CYC-Online 34 NOVEMBER 2001
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When a youth starts to fail ...

Anne Robertson offers some observations for parents, caregivers and teachers on factors which accompany risk of academic failure for adolescents at school

"How was school today?" Carol's mother asked tentatively. “Awful!" was the reply as Carol dropped her backpack in the middle of the kitchen floor and started stomping up the stairs to her bedroom. “It was the worst day ever. I don't know why you even bother to ask me!" Carol's mother sighed. She had expected that the teen years would be difficult, but she hoped that Carol would grow out of this difficult time soon.

Is this simply a “phase?"
Many teens experience a time when keeping up with school work is difficult. These periods may last several weeks and may include social problems as well as a slide in academic performance. Research suggests that problems are more likely to occur during a transitional year, such as moving from elementary to middle school, or middle school to high school (Baker & Sansone, 1990; Pantleo, 1992). Some adolescents are able to get through this time with minimal assistance from their parents or teachers. It may be enough for a parent to be available simply to listen and suggest coping strategies, provide a supportive home environment, and encourage the child's participation in school activities. However, when the difficulties last longer than a single grading period, or are linked to a long-term pattern of poor school performance or problematic behaviors, parents and teachers may need to intervene.

Identifying adolescents at risk for failure
Some “at-risk" indicators, such as those listed here, may represent persistent problems from the early elementary school years for some children (Jacobsen & Hofmann, 1997; O'Sullivan, 1989). Other students may overcome early difficulties but begin to experience related problems during middle school or high school. For others, some of these indicators may become noticeable only in early adolescence. To intervene effectively, parents and teachers can be aware of some common indicators of an adolescent at risk for school failure, including:

When more than one of these attributes characterizes an adolescent, the student will likely need assistance from both parents and teachers to complete his or her educational experience successfully. Girls, and students from culturally or linguistically diverse groups, may be especially at risk for academic failure if they exhibit these behaviors (Steinberg, 1996; Debold, 1995). Stepping back and letting these students “figure it out" or “take responsibility for their own learning" may lead to a deeper cycle of failure within the school environment.

Adolescents want to feel connected to family, school, teachers and peers
In a recent survey, when students were asked to evaluate their transitional years, they indicated interest in connecting to their new school and requested more information about extracurricular activities, careers, class schedules, and study skills. Schools that develop programs that ease transitions for students and increase communication between schools may be able to reduce student failure rates (Baker & Sansone, 1990; Pantleo, 1992). Some schools make a special effort to keep in touch with their students. One example is the Young Adult Learning Academy (YALA), a successful alternative school for adolescent dropouts. According to YALA's director, Peter Klienbard, if a student at YALA appears to be having a problem or family emergency, teachers and counselors follow up quickly (Siegel, 1996, p. 50).

The role of parenting style
Parenting and caregiver style may have an impact on the child's school behavior. Many experts distinguish among permissive, authoritarian, and authoritative parenting styles (Baumrind, 1991). These parenting styles are associated with different combinations of warmth, support, and limit-setting and supervision for children. The permissive style tends to emphasize warmth and neglect limit-setting and supervision; the authoritarian style tends to emphasize the latter and not the former; while the authoritative style is one in which parents offer warmth and support, and limit-setting and supervision. When the authoritative parenting style is used, the adolescent may be more likely to experience academic success (Glasgow et al., 1997, p. 521). Authoritative parents are warm and responsive but are also able to establish and enforce standards for their children's behavior, monitor conduct, and encourage com-munication. Authoritative parents make clear that they expect responsible behavior from their children and that they are available to support the child as needed (Glasgow et al., 1997, p. 508).

How can parents, caregivers and teachers respond?
Parents often feel uncertain about how best to approach their adolescent or the school when their teen seems to be having difficulty. However, it is important to remember that adolescents need their parents not only to set appropriate expectations and boundaries, but also to advocate for them. Teachers can ease a parent's concerns by including the parent as part of the student's educational support team. When an adolescent is having difficulty, parents and teachers can assist by:

Understanding the factors that may put an adolescent at risk for academic failure will help parents determine if their teen is in need of extra support. Above all, parents need to persevere. The teen years do pass, and most adolescents survive them, in spite of bumps along the way. Being aware of common problems can help parents know when it is important to reach out and ask for help before a “difficult time" develops into a more serious situation.


Baker, Janice, & Sansone, Janet. (1990). Interventions with students at risk for dropping out of school: A high school responds. Journal of Educational Research, 83(4), 181-186. EJ 411 142.

Baumrind, Diana. (1991). The influence of parenting style on adolescent competence and substance use. Journal of Early Adolescence, 11, 56-95.

Debold, Elizabeth. (1995). Helping girls survive the middle grades. Principal, 74(3), 22-24. EJ 496 198.

George, Catherine. (1993). Beyond retention. A study of retention rates, practices, and successful alternatives in California. Summary Report. Sacramento, CA: California State Dept. of Education. ED 365 005.

Glasgow, Kristan L.; Dornbusch, Sanford M.; Troyer, Lisa; Steinberg, Laurence; & Ritter, Philip L. (1997). Parenting styles, adolescents' attributions, and educational outcomes in nine heterogeneous high schools. Child Development, 68(3), 507-529. PS 526 807.

In the middle. Addressing the needs of at risk students during the middle learning years. Technical team report submitted to the Commission for Students At Risk of School Failure. (1990). Baltimore, MD: Maryland State Dept. of Education. ED 326 333.

Jacobsen, Teresa, & Hofmann, Volker. (1997). Children's attachment representations: Longitudinal relations to school behavior and academic competency in middle childhood and adolescence. Developmental Psychology, 33(4), 703-710. PS 526 910.

O'Sullivan, Rita G. (1989, March). Identifying students for participation in a model middle school dropout prevention program. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, CA. ED 305 170.

Pantleo, Sam J. (1992, December). Program to reduce failure rates of ninth grade students. Applied Research Project Report. Fort Lauderdale, FL: Nova University. ED 358 391.

Siegel, Jessica. (1996, September). Schools that work: A second chance for success. Electronic Learning, 16, 48-51, 67.

Steinberg, Laurence. (1996). Ethnicity and adolescent achievement. American Educator, 20(2), 28-35. EJ 531 782.

This article is based on an ERIC Digest which is in the public domain

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