Effective Interventions in Dropout Prevention: A Research Synthesis

NICHCY Structured Abstract 17
describes the following research synthesis:

Effective Interventions in Dropout Prevention: A Research Synthesis—The Effects of Cognitive-Behavioral Interventions on Dropout for Youth with Disabilities

Cobb, B., Sample, P., Alwell, M., & Johns, N.

The National Dropout Prevention Center for Students with Disabilities (NDPC-SD)

Year Published



The relationship between cognitive-behavioral interventions/therapies (the intervention) and dropout outcomes and violent verbal or physical aggression (the outcomes) for secondary-aged youth with disabilities was explored in this systematic review. A total of 16 studies intervening with 791 youth with behavioral disorders, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders, and learning disabilities were reviewed. The findings of this review strongly support the efficacy of the use of cognitive-behavioral interventions across educational environments, disability types, ages, and gender in the reduction of dropout and correlates of dropout. A series of more detailed implications for practice are suggested as well as directions to the reader to locate more detailed descriptions of how these interventions might be implemented in their secondary educational environments.

Considering students with disabilities dropout of high school at nearly twice the rate of non-disabled peers, developing and implementing effective prevention strategies is an important concern, especially in an era of high stakes testing and exit exams. Students with disabilities have been shown to benefit socially and academically from Cognitive-Behavioral Interventions (CBIs), this meta-analysis examines the extent to which CBIs might also be used to reduce high school dropout rates for this population. CBIs teach students to first recognize and define difficult situations before selecting an appropriate response from a range of possible solutions. As the name suggests, CBIs include both cognitive and behavioral components:

  • Cognitive elements of CBI include problem solving, self-monitoring, self-instruction, communication skill building, relaxation, and situational self-awareness training.
  • Behavioral elements include the use of rewards and reinforcements for increasing the use of appropriate behaviors and/or reducing the use of negative behaviors.

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Research Questions

  • Do cognitive-behavioral interventions reduce the likelihood of students with disabilities dropping out of school?
  • Do CBIs reduce the types of violent verbal and physical behaviors that can often lead to dropout?
  • Do CBIs work equally well for youth with different disabilities across a variety of settings?

Research Design

  • Number of Studies Included | 16
  • Number of Subjects | 791
  • Years Spanned | 1988-2002

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Research Subjects
Most of the subjects in these studies were male. All participants were:

  • Identified as having one or more disability
  • Secondary school students
  • Between 12 and 22 years old

Age/Grade of Subjects
Youth ages 12-22 in secondary school.

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Specified Disability
Most students were labeled as having:

  • Learning Disabilities (LD)
  • Behavior Disorders (BD)
  • Serious Emotional Disturbance

All students participated in cognitive-behavioral interventions (CBIs), which taught metacognitive skills such as problem-solving, conflict management, conflict resolution/negotiation, self-talk and relaxation, as well as emotional and anger self-awareness techniques.

Duration of Intervention
The average intervention was 50 minutes, 1 to 5 times a week, for 10-15 weeks.

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  1. Teaching cognitive-behavioral strategies to students with disabilities reduced their likelihood of dropping out of school.
  2. Cognitive-behavioral interventions reduced behaviors that may lead to dropout such as violent verbal and physical behavior.
  3. CBIs were equally effective for students in special education programs in public schools, private schools, residential placements, and day treatment centers.
  4. CBIs appeared to be effective for both males and females and for students with a variety of disabilities. However, most of the participants in these studies were males with moderate to severe behavior disorders.

Combined Effects Size
A combined effect size was computed for 8 studies that utilized a between-group design. For these studies Cognitive-Behavioral Interventions (CBIs) produced a moderate effect size of 0.55.

It is worth noting that of the remaining 8 studies included in this meta-analysis 5 used a single-participant design, 2 used a single-group design, and 1 used a case study. Though the results of these studies also support the use of CBIs, statistical limitations and/or weaknesses in study validity limit the ability to generalize the results.

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Though the results of this research support the use of cognitive-behavioral interventions (CBIs) to reduce high school dropout rates for students with disabilities they should be interpreted with the following cautions:

  • Only one of the studies included in the meta-analysis looked directly at dropout status as an outcome, the rest merely looked at behaviors that are associated with school dropout.
  • Study attrition raises some questions about the reliability of the results of individual studies included in this meta-analysis. In particular, the attrition rate for the 8 between-group studies was as high as 38%. Theoretically it is possible that CBI’s were not at all effective for any of the subjects who did not complete the study, which would have lowered the meta-analysis’s overall effect size.

Future Research
In addition to the considerations raised above, additional research investigating the effects of CBIs on dropout prevention should explore the following questions:

  • How difficult is it for youth to learn and use CBIs?
  • How long should CBIs be implemented to be most effective?

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