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Chapter 4: Social, Emotional and Behavioral Challenges

When schools fail to provide enough support for students, the social, emotional and behavioral challenges that often come along with learning and attention issues can lead to serious consequences. These include social isolation, disproportionate disciplinary rates and an increased likelihood of skipping school, dropping out and becoming involved with the criminal justice system.

Chronic absenteeism

Nearly 1 in 5 students (19%) with IEPs miss three or more weeks of school each year, compared to about 1 in 8 students (13%) without IEPs. School aversion and chronic absenteeism can be a sign of unidentified or inadequately addressed learning and attention issues.


Students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be suspended as students without disabilities, and the loss of instructional time increases the risk of repeating a grade and dropping out. In 2013-2014, 65% of all special education disciplinary removals involved students with SLD or OHI. Many removals are made at the discretion of school officials.

Dropping out

In 2013–2014, 18.1% of students with SLD and 17.6% of students with OHI dropped out, nearly three times the rate of all students (6.5%). In a national longitudinal survey, the most common reason students with SLD gave for dropping out was that they disliked school.

Justice Involvement

Failure to address learning and attention issues too often leads to students being incarcerated, which further disrupts their education and contributes to high dropout and recidivism rates. Some studies indicate a third or more of incarcerated youth have learning disabilities, and an even greater proportion may show signs of ADHD. Inadequate instruction while incarcerated or inadequate support upon reentering school helps explain why more than a quarter of reentering students drop out within six months, and nearly half return to confinement within three years.


More schools and mentoring programs are incorporating social and emotional learning (SEL) into their curricula. SEL may be especially beneficial for students with learning and attention issues because it helps them understand their strengths and needs. But schools should be prepared to provide targeted SEL supports to help students who struggle with self-reflection and self-regulation.

Equity in IDEA regulations issued in 2016 aim to reduce disproportionate identification and disciplinary rates among students of color with disabilities by requiring states to use a standard approach to compare racial and ethnic groups. The regulations also provide funding that districts can use to address disproportionality.

Early warning systems use data on attendance, disciplinary incidents, and coursework to identify students at risk of dropping out, provide more effective interventions and keep students on track to graduate.

Collaboration among schools, healthcare professionals, and judges is critical to preventing juvenile justice involvement and addressing the factors that may lead to delinquency. Diversion programs—which offer screening, services, and family supports—may be particularly helpful to students with learning and attention issues who are already struggling academically, socially and emotionally.


Lena McKnight, a youth advocate who is about to graduate from college, describes in this video what led her to drop out of high school at 15 and what helped her get her GED.


Eye to Eye, a nonprofit that offers mentoring for and by students with learning and attention issues, helps participants develop self-esteem and self-advocacy.