Why students stop working, and eventually drop out

Why do so many kids stop working in school, and even drop out? 


In a nutshell, it’s because they typically have long histories of believing and being told they don’t live up to others expectations. That’s the formula for shame. I would often hear teachers in our faculty lounge say “The problem with these kids is they have no shame”. Actually, the problem is the exact opposite – they have too much. If your theory is that the problem is they lack shame, you'll probably try shaming them into behaving or performing better. That's like giving alcohol to an alcoholic to get him to stop drinking. It's only going to make matters worse.


It often starts before they even come to school, and not necessarily because of their misbehavior. Many parents simply disturb themselves needlessly over normal child behavior. Many simply aren’t prepared for the task of parenting or they have mindsets that set them up to find a lot to needlessly disturb themselves about. Too often teachers are quick to think misbehavior was the result of parents being too permissive – letting kids get away with too much. Often, it’s quite the opposite. Parents were overly authoritarian, even abusive in some ways. Some kids experience a deep sense of rejection early in life because of this.


Rudolph Dreikurs said that when kids misbehave they usually have one or more of four mistaken goals: Attention, Power and Control, Revenge, and Avoidance of Failure. He contended that they will work through this sequence, ultimately ending up at Avoidance of Failure. Not working, missing school, and ultimately dropping are ways to try to achieve this last mistaken goal. The feelings associated with avoidance of failure, and that end up driving the behaviors intended to achieve it, are shame about the past, and anxiety about the future because of that. Low self-esteem is really just shame about the past and present, and anxiety about the future because of it. 

The roots of these “mistaken” goals and feelings are often found in the life experiences kids have before they even get to school. Some parents create situations for their children that they understandably perceive as potentially life threatening. Having a much bigger and louder person you’re totally dependent on get angry and verbally or even physically assault you would cause any child to plug into fight or flight. The most common response is anxiety and flight, but some kids learn to go with fight very early in their lives. At the very least, many kids get told repeatedly, and learn early that they never seem to be able to live up to adult expectations. 


A heavy focus and emphasis on getting kids to behave in the early grades often just encourages kids to stay the course many are already on. Attention seeking behavior and the slightest defiance are often punished quickly and firmly. The sensitivity to rejection some kids bring with them can exacerbate conflicts with teachers and other students. Teacher overreactions to their misbehavior can encourage them to adopt the mistaken goals of power and control, and revenge, if they haven’t already. Disciplining misbehaving students publicly (perhaps to make an example of them for other kids) can make them pariahs among other students who want to please teachers. This only adds to the sense of rejection and estrangement in some students. This is the recipe for creating John Benders from the Breakfast Club years down the road.


Thus begins a life of being told and believing they don’t live up to expectations, and feeling ashamed because of it. Everyday academic tasks become bigger threats than they really are or need to be. You get either turtles who suck into their shells at the sight of work or in social situations, or rattlesnakes who are quick to coil, rattle and even strike out when they feel threatened. Both responses are purely defensive, just like they are in the real animals. Most kids are both. They’re turtles academically and socially, and rattlesnakes in response to reprimands and consequences.

As they start to fall behind academically, these students lose hope and start to shut down to protect themselves. As the reprimands and consequences start to pile up, some become quicker to coil, rattle and strike out. Teachers get frustrated with the turtles. They might even see them as threats as teachers start to be held accountable for test scores.  Teachers and administrators both typically see the rattlesnakes as disrespectful rather than defensive. They too often take offense, and do the equivalent of poking rattlers with a stick. When the “rattler” starts striking out even more in self-defense, it just makes teachers or administrators want to “kill” them. 


Neither side usually knows how to prevent or de-escalate such conflicts, and often just escalates them instead. Eventually students don’t want to even go to school, and teachers and administrators secretly are relieved when they don’t. They even start to look for ways to get rid of some kids. I’ve seen this happen much too often. My position has always been that if we simply get rid of them, someone else will just have to deal with them. Ultimately, it could cost us all much more down the road. I’d rather we try to help these students straighten their lives out. We’re really their best hope for a decent future. 


As I noted earlier, the seeds for such a progression are often planted before kids come to school. However, we don’t do enough to stir them in a healthier direction. There’s a rule in medicine calld the “first do no harm” rule – if you can’t make a patient better, at least don’t make him worse. Without intending to, or realizing it, we violate this rule too often in schools. We push them down the road to dropping out, and sometimes even into the school to prison pipeline. It’s actually amazing some stick around as long as they do. 


There’s another aspect to all this - gangs. Some are informal, some formal. But the way kids come to join either can be explained by the old saying “birds of a feather flock together”. I like to use the word “estranged” to describe how some kids feel regarding what goes on in schools.  Here are a couple of dictionary definitions: 

  1. Separated and living apart (i.e. from one’s spouse)
  2. No longer friendly; alienated

That’s exactly what I used to think when we had school assemblies, and some kids would sit way in the back, or off to the sides. But they often sat in bunches or groups, often dressed much the same way, usually in black clothes. They were “birds of a feather” in so many ways whom had “flocked together”. They’d either found or sought out each other.

Part of the driving force behind this seems to be an innate drive in human beings to connect with other human beings. And people connect with those who seem the safest to connect with. These kids didn’t feel that way with teachers, and other students. I can’t say I blame them, given the way they’ve often been treated for years, often starting from day one of their schooling.  


There also seems to be an innate tendency for kids to recognize ways, even subtle ways that some kids are just different than the rest. Even worse, there seems to be a tendency to then exclude them, even harass or attack them. We see this in animal species, so it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see it happen in humans. Disciplining such students publicly can contribute to this. It’s why discipline should be private whenever possible. We respect student privacy in so many other ways, but not when it comes to discipline. Too often schools even try to make examples of their most troublesome students to send a message to other students. It’s not uncommon for administrators to have police arrest students, handcuff them and escort out during passing periods in full view of other students.

Now let’s look at the definition for the verb form of estranged: 

       To make hostile, unsympathetic, or indifferent; to alienate

Many of these kids start out as turtles. Some are rattlers from the get-go, but many start out as turtles and become rattlers as time goes by. Why? For all the reasons noted above, including how they end up being treated by teachers and other students.


Ever seen a nature documentary of how rattlesnakes den together for the winter? That’s how I’ve always thought of gangs. They are a bunch of “rattlesnakes” finding some comfort by gathering together, the kind of comfort from connecting in some way that all human beings seek out. And it’s the only place they can find it. They have never been able to at school. Too often, teachers and other students leave the “rattlers” no other choice. If you keep poking a rattler with a stick, it will strike out repeatedly, but then slither away quickly the first chance it gets.


There’s an old saying, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. That’s certainly true for kids who end up dropping out. The later you try to intervene to help them, the harder it will be. But first you have to identify the real underlying causes of why they end up there. Too often teachers have theories that seem to fit their observations in their own minds, but which are totally inaccurate.


For example, one I mentioned earlier: “The problem with these kids is they have no shame”. If they base their actions on such a theory and try to shame a student into working or behaving, they not only don’t make things better, but can even make them worse.

Another common theory is “It’s their parents fault. They let them get away with too much”. With such a theory, it only seems logical to make sure the student doesn’t get away with anything. Consider what effect that will have on a “rattlesnake”. He/she will only feel even more threatening, and start striking out even more. A corollary to this theory is “That kid thinks he can do whatever he wants”. Actually, they don’t think that. They’re just too busy reacting to what teachers say and do to them. There’s a saying that an overreaction is an age regression. These students are overreacting emotionally and behaviorally because what teachers say and do reminds them so much of what so many other teachers, and perhaps their parents have said and done to them in the past.

Another theory teachers often have is that these troublesome students like what they do. My response has always been that they don’t like it, they settle for it because they have given up hope of ever having what they really want. It’s like that old saying, “If you can’t be good, be good at it”.


The real underlying cause of dropping out is shame. One important solution is to teach and encourage students to have USA or Unconditional Self-Acceptance. You can read about what that means at:


You can also learn about how to have UOA or Unconditional Other Acceptance for students. Creating an atmosphere of UOA is a good way to help them learn to have USA. Letting them know I have UOA is always the first step I take in the "Tool Time" approach to troubled and troublesome students.


Such students also have a deep sense of powerlessness. It’s why they so often have the “mistaken” goals of power and control – it’s a way they try to compensate for that sense of powerlessness. It stems in part from having so many adults do things to them. It also stems from never seeming to be able to feel the way they’d like to feel, or have their lives turn out the way they’d like them to, the way they see other kids’ lives turn out for them. That’s why I always promise to teach such kids how to have REAL power and control in and over their lives. I explain to them that REAL power is:

  1. Being able to choose whether you get upset or not

  2. Being able to feel the way you’ve always wanted to about yourself

  3. Being able to feel as good as possible regardless of what happens

  4. Being able to keep others out of your head

  5. Being able to defend yourself against people who have been living there for too long

  6. Being able to have your life turn out the way you want it to


 You can read about all the steps I think we need to take with such students to empower them at:


There’s also an article on this site about the approach.


The beauty of this approach is that any teacher can do it with any student. You don’t need to be a counselor, social worker, school psychologist or therapist.


Teachers have to be able to get into, and stay in the best possible mental and emotional place to help the most troubled and troublesome students. It’s easy to lose your temper with them, and make mistakes with them because you do. You can learn how to  get into the best mental and emotional place at:


If you acquire the “tools” I suggest and apply them to your own life, you’ll learn the value of them, and be in a much better place to teach troubled and troublesome students the same tools. You’ll also be more motivated to try.


There is also an article on this site about helpful mindsets to have when dealing with troubled and troublesome students. Here’s the link for that article: