School Failure

School Failure 2342
Photo by: Audrey Durose

School failure is a person's inability to meet the minimum academic standards of an educational institution.


for searching the Internet and other reference sources

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder

Learning disorders


School achievement

School performance


School failure is a process where a student slips farther and farther behind his peers and gradually disconnects from the educational system. The end result of school failure is dropping out before graduation. Many cases of school failure happen among students who have the ability and intelligence to succeed but who are unable or unwilling to apply these abilities in the school setting.

Students can begin the slide into failing patterns at any time during their school career, but school failure is more likely to occur at transitional stages, such as when graduating from elementary to middle school or after a family move to a new school system. Failing grades typically are symptoms of emotional, behavioral, or learning problems.

Why Do People Fail in School?

People who fail in school may feel "stupid," but emotional or mental health problems and "hidden" learning disorders, not low intelligence, often are the root causes of their inability to meet the standards of a school. There are several factors that can lead to school failure, among them depression, anxiety, problems in the family, and learning disabilities.


Depression is one of the most common causes of school difficulties. It is a condition that can make people feel sad for long periods of time, have low energy, and lose interest in activities that normally give them pleasure. People with depression have continuing negative thoughts about themselves and the future, and they may experience changes in eating and sleeping patterns and in their ability to concentrate and make decisions. They may feel hopeless and may even think about suicide. Depression has been shown to be a leading cause of school failure in young people with learning disabilities. Depression can also cause school failure in students without learning disabilities.


Anxiety is a feeling of excessive worry about a possible danger or an uncomfortable situation that is intense enough to interfere with a person's ability to concentrate and focus. Students can have genuine reasons to be anxious. People who have been bullied at school may worry that they will be bullied again. Students may legitimately fear personal violence on the way to or from school. They might worry about their families going through a divorce or about a parent who is ill. On the other hand, ordinary adolescent worries about looking right and fitting in can be blown so far out of proportion that a student may try to be

Teens with learning disabilities or who feel anxiety about school may neglect schoolwork for other distracting activities. Peter Arnold Inc.
Teens with learning disabilities or who feel anxiety about school may neglect schoolwork for other distracting activities.
Peter Arnold Inc.
absent from school just to avoid a possibly embarrassing or uncomfortable situation. This is called "school avoidance." Anxiety in any of its forms can interfere with a student's performance in school.

Problems in the family

Students also may bring their problems at home to school with them. If a student's family is experiencing violence, unemployment, alcohol or drug use by a family member, problems with the law, or any other upsetting experience, it can be difficult to concentrate on schoolwork. Many students who are having family problems might have trouble controlling their anger and frustration at school, and they may end up in trouble because of their behavior. Some students who are overburdened at home by circumstances that make it necessary for them to "parent" siblings, hold a job, or care for an ill or impaired parent may find it impossible to keep up. Many times students who face overwhelming family or personal problems keep these problems to themselves. School counselors can help support a student and prevent failure if they are made aware of the problem.

Learning disabilities

Learning disabilities are conditions that interfere with gaining specific academic skills, such as reading or writing. Learning disorders can hinder a person's ability to concentrate or to process or remember information. When these difficulties are recognized early, certain teaching strategies can help a student overcome the learning disability. Unfortunately, many learning problems may go undiagnosed or may be diagnosed incorrectly as behavior problems. The frustration and depression that can result from undetected learning disabilities is a major cause of school failure or dropping out of school.

Other causes

Many social factors can increase the risk of school failure. These include homelessness, poverty, frequent moves from school to school, and the inability to speak English. Other circumstances such as truancy * , teenage pregnancy, and chronic illness * may also affect a student's ability to do his or her best in school.

Helping People at Risk of School Failure

Students at risk of school failure need to be identified as early as possible in their school careers if they are to receive the help they need. This task usually falls to the teacher, school counselor, or parents, because many failing students are hostile to or disconnected from the educational system and will not or do not know how to ask for help. To bring failing students back to school and foster their success, the reasons for school failure need to be recognized and treated. Parents, teachers, counselors, and mental health professionals are people the student can ask for help. Parents can help by:

  • taking a genuine interest in their child's school life and attending school events
  • listening to and understanding their child's concerns about school
  • taking seriously sudden changes in behavior, sleeping, or eating
  • intervening for the student when unsafe situations are causing anxiety or school avoidance
  • setting and enforcing appropriate standards of school behavior
  • setting realistic goals for school attendance and academic improvement
  • eliminating barriers to homework completion and school attendance
  • working as a team with teachers and counselors to get children appropriate help
  • helping children identify their strengths and pinpointing career options that involve these strengths
  • getting help in recognizing the reasons for school failure.

* truancy is staying out of school without permission.

* chronic (KRAH-nik) illness is an illness with symptoms that last a long time or that recur frequently.

Teachers can help by:

  • developing learning plans that support the student's strengths
  • referring the student for evaluations for possible learning disabilities
  • providing referrals to programs that offer extra academic help or arranging peer tutoring
  • teaching study skills and strategies to support learning
  • encouraging students to participate in school activities, such as sports, plays, or clubs, so that they feel they are a part of the school
  • arranging a mentor for the student
  • promoting a tolerant, violence-free school environment
  • communicating concerns or changes in school performance to parents right away.

Mental health professionals can help by:

  • screening for emotional problems and offering appropriate treatment
  • listening to the student's concerns about family and school difficulties
  • performing evaluations for learning disabilities or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
  • working with the school to formulate appropriate learning strategies for the student
  • working with teachers and parents to help them eliminate barriers to school failure.

See also
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
Learning Disabilities
School Avoidance



Heacox, Anne. Up from Underachievements: How Teachers, Students, and Parents Can Work Together to Promote Student Success. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing, 1991.

Levine, Melvin. Keeping a Head in School: A Student's Book About Learning Abilities and Learning Disorders. Cambridge, MA: Educators Publishing Service, Inc., 1996.

Shumm, Jeanne Shay. School Power: Strategies for Succeeding in School. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing, 2001.

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: