School Drop-Out Rates Rise for Children of Divorce, Claims Study

Keith Geren, Canwest News Service
April 10, 2009
Parents thinking about getting divorced, especially for the second or third
time, should consider the impact of that decision on their children’s
schooling, new research from University of Alberta suggests.

The groundbreaking study — believed to the first in Canada to look at the
long-term impacts of household upheaval on academic success — found
children who experience changes to their family structure are MUCH MORE
LIKELY to become high school dropouts than classmates whose parents stay

The findings were particularly grim for children who live through three or
more parental changes: divorce or death, remarriage or another divorce. Such
children have just a 40-per-cent chance of completing their high school
diplomas, a success rate HALF that of children with no family shakeup.

“This is a LONG-RUN picture, where we can look at number of changes a child
experiences and link it to HOW THEY FINISH UP as they enter into young
adulthood,” said U of A divorce expert Lisa Strohschein, who co-authored the
project with the University of Manitoba’s Noralou Roos and Marni Brownell.
The study, considered especially relevant at a time of high divorce rates
and increasingly complex family relationships, is published in the new
edition of Canadian Journal of Sociology.

Previous research has linked family instability with childhood problems, but
such work has typically focused only on short-term impacts, Strohschein
said. For her team’s study, the scholars used a data registry of more than
9,400 children born in 1984 in Manitoba. The children, all born or adopted
into two-parent married households, were tracked until age 20 to find out
what happened to them.

Of that initial 9,403 children, 7,569 saw their parents stay together, 1,325
experienced one divorce and 172 had a parent die.

A small number — 285 children — lived through two family transitions
(divorce and remarriage), while 52 experienced three transitions.

Analysis of the data found 78.4 per cent of children whose parents stayed
together finished high school by age 20, well ahead of classmates with one
change to the family structure.

There was little difference between children who experienced one divorce and
those who had a parent die. In both groups, about 60 per cent received high
school diplomas.

The biggest concern was for children in twice-divorced households.

“It’s that cumulative effect,” Strohschein said. “Things really seem to fall
off when there is a loss of a second marital relationship. It’s really

The divorce rate in Canada has been holding steady in recent years at around
38 per cent — meaning about 380 out of every 1,000 marriages will dissolve
within 30 years. But the divorce rate worsens for second and third
marriages, providing additional risk for children.

Strohschein cautions against generalizations, because in some cases divorce
can be a benefit to children if a household is dysfunctional.

“But there are lots of people who just say, ‘I don’t think I can make this
relationship work,’ ” she said. “And what the study suggests is there are
some long-term consequences to those decisions parents should take into

The study also found younger children whose parents divorce are more likely
to drop out than children who are older when a split occurs. Strohschein
said more work is needed to explain this trend, but it may be that younger
children have fewer emotional skills to deal with traumatic events.

“Or it may be that the earlier you are when you have a first change, the
more likely it is your parents will have more changes.”

Her next project will examine the life paths of more than 90,000 children,
which will allow researchers to look at the effects of fourth and fifth
family changes. She hopes similar studies can be done in Alberta, but the
provincial government does not provide the same data to researchers as the
Manitoba government.

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