general secondary education’) may be a solution for some of the children. "They receive the same education at the same school, but in smaller classes with an adjusted content, enabling them to learn better."

Therapy is useful only for a limited group: "Treatments on the basis of cognitive behavioural therapy are chiefly effective for young people who don’t feel able to attend school because of social anxiety." And prevention is also better than cure, as Stikkelbroek stresses: "Among adult employees, the chance of making a good return to work decreases the longer you stay at home. That applies to pupils as well. After three weeks of absence they have missed a lot, get poor marks as a consequence and so they then continue to avoid and to stay at home."

Thuiszittende kinderen

Breaking the downward spiral

What else can a school do? "Ensure a good learning atmosphere, provide care advice and quickly tackle truancy: taking action here is particularly important for young people with behavioural problems." Moreover, parents play a crucial role: "They must ensure that the child goes to school in the morning, even if he or she finds it difficult. In this case the parents need to support their child in overcoming things like anxiety or fatigue."

Good communication between the school and the home environment is essential here. Stikkelbroek saw how things went wrong with one boy in her practice: "After a lot of effort he was finally going to school again. But then came the autumn holiday, and after that he stopped going once more. The school didn’t contact his mother to inform her. Her son left the house every morning, so it took her a long time to realise that he wasn’t at school. By this time another school year had been lost, and he was assigned to a class with much younger children. This kind of problem often triggers a chain reaction."

Young people as research theme

In dealing with social problems, you need to start with the children. Within the Utrecht University theme Dynamics of Youth, scientists from all fields of expertise study how young people develop in our rapidly changing society.