9 The Counsellor’s Role in Supporting Disengaged Youth

Kim Emms


Disengagement from school is a complex issue that affects a growing number of students and presents a major educational, health and economic challenge to communities in Australia and across the world. The negative impacts of disengagement are long-lasting and affect individuals, families and communities (Hancock & Zubrick,2015). Research has noted that marginalised groups such as Indigenous students, those living in low socio-economic conditions and youth from rural, regional and remote communities are over-represented in disengagement numbers (Bloomfield, 2022; Mahat, 2021). Governments, both federal and state, have responded to the problem by spending billions of dollars and creating an abundance of programs, strategy papers and initiatives to tackle the problem. Despite this, little success has been gained and the number of disengaged students continues to climb (AIHW, 2022). There is research to be found on the causes, impacts and risk factors of disengagement and this literature review provides a summary of findings. Some research exists on current actions taken to re-engage students such as the use of alternative schools, but it is difficult to find literature on their effectiveness. While most researchers agree that policy change is necessary for finding a solution to disengagement, there is little research on the process of making it happen and more research in this area would be prudent. Finally, this review concludes by highlighting promising findings from the literature and actions that counsellors can take to support disengaged students.


In Australia, the number of disengaged youth in 2019 was estimated at over 50 000 students, occurring more often in rural, remote and regional communities, affecting more males than females and showing vast overrepresentation amongst Aboriginal youth and other marginalised groups (D’Angelo & Dollinger, 2021). As tracking data is limited, the number of ‘lost’ students is likely larger, and evidence suggests that the problem is increasing, especially following the COVID epidemic (English, 2021). The problem of disengagement is recognised by the federal and all state governments in Australia (and around the world) and has resulted in billions of dollars spent on a myriad of programs designed to target disengaged students and support them to stay in school. Yet, despite ongoing time and money spent by governments, little progress is evident (Staines & Moran, 2020). Due to rising numbers and the increased recognition of disengaged youth, research on the topic has shown growth and incorporates a diverse array of pertinent information Due to rising numbers and the increased recognition of disengaged youth, research on the topic has shown growth and incorporates a diverse array of pertinent information. (Lampert et al., 2016). In an attempt to understand the counsellor’s role in supporting youth at risk, this review will begin by examining the research on the impact of disengagement on individuals, families and communities and the associated risk factors. The latter half of the paper seeks to understand the interventions and strategies that have been used successfully and unsuccessfully, what students have to say on the issue and on what action can be taken in the future to assist students who disconnect. Disengagement is a complex, nuanced issue that requires original thinking and new strategies and actions to be taken by stakeholders to help youth live satisfying, connected lives and build strong communities.

The definition of disengagement is dependent on the context in which it is used and is a multidimensional phenomenon (Hancock & Zubrick, 2015). Reschly & Christensen (2014) describe engagement as a personal investment and the driver of learning, and disengagement is often seen as a choice, to or not to invest time or effort. It is essential to understand that there are variable degrees of disengagement, that it is both a process and an end result and that types of engagement can be physical, emotional, behavioural or cognitive (Hancock & Zubrick, 2015). It has been suggested that the definition of school disengagement is linked to academic tasks, however, it encompasses all contexts for a youth, including home, peers and community. For the purpose of this literature review, disengagement refers to a young person between the ages of 12 and 18 who is not employed or studying part-time or full-time.

The scope of this study is centred upon the disengagement of secondary students in rural, remote and regional areas of Central and North Queensland. However, exploration includes actions and strategies that have been and are currently utilised in other parts of Australia and overseas to gain new insight into the issue. Also, as the markers and risks of disengagement often begin in early childhood, and have ongoing consequences, consideration has been given to studies that involve subjects both younger and older than the focus group (12- to 18-year-olds).

Impacts of Disengagement


The repercussions of student disengagement and its negative impact on individuals, families and communities are well documented in the relevant literature. It is a problem that must be acted upon early in a student’s life or is likely to result in low health and well-being outcomes, ultimately impacting communities. Wilson et al. (2011) and te Riele (2007) both note that early school leavers were at a disadvantage in the labour market, as secondary education has become the minimum requirement to enter the workforce. Consequently, youth who left school early were less likely to engage in further study or training in the future (Bloomfield, 2022) and were more likely to rely on government assistance throughout life (Wilson et al., 2011). Mahat et al. (2021) have estimated the cost of disengagement to the Australian government at $15.9 billion each year with $7.2 billion spent on mental health programs for disengaged youth. In response to the problem, federal and state governments over the years have implemented a plethora of plans, programs and strategies, costing billions of dollars.

Importantly, the impacts and incidence of disengagement are not equally felt amongst Australia’s youth The impacts and incidence of disengagement are not equally felt amongst Australia’s youth.. This will be discussed in detail further in the paper, but it is important to mention here that marginalised youth from rural, regional and remote areas of Australia are over-represented in disengagement numbers (Klieve et al., 2019; Clifford et al., 2020, Wilson et al., 2011, te Riele, 2007). Additional increased risk factors include Indigenous status, race, a non-English background, disability and low socio-economic status. Most alarming is the fact that, although government spending has increased in response to the problem, marginalised youth and those from regional, rural and remote areas, continue to see a decline in opportunities and an incline in disengagement (D’Angelo & Dollinger, 2021).

Individuals and Families

While the costs and consequences to communities and governments are high, the adverse effects on the individual are equally damaging. The role of school is not only to develop cognition in young people but also to foster social, behavioural and emotional growth. Kathryn Seymour (2020, p. 243) wrote that “school is an essential anchor,” and McMahon & Hanrahan (2021) have agreed that a lack of engagement at school results in impaired social, educational and financial outcomes. Disengaged youth have less peer relationship satisfaction, lower health outcomes, less housing stability later in life and a decreased life expectancy. They experience more social anxiety and mental issues, have an increased risk of substance abuse problems (McMahon & Hanrahan, 2021) and are more likely to be involved in crime and delinquency (Staines & Moran, 2020). Furthermore, disengagement tends to increase in severity over time if it is not managed early and can be reinforced unwittingly through family circumstances. Familial values and decisions influence the process of disengagement both positively and negatively, and when a student becomes disengaged, often the result is a loss of connection for the whole family.

Risk Factors


A theme that is well established across the literature is that disadvantage and disengagement are inextricably linked. Students who experience hardship, physically, socially or emotionally are at high risk of disengagement (Hancock & Zubrick, 2015). The factors contributing to disadvantage are many and varied and include a background of low socio-economic status, complex situations at home and living in remote, regional and rural areas (Mahat et al., 2021; AIHW, 2022). Aboriginal students are three times as likely to disengage (Wilson et al., 2011). Refugees and non-English speaking students are also at a much larger risk, as are students with a disability or who identify as LGBTQ (Lampert et al., 2016). Finally, students who have experienced trauma, and those who are in out-of-home care are over-represented in disengagement numbers. The data displays an upward trend in disengagement in recent years, and English (2021) has suggested that Queensland has seen the highest rise, at 30%, since the pandemic. Of particular concern is that Australian schools demonstrate more prevalence between socioeconomic status and low educational outcomes than other comparable countries (Morgan et al., 2015). Seymour (2020) and Mahat et al. (2021) also noted low equity in student achievement compared to similar countries. Although the reasons are varied and complex, the literature implies that the Australian school system struggles to cater to the needs of diverse learners, and disengagement is a consequence.


The right to a high-quality education is assumed by most Australians; however, barriers lie in the way of actualisation. These barriers can lead to disengagement and can be divided into two themes: in-school and out-of-school (Hancock & Zubrick, 2015). Hancock and Zubrick (2015) have suggested that it is often assumed that the process of engagement lies with the student, but factors in and out of the school context are always at play and must be considered. Cuban (2012, p. 115) wrote that “Access to knowledge does not guarantee engagement,” highlighting the complexity of the problem facing stakeholders, counsellors included. Perhaps it is the disparity between the policy makers belief that teaching and learning work on logic and algorithms with the complexity and unpredictability of life in schools that creates confusion and disconnection (Cuban, 2012).

In-School Barriers

In-school barriers include physical resources, policies, strategies and agendas that influence how schools run. A common criticism is that the focus and curriculum of traditional school-based learning are narrow (Bloomfield, 2019). Definitions of success for policymakers are based on high-stakes testing agendas (Lampert et al., 2016), where academics are prioritised over basic health and well-being. Bloomfield agreed that traditional schools valued certification over holistic growth and aimed to produce human capital (Bloomfield, 2019). Lewthwaite et al. (2017) also wrote of the idea of students as human capital operating under a regime of compliance. Furthermore, Morgan et al.’s (2015) research supports the notions of academic priority and compliance through the high level of suspensions and expulsions given (disproportionately) to diverse learners. The authors concur that the problem of disengagement lies with the school system and not the individual student (Bloomfield, 2019; Lampert, 2016; Lewthwaite et al., 2017; Morgan et al., 2015). In a system where one size fits all, disengagement comes when students don’t fit at all (Cope & Kalantzis, 2022).

Assimilating a spectrum of diverse students to mainstream school philosophy adds another dimension to the problem of disengagement. Racism and bullying based on race and difference are mentioned by multiple authors as a serious problem and cause for disconnect amongst Aboriginal, ethnic and students with disability. Institutional bias exists in the form of stereotyping and expectations of low achievement from Aboriginal students (Molla, 2022). Clifford et al. (2020, p.1) argue that Australian schools are ‘rooted in issues of social justice and systemic oppression’. This view is also collaborated by Idriss et al. (2021, p.6) who write that the school system is built on ideas of ‘white’ success, building on Clifford et al.’s (2020) idea that Aboriginal, refugees and students of ethnic origin struggle with the expectations of a system built on prejudiced colonial ideas. The ramifications of these authors’ views serve to disclose the challenge ahead to re-engage students in a system that is resistant to change (Staines & Moran, 2020).

Other marginalised groups, such as students who come from a low socio-economic background, have complex family situations, have physical and mental disabilities, or identify as LGBTQ experience institutional barriers due to rigid thinking and the negative connotations that come with the labels placed on them (Rooney, 2019). Students in remote, regional and rural areas experience a disconnect with a curriculum that does not represent the context of their lives. Finally, in recent years, research has put the spotlight on another group of at-risk youth, and that is students who have undergone trauma. McMahon & Hanrahan (2021) are among the authors that recognise that students who have experienced trauma are more likely to experience social anxiety, which leads to disengagement. Research continues to support Trauma Informed practice in schools, however, there is a gap in understanding by school staff and administrators on its effects and the myriad of associated problems such as cognitive and social dysfunction, sleep, memory and language delays. Instability, peer relationship and control issues are some other effects of trauma on students (Morgan et al., 2015). Unsurprisingly, researchers recommend the benefits of home education over mainstream schools for students with a background of trauma (Lampert et al., 2016). The research indicates that a common in-school barrier that connects disengaged students from all marginalised groups is a narrow-focussed curriculum that does not take into consideration the values of learners.

Finally, student relationships with teachers, school administrators and peers are an important in-school factor. Vernon et al. (2018) have spoken of the importance of teacher encouragement to students, yet also comment on the low retention of quality teachers in areas facing diversity. Peer relationships are very important as well and can be a positive factor in keeping kids at school, but also a major in disengagement when they fail (Fitch et al., 2016). The literature is clear on the importance of relationships between students with their teachers and peers and they constitute the greatest influence on whether a student will become disengaged The literature is clear on the importance of relationships between students with their teachers and peers and they constitute the greatest influence on whether a student will become disengaged..

Out-of-School Barriers

Attitudes and values towards learning begin when a child is born; so it is no surprise that family and the environment of the home play a large role in learning and a student’s ability to engage at school (Hancock & Zubrick, 2015). Families influence learning through their beliefs and values on the importance of education and cultural principles and ideas of success play into possible student aspirations. Families also set the climate psychologically and socially for children. Biology and DNA play a part, as do the economics of a household. The variance in support psychologically, socially, biologically and economically is significant and policymakers must understand that right from the beginning, some students are at a disadvantage. Students whose families experience need are at risk of being marginalised, and when the struggles encompass more than one area of disadvantage, the risk of disengagement increases (McMahon & Hanrahan, 2021).

Understanding the role of family and cultural expectations is an important step in helping disengaged students. For instance, the idea of independence, and a sense of community may be very different for Indigenous students. Different cultures measure success differently (Idriss et al., 2021), have different expectations based on gender (Walker, 2019) and place more value on their position in the community and family. Students from low socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to experience family violence, act as a carer for a family member, or experience substance abuse, either firsthand or by a family member and consequently, they find the rigid expectations of mainstream schools difficult to navigate (Walker, 2019; Idriss, 2021). The suggestion is that from year 10, the confidence of students from difficult backgrounds begins to decline and they begin to lower their educational expectations (Polvere & Lim, 2015). In rural, remote and regional areas, local opportunities may be limited or not as well advertised as those in cities. Pressure to leave families for jobs in the city is something students grapple with. Factors and barriers in school and out work together. With more effort and understanding, schools and families can together provide the support and encouragement necessary to help students stay engaged and overcome these barriers.

Current Actions and Interventions

Alternative Schools and Flexischools

In Australia, there are a growing number of alternatives to mainstream schooling. Literature on a variety of programs operating in various locations has been analysed and the main themes were drawn out for our purposes here. Currently, in Queensland, there is a combination of non-state special assistance schools, state school alternative learning schools, Flexi Schools, and Positive Learning Schools (Gullaci, 2020). While it was hard to find the number of students attending these schools, there were more than 2000 students on a waiting list to attend one Queensland flexible learning centre in 2011 (Wilson et al., 2011). Trends would suggest that this number has increased, as have homeschooling numbers since the COVID pandemic (English, 2021). The ramifications of a system that cannot individualise, or deal with socio-economic disadvantage, are that we will continue to see a rise in disengagement and mental, physical and emotional ailments community-wide.

Alternative programs are not without their problems or critics. Firstly, rural, remote and regional students are disadvantaged, as spaces in these programs and instructors to run them are often limited. When educators are available, they often lack the experience and cultural and site-specific knowledge needed to run a successful program (Lampert et al., 2016). There is also the issue of program saturation. Staines & Moran (2020) cited the example of an Aboriginal community in Far North Queensland where an overabundance of government programs overlap with unintended, negative consequences. This example implies that while governments and policymakers are willing to provide money, they have not embraced the idea that further examination into the root of the problem is vital. Many other programs have been criticised for lacking stability, definition and a shared framework (te Riele, 2007). There is also little research on program effectiveness. Furthermore, the integrity of some programs has been questioned by employers and the community (Wilson et al., 2011). The literature corroborates the view that programs provided at alternative schools are often viewed as substandard, producing low-skilled labourers and providing limited pathways to recognised skills (Bloomfield, 2019) which in turn, results in continued marginalisation. The term alternative school itself invites speculation that attendance at a normal school ended in failure, resulting in stigmatism and moral judgement. The effectiveness of alternative programs is an area for continued research.

Despite criticism, however, success stories of alternative programs in re-engaging students are plentiful in the literature (Bloomfield, 2022; Wilson & Stemp, 2010; McMahon & Hanrahan, 2021). That is, research shows that marginalized students are more likely to engage in alternative programs, however, there is little quantitative data to suggest better academic achievement or life outcomes. Programs implemented in low socio-economic areas, remote, rural and regional communities, and with Indigenous students have reported success (Bloomfield, 2019; Klieve, 2019). Common themes emerge within these examples: a focus on strong, respectful relationships, flexibility and individuality in programs and with deadlines, a holistic approach and wrap-around services (Seymour, 2020), trauma-informed instruction, and placed-based instruction. It is prudent for counsellors to keep these themes in mind when considering how to best help students at risk of disengagement.

A promising, and relatively recent line of thought in the effort to reduce youth disengagement is the idea of prioritising vocational education in schools at an earlier age. Researchers have reported a positive impact on student engagement when career readiness is an explicit part of the curriculum (Mahat et al., 2021; Polvere & Lim, 2015). This thinking has the potential to facilitate progress for all students, not just those considered marginalised. Career education keeps an emphasis on one underlying outcome of education; to become career ready. If career-based programs are properly executed, schools will involve industry, community and universities in their development, and they will adopt a regional focus. D’Angelo and Dollinger (2021) have suggested a codesigned curriculum that is dynamic and adaptable so that it takes into consideration local trends. Imperatively, career-based education gives choice, creates confidence and encourages self-exploration, all considerations that are important to all students (Mahat et al., 2021). Finally, career education encourages relationships, and promotes discussion and connection between students, families, school staff and communities. Indeed, the OECD has put out a call for education systems to align career readiness with the curriculum (OECD, 2014).

Student Voice

Student voice is paramount in finding solutions to the problem of disengagement. While the literature demonstrated that it is a question asked by researchers, there is little evidence that policymakers have taken notice. Students spoke of feeling respected and liked that they were made to feel important. Good relationships with staff and peers were a prominent theme in the literature (Walker, 2019; McMahon & Hanrahan, 2019; Bloomfield et al., 2022). Students appreciated the opportunity to make connections (to re-engage). Most wanted to learn but needed teachers that could ‘change their ways’ (Lewthwaite et al., 2017, p. 397)). Previously disengaged students spoke of the challenges they faced in mainstream schools, such as racism, bullying, fighting, and various pressure at home. In alternative settings, they felt supported in dealing with these problems physically, mentally and emotionally (Bloomfield, 2022; te Riele, 2007). They spoke of small class sizes and flexibility in clothing expectations, learning space, attendance and assignments. The idea of ‘choice’ and being ‘free from trappings’ was voiced, as was a new, increased desire to succeed (Bloomfield, 2022, p. 16). It is interesting that, while the data consistently points out the risks of marginalisation, the students themselves did not feel that being disadvantaged caused disengagement, but rather the disharmony caused by pressures at home, cultural obligations and school expectations (Bloomfield, 2022).

Suggestions and Recommendations

The current recommendations listed here draw upon the successes of alternative school thinking, student voice and upon literature on best practice in Australia, and in Finland, where secondary education attainment is very high, and students of low socio-economic status enjoy similar rates of high achievement as their peers. The intention to include research on Finland’s education system is to highlight some alternative perspectives and philosophies that have shown success.

Policy (Australia and Finland)

The literature strongly supports the idea that new and more effective policies and pedagogies must be examined and endorsed to meet individual student needs in Australia. A focus on strengthening relationships, and on adequate training for staff to understand cultural issues is necessary for helping to keep marginalised students engaged. Policymakers must embrace diversity and work to manage resources carefully and efficiently (Cope & Kalantzis, 2022). A glance at the literature on school policy in Finland, a top performer in school achievement was undertaken as a means of comparison. Researchers have written about the value of educational equity and its embedment in the culture and policy of Finnish schools (Utsun, 2018). Values include less competition and more collaboration, the abandonment of nationalised testing, compulsory career guidance and solid financial support. Deep commitment is put into a student’s physical, social and psychological needs, a clear recognition that basic needs must be fulfilled before learning can occur (OECD, 2014). The result of Finland’s approach is consistency between schools and high attendance and achievement by students regardless of diversity. Most researchers agree that policy change in Australia is paramount (Lewthwaite et al., 2017; Cope & Kalantzis, 2022; Seymour, 2020). However, policy change is likely to happen slowly, and while counsellors must continue to advocate for a system that places the needs of students ahead of politics, costs and achievement data, action to keep kids engaged must be undertaken now.

Benefits For All Students

A profound idea that has emerged in the research is that any change in pedagogy and practice that is undertaken to help marginalised students to stay engaged at school will unequivocally support all students in mainstream education (Wilson et al., 2011). Researchers have advocated for a shift in the ideas that work in alternative settings to be used in mainstream schools, that schools replace uniformity with diversity and consider the unique capacity of students in schools (te Riele, 2007). When individual interests are utilised to inform curriculum, engagement comes naturally When individual interests are utilised to inform curriculum, engagement comes naturally.. Research has been undertaken on programs that involve personal interests such as sport, equine experience, gaming and digital skills, to name a few, and the results are positive (Fitch, 2016; Block, 2017; Norwood, 2021). The provision of a braided curriculum (Bloomield et al., 2022), that provides holistic care to students, an atmosphere that is respectful and flexible and focuses on supportive relationships will benefit students from any background because it recognises and values individuality. Relationships and trust are vital in beginning to deal with the damage caused by racism and for those who are trauma-affected (Indriss, 2021, Morgan, 2015). Te Riele (2007) noted the occurrence of quiet disengagement and pointed out that just because students cooperate and respond positively in classrooms does not guarantee genuine engagement. An unexpected benefit is that educational reform will serve these students too.

Career-Based Education

Cope and Kalantzis (2004, p. 45) quote, “If the distance between the life-world and learning is too great, the educational effort will be misdirected, compromised or ineffectual.” Embedment of career education and exploration in the curriculum helps students to remain cognizant of the relevance of school. Research suggests that vocational education should start in primary school and should be part of a strategic school-wide framework. Students must be exposed to multiple opportunities and encouraged to explore their individual interests early. Place-Based Education and pathways must be prioritised as it supports the connection between youth, culture and community. Career-based education recognises the need to help students with the transition from school to work and it can help to paint rural, regional and remote areas in a more positive light, dispelling the notion that youth must go to the city for opportunities (Mahat et al., 2021). While career-based education has been a suggested part of the curriculum for some years, it is time to see it mandated and prioritised. Current career frameworks are generic, lack structure and are inconsistently implemented (Mahat et al., 2021; D’Angelo & Dollinger, 2021).


Disengagement is a complex, nuanced issue that requires new thoughts and actions to be taken by stakeholders to help affected individuals to live satisfying, connected lives. Marginalised youth are at greater risk and the literature suggests that the problem is amplified by a narrow curriculum that places academic achievement ahead of the fulfilment of basic physical, social, and psychological needs (Cuban, 2012; Bloomfield, 2022). Policy change is needed to address the individuality and diversity of student populations, and the research supports the notion that positive actions taken to support those most at risk of disengagement will support all students. Responding to student voices and a focus on localised, career-based education have been highlighted as areas of promise. While the research into why students are disengaged is plentiful, there is a gap in how policy can support schools to bring about necessary change. While governments are willing to spend money on programs, studies into how to best implement the program and training for educators are necessary. Further research into communities that have demonstrated success in policy reform that tackles the issue of disengagement is the first step.


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