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A phenomenology of alienation in high school: the experiences of five male non-completers.

This phenomenological study examined the experiences of males aged 16-19 who self-identified as being alienated from their school system. Five participants engaged in three semi-structured interviews and one perception check. Descriptions revealed common themes throughout the structure of the experience. These themes were: (1) need to build relationships despite negative consequences, (2) loss of trust in school adults, and (3) fear of failure and of disappointing self and family. The invariant structure (essence) that emerged was the interrelationship among these themes as related to belonging, trust, and self-worth.


Described as the lack of a sense of belonging, feeling cut off from family, friends, or school, alienation is the inability to connect meaningfully with other people, and is particularly common during adolescence (Bronfrenbrenner, 1986). Alienation in adolescence may lead to behaviors such as truancy, decreased attendance, academic failure, vandalism, violence, and gang activity (Bridgeland, Dilulio, & Burke Morison, 2006; Brown, Higgins, & Paulsen, 2003; Hawkins et al., 2000; Suh & Suh, 2007). Many variables such as changes in family circumstances, lack of social acceptance, academic underachievement, and oppressive or inequitable practices can trigger an adolescent's feelings of isolation and disconnection from family, friends, and the community (Hawkins et al., 2000; McInerney, 2009).

Adolescent alienation is particularly relevant in the school environment. Mau (1992) suggested the use of four dimensions to describe the experience of alienation in schools: powerlessness, meaninglessness, normlessness, and social estrangement. Alienated students have been described as those who live on the borders of the school (Tyree Smith & Goc-Karp, 1994) or who consider themselves outcasts, socially or academically (Rodriguez, 1997). These students, who too often come from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and non-traditional family circumstances, disengage from school and, consequently, may be ill-prepared for future responsibilities ((Bridgeland et al., 2006; Brown et al., 2003; Education Trust, 2002; Gullotta, 2001; Johnson, 2009; Mau, 1992; Oerlemans & Jenkins, 1998).

Considerable evidence exists that a student's experience of alienation is profoundly shaped by psychological and personal factors (McInerney, 2009), yet school factors, including inequitable scheduling, grading, and discipline policies, may also contribute to a student's feeling of disconnection. School factors that have been linked with increased alienation include students' perception of lack of control in the school environment, degree of social acceptance, teachers' low expectations, relevancy of the school curricula, toxic school culture, and discriminatory practices (Bridgeland et al., 2006; Bridgeland, Balfanz, Moore, & Friant, 2010).


The phenomenon of alienation describes a student's level of academic and social disengagement from school. Behaviors associated with student alienation are numerous and include hostility, passivity, withdrawal, poor quality work, disinterest, lack of involvement and initiative, suspensions, expulsions, and non-completion (Hawkins et al., 2000; McMillan, 1992). In its extreme, feeling alienated from the school environment can contribute to violence and suicidal ideation (Edwards & Mullis, 2001; Smokowski & Kapasz, 2005; Smyth, 2009) as feelings of disempowerment, disregard, and dissatisfaction overwhelm those of connectedness, belonging, and worth.

The opposing force of school connectedness--the degree of cohesiveness between diverse groups in the school, including students, families, and school staff (Rowe & Stewart, 2009)--alienation demonstrates estrangement and disaffection from the educational institution and the worth of institutionalized education. A student's level of identification with and participation in the goals of schools has been impacted by a loss of or inability to form bonds with peers and school adults (Brown et al., 2003). The process by which some students come to feel objectified by systems designed to produce contributing members of society, or commodities to a capitalistic form of economy (Freire, 1970), is the essence of alienation. Not simply a biological process inherent to adolescence, "alienation may be viewed as a result of pervasive social forces" (Brown, Higgins, Pierce, Hong, & Thoma, 2003, p. 230) resulting in students' academic and social withdrawal.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES, 2010), one of the primary reasons students leave school before graduation is a sense that school is not for them. Several other studies support the potential significance of alienation in poor academic performance and non-completion (Johnson, 2009; Rodriguez, 1997; Smyth, 2009). With academic failure rates ranging from 4.8% for white students to 9.9% for African-American students to 18.3% for Latino students (NCES, 2010), understanding the role of alienation and disengagement from school seems essential. While the literature offers multiple strategies for minimizing alienating school factors such as inequitable discipline policies, no dear-cut solution to student alienation appears to exist based on the research thus far.

Boy's Voices

Gender is used consistently as an identifier in high school at-risk and non-completion statistics. Considerable attention has been given to the academic problems of boys in general, and African-American and Hispanic boys specifically (Croninger & Lee, 2001; Monroe, 2005). Gender disparities in discipline and non-completion statistics have focused attention on boys. While these issues for girls are certainly as important, the literature suggests that boys' education is being impacted to a degree that warrants concern. Research indicates that males have a higher probability of becoming non-completers than do females (Educational Testing Service [ETS], 2005; Greene & Winters, 2005).

The statistics on boys' increasing disengagement from academics provided by the NCES report (2010) and their educational experiences are evidence of this concern. These recent statistics show boys are more likely to repeat a grade, to require special education services, or to be diagnosed with either attention-deficit disorder or hyperactivity. Eighth-grade boys are 50% more likely to be held back a grade than girls. By high school, 67% of all special-education students are boys. Boys receive 71% of all school suspensions. The report identifies four factors that highlight the possible reasons boys may experience schools differently than gifts. They are: (a) the influence of socioeconomic background, (b) different attitudes and behaviors with respect to school and learning, (c) the effects of stereotypes, and (d) the influence of peer groups. The opportunity to create an operational policy that can support boys' connection to the core mission of schools is enhanced by gaining an understanding of their lived experiences. Their perceptions lend credibility to reports such as the NCES, and are achieved by giving voice to youth that identify as disengaged both academically and socially.


A greater understanding of the experience of alienated and marginalized students and the challenges they face is pivotal to the development of effective counseling programs. The increased emphasis on promoting professional school counselors as agents of systemic change (Education Trust, 2003) supports the need to understand the rived experience of the various communities of students. Having knowledge of the experiences of alienated students fosters the creation of targeted intervention strategies, and can only be achieved through an increase in research. Smith (2000) calls for further research in this fashion: "There is a relative dearth of critical interpretive research on marginalized youth. There is significant need for research that furthers theoretical and empirical understanding of how these youths experience school" (p. 293).

Qualitative research that recounts the experiences of the students themselves with regard to alienation and academic failure is quite limited (Finn, 1996; Smith, 2000; Smyth, 2009). Also missing from the literature is student voice in regard to the alienating forces such as school setting, language, gender, poverty, and ethnic prejudice (Finn, 1996; Smyth, 2009). This study was an attempt to answer Smith's call to research the school experience of youth and address the limitations of the existing research by providing alienated male students an opportunity to have their voices heard and their experiences understood. The specific question that guided this study was: How do students who leave school before diploma completion as a result of alienation perceive their school experience? Alienation was described for potential participants as the feeling of disconnection, disengagement, and dissatisfaction with the process of teaching and learning, relationships with staff and peers, and disagreement with community goals (i.e., conformity) as carried out in schools.

Existing research has failed to ascertain what alienation means to youth who do not graduate. In general, student voices are not well represented in educational research (Arnett, 1996; Brown, Higgins, Pierce et al., 2003; Smith, 2000; Smyth, 2009). A positivist-quantitative framework does not simply present the voices or narratives of students (Smith, 2000). The primary focus of a phenomenological study is to determine the meaning individuals make of an experience (Moustakas, 1994). Smith adds:
   Quite simply, researchers need to spend time
   with youths and examine their schools and
   experiences in a critical, interpretive framework.
   Without a critical and qualitative analysis,
   informed by critical pedagogy perspectives, one
   cannot expect to discover and analyze the possible
   significance of the school process formarginalized
   youths' school failure and alienation.
   Students would no longer be considered outcome
   statistics who simply "pass," "fail," or
   "drop out of" school (p. 305).

Therefore, the authors selected a phenomenological methodology to facilitate an in-depth examination of the meaning alienated male high school students gave to their experiences.


Researcher Self-Disclosure

A phenomenological study requires the researcher to be the primary instrument of inquiry. Thus, the researcher should make his or her own assumptions, experiences, and biases known (Morrow, Rakhsha, & Castaneda, 2001). The primary researcher identified her assumptions and biases as the following:

1. Students' impressions of school, either positive and/or negative, are formed early in their school experience;

2. The attitudes and expectations of the students influence to some degree the alienation they experience;

3. Students experience feelings of alienation from both peer interactions and adult interactions;

4. Alienated students are unable to adequately communicate their feelings about school to adults or find that adults are unable to effect positive change; and

5. Students measure their success in school based on academic achievement and social acceptance.

As a former high school Spanish teacher and professional school counselor (15 years cumulative experience), the primary researcher's educational experience and counseling skill set afforded her a certain advantage in developing rapport with the participants. Her experience in building relationship with adolescents, maintaining a non-judgmental attitude, and validating the participant's voice and experience lent itself to the co-construction of mutually meaningful relationships with the participants. However, in keeping with the tenets of phenomenology, the primary researcher made an effort to set aside assumptions concerning both the participants and their academic and social experiences in school in order to better understand their meaning making process.


Participants in this study were selected based on their fit to the study criteria: males who left or were asked to leave a four-year, public high school, and could describe themselves as alienated (per the description given above) by its climate and processes. Potential participants were located through the assistance of cooperating school districts, building administrators, and school counselors. Participants were former public high school students living in the state of Oregon in accessible locations. Of the seven participants who assented and completed the first interview, only five completed the study. Of the two who did not continue, neither responded to researcher efforts to schedule the subsequent interview, and no reason for discontinuing was offered. Of the five who completed the data collection process, three were currently enrolled in alternative diploma programs and two were not. Participants were male and between the ages of 16 and 19 so as to provide a narrowed focus and depth of experience. Participants were from varying racial, ethnic, linguistic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Three identified as White, one as Latino, and one as African-American. Participants were articulate enough to explain their experiences and perceptions, and were willing and available to meet a minimum of four times. Participants received remuneration for their participation.


Data for this study were collected through three individual, semi-structured interviews and one perception check. To capture that perception and awareness, the researchers developed a series of open-ended questions before each interview to assist in focusing the interviewees on the experience under investigation (see Appendix for sample of interview protocol). Questions were designed to elicit descriptions of the experience rather than the simple recollection of events. All interviews were audiotaped and transcribed by the primary researcher, and edited for accuracy by the participants.


This study employed a specific method of phenomenal analysis described by Moustakas (1994) as a modification of the Stevick-Colaizzi-Keen Method. This method of organizing and analyzing data was applied to the transcribed data. Analysis was initially performed by the primary researcher and debriefed by the co-author. The steps of this analytic method are described in the ensuing sections.

Horizonalization. Horizonalizing was the process of listing each statement, sentence or phrase in a verbatim transcript that depicted a separate thought concerning the phenomenon. Any repetitive or vague statements were eliminated, leaving only statements that contained a necessary element of the experience. The statements were then clustered into core themes of the experience.

Textural description. The remaining themes were organized chronologically to construct a textural description of the experience for each participant that described his sensory experience using his own words. This phase of analysis produced a description of each participant's awareness of and reflection upon the experience.

Structural description. Through the use of imaginative variation, textural descriptions were converted to structural descriptions for each participant. Structural descriptions accounted for how the elements of each participant's experience were connected. Imaginative variation involved the researcher expanding the textural description by seeking divergent meanings while verifying interpretations with the data (Polkinghorne, 1989).

Textural-Structural description. A textural-structural description of the experience was constructed for each participant by integrating the conscious experiences of the participants with structural interpretations of the researcher (Moustakas, 1994). The researcher continued to maintain both immersion and reflection--a method by which the researcher entered into the process of self-presence, growing quiet and listening, considering possible meanings, considering issues of power, and arriving at an understanding of the essence of the experiences (Moustakas, 1994)--in order to bring forth the meaning of the phenomenon for these participants.

Composite textural-structural description. The final step in data analysis was to form a composite description from the textural-structural descriptions of each participant's experience. This composite centered on those aspects of the experience that described the experience in general and was organized into a thematic structure describing the essence of the phenomenon. The composite description is presented below, illuminated with participant quotes.

Ensuring Trustworthiness. The primary researcher took additional steps to verify that the data results represented the voice of the participants. The researcher conducted perception checks at the beginning of subsequent interviews, and one final perception check to ensure the accuracy of the textural description written for each participant. In addition, peer debriefing--"a process of exposing oneself to a disinterested peer in a manner paralleling analytical sessions and for the purpose of exploring aspects of the inquiry that might otherwise remain only implicit within the inquirer's mind" (Lincoln & Guba, 1985, p. 308)--occurred after each interview. Finally, the researcher utilized field notes that served both as a format to document the data-gathering process and as a journal for self-reflection. The journal allowed the researcher the opportunity to identify and suspend assumption and bias, and to remain curious and contemplative (Moustakas, 1994).


An analysis of the participants' descriptions of their experiences in school revealed a thematic structure composed of movement along a continuum of school engagement. The degree of school engagement was impacted by substructures that contributed to the experience's overall theme of alienation. Analysis of the participants' descriptions defined the following substructures as those that contributed to alienation and impacted the level of school engagement: (a) multiple school transitions, (b) peer relationships, (c) relationships with school adults, (d) failure to progress, (e) instability at home, and (f) personal accountability.

Multiple school transitions. Each participant developed insecurity and distrust of school as a result of unanticipated transfers from one school to another; these moves were a consequence both of school factors, such as academic failure or accumulated behavior infractions, and of family factors related to economic circumstance or separation/divorce. Large concerns, which included identifying possible friends, being invited to join existing peer groups, and determining if teachers and administrators would treat the participant fairly, became tantamount to liking or disliking the new school.

Developing a sense of security within a new school environment was a predominant consideration for each participant. Joining classrooms where work was either too advanced or too low was a source of frustration, as was not being able to complete required or elective courses. This resulted in a general lack of progress and gaps in information. Participants described their reactions about school transitions with regard to both social and academic aspects. The following quote from participant one illustrates this sense of discontinuity:

P-1: I felt as though I wasn't prepared for school because I bounced from like so many schools in elementary. In one school we'd just be starting to read and do math, and addition and subtraction and then, all of a sudden I'd go to another school where they're already in division and stuff and I didn't know, and we were reading novels and so, I felt kind of like, I guess dumb you could say. Because I couldn't keep up.

Participants' belief in their ability to manage the transitions was damaged each time a transition was required. Each questioned his ability to make the adjustment and resented the additional pressure and stress. The participants with the largest number of transitions spoke more often and more critically of the impact, yet each participant acknowledged that having to readjust to a new school climate made a difference in his ability to "be a student," focus on school work, and experience a stable process of growth and development.

Peer relationships. Participants described reacting to their insecurity, distrust, and growing fear of failure in school by aligning themselves with peer groups who would allow them access. They discovered that the groups who exhibited anti-school attitudes and behaviors would accept them more readily. Typically, all that was required to belong was to exhibit the same attitude and behaviors. In this way, each participant cultivated a broader anti-establishment orientation. All were simply hoping to find a fit that allowed them a sense of security by being on the inside rather than out. Participant one describes the overall lack of belonging experienced, and participant four describes his unique experience of returning to the same school he had left two years earlier.

P-1: I didn't feel too welcome there because it was a new school and new schools bring new kinds of people [differing criteria for social belonging]. And so immediately I start looking for kids like me.

P-4: I came back and that was a hard fall. It was, if you go somewhere and you're like a greenhorn and you go off and go to do something hard and come back to that greenhorn state with what you learned, people are going to look at you different.

Each participant acknowledged that peer pressure was a significant force regarding the decisions he made about how much time and attention was paid to academics. Peer influences became a path on which each participant withdrew further from the mainstream while at school. The sacrifice for those choices was academic progress toward graduation. They believed the consequences of choosing social acceptance and belonging over academic progress was the less hurtful of the two options.

Relationships with school adults. Each participant revealed that his level of school engagement was impacted by the nature of the relationships he had with school adults. Participants experienced varying degrees of affinity with school administrators, faculty, and staff. Each participant expressed both a genuine like of certain school personnel and an intense dislike of others. Participants perceived that school adults possessed the authority to empower as well as humiliate them. As a result of the varying degrees of regard extended to them and their perception of the intention of that regard, participants found it difficult to trust adults in the school environment.

Each found at least one person who seemed concerned for his school progress and developing self-esteem. These positive descriptions included only teachers, and almost exclusively elementary school teachers.

P-3: I remember one teacher. My fourth-grade teacher is the only teacher that I ever liked in that school. She was NICE. She like, understood me better and stuff. Like how to deal with what I was doing and stuff in school, you know and she just like, I don't know what it was about her.

Each participant described a contentious relationship with at least one school adult, which furthered alienation. This relationship was one of the most predominant factors in the participant's decision to leave school or having been expelled from a school before diploma completion. Most often, the participant felt persecuted and misrepresented by the school adult as exemplified by the quote from participant two.

P-2: Yes, there was definitely Mr. W. He always had a huge problem with like, from the moment we set eyes on each other I could tell he didn't like me and I just didn't like him either. I don't know why, I just didn't like him. And the first chance he got, he gave me a referral. Second chance, gave me another referral.

Two of the participants felt that school adults treated them differently, ostracized them, or misunderstood their needs because of racial prejudice and stereotyping.

P-1: I think it was because, actually yeah, when I first met him, I was talking in Spanish to my morn so, I think he probably took that and decided, 'Ok, this kid's Mexican, I don't like him. Not to mention, this kid fights my power, so he's out.'

P-5: Yeah, I kind of got that from teachers, some coaches, students because in the whole of [name of school] there's only two full African-Americans and that's me and my friend.

Each participant lost the battle to manage working alliances with school adults, had to seek other educational opportunities, or leave the system all together. Each felt a combination of rejection, inferiority, humiliation, or resentment. They each had failed to navigate the system, felt they had been unjustly treated, and were abandoned as "high school dropouts."

Failure to progress. Participants hoped that each time they transitioned into a new school they would find a way to make it all work. A common thread among the participants' school experiences was the difficulty maintaining academic parity with their peers and making adequate progress toward diploma completion. Whether because of a recent school transition or trying to gain ground that had been forfeited, each participant struggled to gain equal footing and get back on track for graduation.

P-1: It's just dumb to me like why I have to work so hard, like harder than other people it seems to get this little piece of paper that says I'm smart. Even though I know I'm smart because I've been in high school for five years. I've taken classes over, so I'm pretty sure I know it. School. It's just a pain.

Some participants felt this struggle as early as elementary school. They indicated teachers did not recognize their individual needs or that the participant may have required a differentiated approach.

P-3: Teachers need to pay attention more, 'cause I was on an IEP through all my schooling and like, OK I'm supposed to get extra help, get into middle school and, I mean middle school was a little different, like they had a little more help, but I still failed all my classes and get to high school and no teachers recognize it. It's just like, 'Oh, wow, you're just another student in my class.'

The failure to make adequate progress impacted each participant's degree of engagement in a unique way. Often disguised as boredom with the subject matter or a lack of relevance to their current lives, participants became stagnant in their learning. This degree of disengagement resulted in grade retention, failure to pass required courses, and involuntary enrollment in courses designed for students who were credit deficient. Each found a behavior or behaviors which disguised the fear of failure and distanced him from school.

P-2: And then I got back into my old habit of not doing homework, and not doing the next night's homework, 'cause I didn't finish that last night's homework and then after a while I didn't finish like 15 assignments 'cause I didn't start the first one so I just like 'Screw it, I'm not even going to try anymore.'

Participants described their inability to progress academically as the first factor in cultivating a defeatist attitude toward school. Each participant could identify a particular point in time when he knew he would not be able to earn a high school diploma.

P-2: I joked about it as soon as, at the end of my eighth-grade year during the summer. I was like, 'Oh, dude, I doubt I'll graduate.' But then it really hit me that I'm not going to be able to graduate after my first semester in high school.

Instability at home. Participants described instability at home as causing some of the frustrations experienced at school. They revealed that school often served as a solace for tension at home, though home was never mentioned as a solace from the frustrations of school. The emotional uncertainties, confusion, and hurt regarding the shifts and changes in the family system lead each participant to question his personal commitment to the educational process. Each feared the consequence of school failure and the emotional strain that failure would place on family relationships.

P-4: I might not be able to walk with my friends and graduate. I'm going to graduate late. And they're going to be disappointed in me and I hate disappointing my parents 'cause I feel like crap.

Participant's lives were irrevocably changed by parental decisions to divorce, remarry, and relocate. Each participant, who came from a family of divorce, wanted to have reciprocal relationships with both parents and struggled to find opportunities to include both parents in their lives. Non-custodial parents did not always remain in touch. Those participants who moved to be with the non-custodial parent, who in each case was the father, suffered highly emotional episodes ranging from rejection to tolerance. Each participant described tension in the home associated with mothers who were less available than before, had less money, or whose behaviors they disapproved of.

While each participant described the distinct challenge in the home, each lamented the reality and braced for the inevitable conflict. Participants were faced with difficulties that they were ill-equipped to handle. Each suffered through periods of confusion, frustration, and self-diagnosed depression. Each related feeling powerless in these situations.

P-1: Every time I would come home from school to my mom's house, there'd be something that she'd complain about. I'd have to go do something. She'd like alienate me from my friends, 'Oh, they do drugs. They're horrible people. You're not like that.' I'm like, 'Whatever.' And it's just always been that way.

P-3: Just at my house. It felt like you were walking into a war zone or something.

Personal accountability. Each participant described how schools, teachers, and administrators could have been different; increasing the probability they would have been able to graduate with their respective classes. There was a sense of resentment as well as sadness as each described how he was impacted by school conditions such as crowded classrooms and overworked, uncaring, or incompetent teachers. The following quote describes participant three's acknowledgment of his role, and awareness of school policy.

P-3: I think they should of done something earlier so I would still be at [name of school]. They let me get away with it for so long. Like the whole school system. And then all of a sudden, they're like, oh, you have so many absences, you need to leave ... they're losing money now.

Underlying the narratives is a sense of uncertainty about how things got so bad, and an incredulousness that no one recognized their condition or did anything to make it different. Yet, insofar as each participant admonished schools for not doing well enough by them, each also acknowledged that he could have been a different student. Each participant was very willing to recognize, in retrospect, how he could have been different, and how that difference might have allowed him to graduate. Recalling the entirety of their school experience evoked a sense of newness about the experience. Participants objectified their attitudes and behaviors and were able to see patterns of behavior and identify more clearly both the cause and effect of certain behaviors. Feelings of guilt seemed to overwhelm participants as they described their choices to avoid school.

P-4: I just didn't learn to do my work. I goofed off in class. I talked too much. They'd always constantly have to get me to work and I wouldn't work. Eventually I got my stuff done, but I didn't do enough to get on to third grade, so they held me back a year. And that's where I am today. I'm always falling back. So, I'm not where I should be.

The accountability the participants take for their school outcome is partially due to their perception that there is something not OK about them. The idea that school could not help them because they were beyond help or their personal circumstances took them out of the running seemed to be an unspoken truth.

Invariant Structure

Phenomenological research begins with the assumption that an essence, or invariant structure, exists within each lived experience. The purpose of this study was to discover the invariant structure within the perceptions and experiences of students whose lived experience was that of feeling alienated from school. While individual participant descriptions varied, they revealed common themes throughout descriptions of their school experience. These themes were repeated in the substructures described above and represented a continuum of school engagement. The themes were: (a) participant's need to build relationships despite negative consequences, (b) participant's loss of trust in school and school adults, and (c) participant's fear of failure and of disappointing self and family.

The invariant structure was an inseparable interrelationship among the constituents of desire to belong, loss of trust, and fear of being a failure and a disappointment. Each constituent always existed in the context of the other two. Participants defined their level of belonging in terms of their ability to join an existing peer group and establish camaraderie. They struggled to do so at the cost of adhering to school expectations for their behavior. Meeting their social and emotional needs at the expense of achieving academic success deepened the rift between them and the school establishment, resulting in mistrust. Throughout, they feared acknowledging their weakness and not measuring up to the expectations of family and society.

Leaving the school system before diploma completion was an acknowledgment participants made that they had indeed failed. They felt alienated not only from school, but from their community and greater society. This acknowledgment damaged their sense of self-worth as competent people. Being alienated also carried the perception of being judged, and the stigma of being misunderstood and discounted.

The focus of this study was to investigate the perceptions and meaning the participants derived from their experiences of feeling alienated from a school system. Those experiences in the school setting and those related to primary family relationships provided the context of the experience. When these experiences and perceptions were put together, they provided a holistic understanding of the participants' experience of alienation. The findings of this study suggest that the alienating substructures that interfere with the schooling process are significantly intertwined and interrelated, and manifest uniquely within each student to undermine his ego and self-worth. Participants had the sense that what they did or said did not matter, and conveyed that feeling alienated was, in part, about being powerless. Deconstructing the sense of powerlessness revealed inadequate feelings related to belonging, trust, and self-worth.


The dynamic process of alienation requires more than one negative incident or one "bad" teacher. Students reach the point of non-completion after years of feeling less familiar, less considered, less teachable, and less likeable. Alienation is attributed to both school and home environments; participants described specifically how each impacted their ability to achieve academically and socially. Schools that give priority to creating welcoming and accepting climates can positively impact students' sense of belonging and academic self-efficacy (Edwards & Mullis, 2001; Johnson, 2009; McMahon, Wernsman, & Rose, 2009; Rowe & Stewart, 2009). Students new to a school system will connect as they perceive likeness with other students (Booker, 2007). While not all school success correlates to belonging or connectedness, schools that offer programs grounded in the building of relationships can counteract disengagement leading to alienation.

Participants also described meaninglessness related to academics. The perception that school work was not interesting or relevant is consistent with the results of other research related to non-completion (Bridgeland et al., 2006, 2010). Associated with the issue of relevance is the perception that teachers (and some parents) maintained low academic expectations. Consistently a challenge for educators, the creation of curricula that reach students where they live by utilizing their cultural referents will motivate and encourage students to invest in the education process (Gay, 2010; Villegas & Lucas, 2002).

With long-term academic failure, the ability to trust in the educational process became more elusive, and less meaningful. Defining trust as the vulnerability of a student to a teacher in terms of the student's belief that the teacher will act in his or her best interest (Hoy, Tarter, & Woolfolk Hoy, 2006); for these participants, trust was broken multiple times. Their growing detachments were validated by the perceived lack of effort on the part of school adults to accept and support them. Those whose experience included referral to classes or programs designed for "at-risk" students suffered a greater degree of humiliation and shame, increasing their animosity and disengagement. Being designated as a "loser"--a term each applied to himself based on his interpretation of events resulting in academic remediation and/or social disengagement--gave cause to heightened feelings of distrust. Greater levels of distrust developed when teachers and other school adults engaged in forms of intentional and unintentional emotional maltreatment such as making denigrating remarks about physical or cultural attributes or labeling as stupid or slow. This experience has been validated by other current research (McEachern, Alude, & Kenny, 2008), and conveys a lack of interest and even disdain not lost on students. Furthermore, those teachers who depend on an authoritarian management style and monocultural teaching practices manifest lower levels of acceptance and higher numbers of discipline referrals (Trumbull & Pacheco, 2005). Guiding teachers and administrators in acquiring a philosophy based in cultural responsiveness exemplifies learning in a social context (Gay, 2010), and as results of this study indicate, students do personalize the learning process.

When asked to hypothesize how school counselors could have intervened, all participants suggested that any effort school counselors could make to communicate to teachers the effectiveness of co-constructed learning goals would be the best way to re-engage students. This sentiment was expressed by one of the participants as follows: "maybe if the counselor could have told them about my IEP or something, it could have been different; I could have had a different option or whatever." Empowering conditions for these participants consisted of administrators more interested in students' lives than in enforcing policies, teachers who are patient and take time to be involved with each student, and a school where some students are not more valued than others. (Four of the five participants perceived athletes as consistently receiving preferential treatment).

Each participant struggled in terms of self-esteem and identity formation. Participants found fault within themselves for their failure to navigate the school system. While teaching students to assume personal responsibility is a cultural value of the United States, students are not responsible for the mismanagement of their family situation or a school's lack of resources to provide appropriate or timely interventions. Each participant, in turn, described bearing the ultimate responsibility for non-completion. They acknowledged that attending many different schools, having difficulties with relationships, and encountering inflexible school adults and policies negatively influenced their desire to invest in their own education; yet, each insisted he could have done better had he been more willing. Participants indicated that instability at home, which forced some school transitions and exacerbated the sense of disappointment in their school failure, was not reason enough to leave school. They could have done their homework, gone to class, not mouthed off to school adults, not done drugs, not failed classes. The toll on their self-esteem was evidenced by the act of non-completion and disdain for school, and in themselves in relation to school.

Personalized attention to students and having the resources to eliminate the barriers that impede educational progress are primary goals for counseling programs. Drawing on the suggestions of the participants, and the work of Bridgeland et al. (2006, 2010) and Smyth (2009), suggestions for creating the conditions that support healthy identity development and student engagement can include conveying to all students high expectations for academic achievement, regardless of background or personal circumstances. School personnel can convey an interest in students' welfare as opposed to their test scores, and build inclusive school climates where no-tolerance policies pertain to discriminatory, punitive practices employed by administrators and teachers. In addition, school personnel can foster an increased focus on reciprocal communication between school and home by not waiting until a problem arises. Students will demonstrate an investment in the educational program when provided relevant school-to-work, school-to-college programming based on their interests, and meaningful curricula related to their lives, past, present, and future. Believing they have a voice in the decisions that directly impact them, and support via individual and small group counseling when real life situations get in the way of learning, conveys the posture position that school is for their benefit and ultimate well-being.

The movement from being engaged to becoming alienated is a complex process. Students come to recognize early on whether they will be successful in the system or not. School counseling programs designed to target alienated and marginalized populations can positively impact students and demonstrate program effectiveness. Participants in this study related that, when teachers and other school adults took a personal interest in them, helping them to feel included and valued, they were more willing to attend class and do their homework.


Outcomes of this study suggest that school counselors have the potential to support all students' ability to achieve academically and feel connected socially in schools. This is not surprising as recent literature indicates the unique position of the school counselor to advocate for academic parity and social equity (Bemak & Chung, 2005; Holcomb-McCoy, 2007; Trusty, Mellin, & Herbert, 2008). Based on the results of this study, school counselors can focus on three specific areas to build and maintain students' connections to the academic goals and social objectives of school. They can: (a) develop programming for students new to school in order to foster positive, inviting school climates; (b) advocate for culturally responsive and relevant teaching practices; and (c) cultivate positive family-school-community connections to support students' capacity to cope with exigent family circumstances and realize personal accountability.

Develop Programming for Students New to School

Providing support for kinder, gentler transitions into new schools is one method to support a student's ability to form bonds with teachers and peers. The participants in this study described entering new schools with feelings of anxiety and insecurity concerning how teachers would accept them into the existing classroom climate, and how they might meet and make friends. None described being welcomed and introduced to programs, teachers, or other students with whom they might have connected. The creation, implementation, and continuing evaluation of programs designed to reduce students' anxieties and provide opportunities to connect could produce improved student outcomes data (Bridgeland et al., 2006, 2010).

Counselors, for example, could gather information via a survey format from the new and transitioning students to help target potential areas of academic and extra-curricular interest. Knowing a student is highly interested in music could help the counselor introduce the student to other similarly interested students, as well as school courses and community resources connected to the learning and development of musical intelligence. A brief on-line survey or interview available via an on-line social network could serve as an initial intake for individual counseling, small group counseling, or other suitable school-sponsored activities; it could also serve as an introduction to school's culture.

According to Constantine, Kindaichi, & Miville (2007) and Milsom (2007), preparing the social environment to ensure a more welcoming atmosphere by implementing psychoeducational opportunities such as classroom guidance could support student-school connections. Additionally, creating a "welcome wagon" comprised of culturally and linguistically diverse students to accompany new students for the first several days and introduce them to their teachers and the unspoken rules of the cafeteria, hallways, playground, and parking lot could quickly reduce anxiety and support student belonging. Opportunities such as newcomer lunches, after school meet-n-greets, and short weekend excursions could involve students, teachers, and parents into the process of creating a welcoming, inclusive culture.

Advocate for Culturally Responsive and Relevant Teaching Practices

According to the American School Counselor Association (2005), counselors are to become catalysts for educational change and take on leadership roles and responsibilities in educational reform. The participants in this study indicated that many teachers seemed uninterested in them as people. Participants perceived teachers' opinions of who they were as students and their capacity to learn as a determinant to their sense of belonging and how well they might have performed in class. Students need counselors to advocate on their behalf for class-rooms where curricula is responsive and relevant to their current lives (Delpit, 2006). Promoting a teaching philosophy that is founded in understanding the role of culture and language could support the learning needs of alienated and historically marginalized students (Delpit, 2006; Villegas & Lucas, 2002). One way this can happen is for school counselors to work with teachers and administrators individually and in teams to strengthen the connection of critical pedagogy to teaching methodology. Villegas and Lucas identify six qualities teachers can possess to inform curriculum development and teaching practices: (a) understanding how learners construct knowledge, (b) learning about students' lives, (c) being socioculturally conscious, (d) holding affirming views about diversity, (e) using appropriate instructional strategies, and (f) advocating for all students. Delpit (2006) defines learning as a sociocultural process; attending to learners' sociocultural lives opens the door to students investing in their own education.

School counselors can engage faculty and staff in activities that reduce bias and raise awareness of their own and students' cultural selves. Activities such as professional development workshops focusing on the six teacher qualities and small group work focusing on developing teacher self-awareness can translate into increased student involvement (Delpit, 2006; Gay, 2010; Villegas & Lucas, 2002).

Cultivate Positive Family-School Community Connections

Circumstances do occur when families and the communities in which they live are destructive to a student's development and growth. School counselors need to use interventions that reach out to students in an effort to help them cope in healthy ways with such circumstances. Individual and group counseling methods have been found to be effective interventions, both as preventative and crisis intervention tools, when helping students to maintain focus and be academically and socially successful in school (Bemak, 2005). Participants in this study indicated that had school provided more, targeted support, they likely would have been willing to reciprocate by being more accountable for academic achievement.

School counselors are uniquely positioned to facilitate the types of school-family-community collaborations that can foster student success (Griffin & Galassi, 2010). Griffin and Galassi identify four areas in which counselors can aid in removing barriers to student success: (a) participate in school-family-community collaborative activities, (b) develop parents as resources, (c) help bridge the communication gap between parents and schools and help foster a welcoming school environment, and (d) develop a list of resources for parents and school staff. Investment in these areas will require school counselors to advocate for a shift from traditional tasks (e.g., addressing individual students' academic or behavioral problems, test administration) to include time for leadership activities such as development of partnerships and outreach to parents (Epstein & Van Voorhis, 2010).

At present, counselors can focus on developing existing relationships with teachers, administrators, school psychologists, social workers, community-based agencies, and parent-teacher organizations to present concerns, facilitate discussion, and advance advocacy efforts. Councils of stakeholders working to construct collaborations to support student achievement and social connectedness demonstrate to students that they are valued. Workshops that support parents as they navigate divorce and separation, provide college readiness training for first generation students and their families, and disseminate school information in culturally responsive ways model a school's caring attitude and inclusivity.


This was a study of alienated students' experiences. It was not a study of institutions, programs, curricula, or academic disciplines. The in-depth nature of the study and the small number of participants necessarily limited the degree to which the findings might be transferable to alienated students as a whole. The findings in this study reflect the participants' descriptions of their school experiences and, therefore, carry all the limitations of any self-reported data.

This research approached data collection from an individual perspective rather than a systemic or societal perspective. Some researchers, such as Grossman (1999), view youths' turmoil and violence as resulting from the ills of society such as the oppressive practices conveyed via television, movies, music, and video games. This research does not include these types of cultural concerns of society on a macro level.

Although the findings are based on the perspectives of a subgroup of 16- to 19-year-old boys, this study laid the groundwork for a more extensive investigation of the identified substructures. Whereas other studies have isolated and decontexualized selected factors in their attempts to quantify student's experiences, this study employed a naturalistic approach that was sensitive to the participant's experience. Themes and meanings emerged from participants' idiosyncratic description of their experiences. This study's qualitative approach contributes depth to the existing body of research devoted to understanding the phenomenon of youth alienation.

One noteworthy feature of this study was that the primary researcher was female. While this is not necessarily a limitation, and, in fact, one participant regarded it as an asset, the gender difference did influence the participant's perceptions. All participants indicated in some fashion that they felt the researcher, by virtue of her gender, likely had a more empathetic nature leading to greater self-disclosure. A similar study lead by a male researcher might produce different results. Furthermore, alienation is not solely a masculine phenomenon; therefore, it is essential that research be conducted to include the experience of females who self-identify as alienated.

By design, the participants in this study did not interact with one another. The lack of contact was pointed out by several participants as textural and structural descriptions of the other participants were not shared. These participants expressed a curiosity about the perceptions, feelings, and attitudes of the others. A study that included a group dynamic might evoke reactions and trigger responses that in-depth individual interviewing did not.

Future research that focuses on the student perspective and giving voice to the collective experience can provide a sense of empowerment for students. Participants ha this study described feeling ill-considered by the greater society because of their positions as minors and as potential "high school drop-outs." The stigma of non-accomplishment is a heavy burden to place on children and adolescents as it impacts their sense of belonging, trust, and self-worth. Participants perceived their school experience as being more difficult than adults would acknowledge or concede. The perspective these participants have offered to the school counseling profession is invaluable when we consider how to allocate our resources. A school can achieve academic equity and offer belonging to students by identifying and addressing the systemic and individual barriers that may limit any student's capacity to learn. School counselors must consistently examine their own attitudes and behaviors and accept the responsibility to work toward the interrelated goals of academic achievement and social integration.


Sample Interview questions

Initial Interview

1. How do you believe your experience in school makes you a good fit for this study?

2. How is that you came to leave school early?

Second Interview

1. What specific events in school contributed to your feeling of alienation?

2. Tell me about a typical day in your school life.

Third Interview

1. How do you think your school experience has affected your present life circumstances?

2. Given what you've said about your experience in public high school, where do you see yourself going in the future?


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Lisa L. Schulz, PhD, LPC, NCC, is an assistant professor of counselor education at Georgia Southern University, Statesboro, GA. E-mail:

Deborah J. Rubel, Ph.D., is an associate professor of counseling at Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR.
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