Major Problems with Student Participation-Help!

Hello, Everyone. I hope that I’m not out of line for asking help in addressing a constant problem I face in working with ABE/ASE students. I work in two different programs.  I teach reading and writing, mainly. I have a very culturally-diverse group of students. The students that I get come in after they sign agreements to show up and commit to progress. They show up, but, I hate to say this, most of the younger ones (under 30-35!) come in either, drunk, stoned ,or high on something, usually meth.

The programs I work for are poor and need the attendance in order to stay open and serve other students who are not drug addicts. I find it very hard to think I’m doing a good job when most of my students are not showing progress!

Do others here face similar problems.? What do you do? Thanks,  Christi.


Hello Christi,

You wrote that most of your younger students (under 30-35) "come in either, drunk, stoned , or high on something, usually meth". Adult basic skills programs that I am familiar with do not tolerate this behavior. Particularly programs that serve young adults/out-of-school youth all have policies that do not allow students to come to class high, whether on alcohol or on controlled substances. Furthermore, these policies are enforced. Years of professional education experience have shown that students who are abusing controlled substances or alcohol cannot succeed in learning (or work) environments. I understand that some adult basic skills programs need student attendance to survive, but this is not the way to meet attendance requirements. As a teacher, you may not be in a position to decide on policy, but for your students' sake -- and yours -- you may may need to raise this issue with those who do make those decisions. 

A related issue is how to get help for students who are on controlled substances. Simply asking them to leave the program, without a way to return when they are able to learn, unencumbered by substance abuse, is not a good solution. The policy should include their ability to demonstrate that they are free from drug or alcohol dependence and ready to return. 

Also, your students may need help from trained substance abuse counselors. It is, of course possible that they will not (immediately) seek that help, but sometimes adult basic skills programs find that when students are informed that they cannot continue in a program because they are coming to class high, that confrontation begins the process of seeking help.

David J. Rosen


David, thank you for sharing what other programs do. I understand that some programs can just let students go. Ours can't. Some of these people come from families that have gotten help before. In many cases, they are family members of former GED grads. They are like family in many ways. If we let them go, they are on the streets. We get them into our homeless shelter when we can. We also get them counseling. But addiction is addiction. If we turn our backs, it's over for them. We work with churches and other community groups, but no one else in our little rural community provides education to adults unless they go to an alternative school that is well funded and selects only the cream of the crop.

I guess there is no solution. They just have to go out there and get killed, which many of them do, or end up in jail and come back. That happens, too. Thanks for your suggestions. Christi.

Hello again Christi,

You wrote that your students "sign agreements to show up and commit to progress." Is that a program requirement, or a class requirement? Do you think students were able to read and understand the agreement? When students signed it, do you think they actually agreed that this was necessary to serious learning? Do you think some students may be enrolled in the program for other purposes besides learning and getting a credential, such as a requirement for probation, for cash benefits, or because they are being pressured by family members to get their high school equivalency certificate? Is the agreement enforced? Are students who violate the policy ever asked to leave your program, and if so, is it explained that they have not complied with an important program policy? If there is a program policy and it is enforced but unevenly, what are the conditions under which it is enforced?

Do you ever refer to the agreement or discuss it in class? Do you ever ask students to write about the agreement and how they feel about it, if they think it is good to have such an agreement, and why or why not?  Do they understand why your class or program has such an agreement? Have you asked students if they have ever been asked to sign such an agreement in another (education, work, recreation) situation, and, if so, what happened when participants broke the agreement?

Are your students aware of stories and/or novels about people who have substance abuse problems? Have you recommended any of these to them? I am not suggesting that reading about people who have addictions will directly lead to a cure, but it may be a step in a process that leads to their deciding to do something to address their addiction problem. 

You wrote "they are like family in many ways." I wonder if your staff have explored the roles of family members when a family member is addicted. There may be counselors in your area that could help you, as a staff, in thinking about that. There are also books and articles that you might be able to read as a study circle that might provide you and your colleagues with other perspectives on this problem.

I wonder what questions or suggestions others reading about the problem you have posed may have.

David J. Rosen

David, thank you for your suggestions. The agreements are signed during their intake. We teachers are all part time and work just a few hours a week, like others in the program. I think that going over the agreement with students on a weekly basis is a good idea. I'll also try to get leads on reading materials at their levels that could help them deal with their problems.

Some of these students are court mandated and some enroll because their families demand it. Some come because the get paid to come! Those are not good incentives, but that's what happens. No one in our program has time to follow up on these students. The director takes action when things get bad. We are looking for other ways to stay open so we can drop students who don't progress or even show up regularly. I wish there were a solution, but, as they say, we can get them there, but we can't make them drink from our well! Christi

Christi -

You've gotten a lot of good advice, but I'd also suggest that you look into your state's Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) Agency.  Every state has VR, and you can find the agency for your state here.  VR agencies provide employment-related services for individuals with with physical or mental disabilities to obtain employment and live more independently through the provision of counseling, medical and psychological services, job training and other individualized services.  This includes individuals with drug and/or alcohol addictions.

The Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA)'s major Title I formula grant program provides funds to state VR agencies.  This is also part of WIOA's Priority of Service, to serve the hard to serve.  You could talk with your state's VR program about its referral process, and determine how you can best share this information with your learners.  It may be as simple as providing learners with information (provided to you by VR), or providing space in your facility for VR counselors to meet with individuals who wish to self-refer.

Often persons with substance abuse problems and physical addictions have what is called a dual diagnosis. Dual diagnosis is the term used when a person has a mood disorder, such as depression or bipolar disorder, and a problem with alcohol or drugs.  As you mentioned, they may be in ABE/EDP programs at the request or urging of others, whether it be families or the courts.  

Connecting them with VR staff who are able to address the physical addiction, and develop rehabilitation plans to support the client in finding a pathway out of addiction is critical to their educational success.  Until the client/learner identifies a greater purpose for being in your program, beyond family and court mandates, it will continue to be an uphill battle.  VR isn't a cure all, but it is certainly a key to helping those who are actively seeking a way out of substance abuse and addiction.

Good Luck!

Mike Cruse

Career Pathways and Disabilities in Adult Education Moderator


I wanted to add a comment and a caution to this discussion. As has been previously stated, many students who attend ABE/ASE programs have co-existing issues of mental disorders, substance abuse and or learning disabilities. Michael made an excellent suggestion for getting practical help when faced with these issues in the classroom. Vocational rehabilitation programs have licensed social workers and counselors who are able to  refer, test for and diagnose these issues. As instructors, we may have have had enough exposure to recognize the signs, but most of us are not in a position to diagnose. Many medications, lead paint exposure, illnesses  and/or self-medication ( legal or illegal) can be the cause of students not making progress in class. I have been teaching in an urban setting for the past ten years. Even when I have been able to smell the substance on the student, I will simply speak to them in private and suggest to them that some of the "recreational" activities they may be participating in are not helping them to achieve their goals. Said otherwise may trigger a blatant denial or in this litigious society, a defamation lawsuit. I hope that you and your program director are able to find an agency close by that can assist you.

Grayla, I so agree with your strategy to approach students individually and to avoid any hint of criticism. Being aware of legal issues is also smart.

And Christi, your concern is one shared by many, no matter what the program. Glad you brought it up. There are no easy solutions to this issue, but awareness sits on top of the list for beginning to deal with the problem.

A director of a program here in the rural Four Corners region reported major concerns this week relating to the disruption caused by two students from different referrals, one of whom went "over the edge" within the building. He was referred by corrections with commitment to working toward his GED. One day, he simply blew up at an instructor who refused to pay attention to his behavior, with a comment that was something like, "Oh, please. This is a class for adults," or something similar. The students jumped up, screaming in the hallways, and threatening to come back and kill every one. In that case, the cops were called, and the student, as David suggested, was kept from returning. He has a history of violent behavior when on drugs.

Another student, who has been doing excellent work and close to passing the GED, has gone back to taking meth and has started acting out in classes, disturbing everyone else. The director is working with his family, but all have a history of drug abuse. She suspects that his parents went back to using, and he along with them. Not sure of what will happen here.

Someone in one of our CoPs or at COABE suggested actually providing reading materials and starting discussions among inmates regarding their their choice of crime as a way of life. Perhaps, doing the same with drug addicts in classes would really create an awareness of the nature of drug abuse and the choices available to addicts and distributors. Awareness is definitely a first step toward healing.

It also occurs to me that bringing in former addicts as speakers in classes might help a lot. I know of one former student in a program, who was making up to $9,000.00 a week both distributing and using drugs. He would go to jail and be released to go right back to his lucrative life. That is, until he was sentenced over close to life in prison. His probation officer told him that he had a choice: finish his GED and give up drugs or go to prison for most or all of his like, with no recourse. The officer assured him that he would make no attempt to represent him in any way. That was it. This young man did finish his GED, started working as a dishwasher while taking college course, and told me through missing teeth, "I love my life now. I'm not afraid. I'll take this over being wealthy like I was any day. I'm happy." He told the program director that he would be glad to share his life's story to students at the center. Another thing he mentioned was that while at the Learning Center, he never had instructors who reflected him. He said most of them were older women, and that he couldn't relate. Hmmmm. Apparently, he later did since he met his goal! Leecy