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What Are the Key Components of Dropout Prevention Programs?

National Center on Secondary Education and Transition (NCSET)
Dropout prevention research shows that most programs use more than one type of intervention (family outreach, academic tutoring, personalization and vocational training, for example). While there is no one right way to intervene, research has identified several key components to intervention success.

Programs that have been designed to prevent dropout vary widely. Based on an integrative review of effective interventions designed to address dropout (and associated variables) described in the professional literature, Lehr et al. (2003) found that most of these interventions could be categorized according to the following types.

  • Personal/affective (e.g., retreats designed to enhance self-esteem, regularly scheduled classroom-based discussion, individual counseling, participation in an interpersonal relations class);
  • Academic (e.g., provision of special academic courses, individualized methods of instruction, tutoring);
  • Family outreach (e.g., strategies that include increased feedback to parents or home visits);
  • School structure (e.g., implementation of school within a school, re-definition of the role of the homeroom teacher, reducing class size, creation of an alternative school); and
  • Work related (e.g., vocational training, participation in volunteer or service programs).

The majority of the interventions (71%) included a personal/affective focus. Nearly half (49%) included an academic focus. Most of the intervention programs (73%) included more than one type of intervention. These findings and other research suggest that preventing dropout can be achieved in a variety of ways. Given the vast array of program types, it becomes clear that there is not one right way to intervene. Rather than searching for the perfect program, identification of components that facilitate the effectiveness of interventions may prove to be a more valuable endeavor. Identification of these key components may help to guide the development of interventions, improve the likelihood of successful implementation, and serve as a useful framework for evaluating outcomes.

Researchers note that several components appear to be key to intervention success. Lists of critical components have been generated based on experience, literature syntheses, descriptive retrospective analyses of program implementation, and data-based approaches. However, these components require continued research and systematic implementation to determine the extent to which empirical data accumulates supporting them as essential intervention components (Dynarski, 2001; Lehr et al., 2003). Below you will find the key components from several highly regarded sources and shows a significant amount of overlap. The extent to which interventions include these components in their design should be carefully considered.

Key components of interventions designed to decrease dropouts/increase school completion

Dynarski (2001)

The following are based on findings from an evaluation of 20 programs funded by the School Dropout Demonstration Assistance Program:

  • Creating small schools with smaller class sizes;
  • Allowing teachers to know students better (building relationships, enhanced communication);
  • Provision of individual assistance (academic and behavioral);
  • Focus on helping students address personal and family issues through counseling and access to social services; and
  • Oriented toward assisting students in efforts to obtain GED certificates.

Fashola & Slavin (1998)

Based on a review of six dropout prevention and college attendance programs for students placed at risk.

  • Incorporating personalization by creating meaningful personal bonds between students and teachers and among students;
  • Connecting students to an attainable future;
  • Providing some form of academic assistance to help students perform well in their coursework; and
  • Recognizing the importance of families in the school success of their children’s achievement and school completion.

Hayward & Tallmadge (1995)

Based on evaluation of dropout prevention and reentry projects in vocational education funded under the Cooperative Demonstration Program (CDP) of the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education Act.

  • Smaller, more personal environment;
  • Vocational education that has an occupational concentration;
  • A formal counseling component that incorporates attention to personal issues along with career counseling and life-skills instruction;
  • Formal, ongoing coordination of the academic and vocational components of participants’ high school programs;
  • A structured environment that includes clear and equitably enforced behavioral expectations; and
  • Personal, supportive attention from adults, through mentoring or other strategies.

McPartland (1994)

Based on review of dropout prevention programs and interview data from students who dropped out of school.

  • Providing opportunities for success in schoolwork (e.g., intensive reading instruction in early grades, tutoring, curriculum modification to increase relevance);
  • Creating a caring and supportive environment (e.g., use of adult mentors, expanding role of homeroom teachers, organizing extracurricular activities);
  • Communicating the relevance of education to future endeavors (e.g., offering vocational and career counseling, flexible scheduling, and work-study programs); and
  • Helping students with personal problems (e.g., on-site health care, availability of individual and group counseling).

Schargel & Smink (2001)

Based on a body of work and program database generated by the National Dropout Prevention Center.

  • Early intervention includes comprehensive family involvement, early childhood education, and strong reading and writing programs.
  • Basic core strategies promote opportunities for the student to form bonding relationships and include mentoring/tutoring, service learning, alternative schooling, and out-of-school enhancement programs.
  • Making the most of instruction includes providing opportunities for professional development, exploring diverse learning styles, using technology to deliver instruction, and providing individualized learning.
  • Making the most of wider communities includes linking with the wider community through systemic renewal, community collaboration, career education and school-to-work programs, and conflict resolution and violence prevention programs to enhance effective interpersonal skills.

Thurlow, Christenson, Sinclair, Evelo, & Thornton (1995)

Based on identification of key components across three interventions designed to increase engagement and school completion for middle school youth with learning and emotional/behavioral disabilities funded by the Office of Special Education Programs.

  • Persistence plus (persistence in maintaining a focus on student educational progress and engagement with school; continuity in recognizing and attending to student needs across years via a person connected with the student; consistency in delivery of a message across adults—do the work, attend classes, be on time, express frustration in a constructive manner, stay in school);
  • Monitoring (target the occurrence of risk behaviors, regularly collect data and measure effects of timely interventions);
  • Relationships (building a variety of relationships to strengthen student success in school; adult-student, as well as home-school-community);
  • Affiliation (fostering students’ connections to school and sense of belonging to the community of students and staff); and
  • Problem-solving skills (developing capacity of students to solve problems and enhancing skills to meet the demands of the school environment).
Excerpted from Lehr, C.A., Johnson, D.R., Bremer, C.D., Cosio, A., and Thompson, M. (2004). Increasing Rates of School Completion: Moving From Policy and Research to Practice. Minneapolis, MN: National Center on Secondary Education and Transition.