When a student drops out, it can mean the end of many opportunities. So why do students drop out? Obviously, there are many reasons, but serious and immediate stresses in students' lives play a major role, according to a new study which offers the hope that many of these dropouts can be prevented.

The dropout rate in and near Montreal is about 36 percent, according to the study, which looked at over 500 students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is over twice the average for Quebec Province. One-third of the students in the study had just dropped out, another third had a similar academic profile and family background but stayed in school and a final third were average, not-at-risk students.

The stress of problems at home, at school, with peers or romantic partners all led to dropping out.

Among the students interviewed, those who had dropped out were more than twice as likely (40 percent) to report an event causing severe stress during the last three months compared to at-risk (18 percent) and average students (16.8 percent). They were also 12 times more likely to report two or more severely stressful events in those three months.

Not all these stresses were school-related. In fact they were likelier to center on events out of school. Though school issues were cited most often, under one-third of the students (29 percent) mentioned them. Next highest was family conflict (25 percent), followed by chronic health problems (18 percent) and problems with peers and romantic relationships (16 percent). Criminal or legal problems were only cited two percent of the time. The other 10 percent were from miscellaneous causes.

This study doesn't show that stressors made the students drop out. It does show, however, that nearly half the students were under some form of severe stress at the time they dropped out, which suggests that they might not have dropped out had they been under less stress or had they been helped at the time. Both common sense and scientific studies point to people making different decisions when they're stressed, decisions that aren't always the best ones, compared to what they do normally.

“These findings show that the risk of high school dropout is not predetermined over the long run,” said the study's lead author, Véronique Dupéré, an associate professor in the University of Montreal School of Psychoeducation. “Rather, [the risk] fluctuates and becomes higher when adolescents have to deal with challenging situations in their lives. School personnel thus need to be aware of their students' changing needs in and out of school to provide them with the right kind of support at the right time.”

The study appears in Child Development.