Teenage Pregnancy and Education Challenges


by Mary Ryan

The deepest issues faced in educating pregnant teens and teenage mothers are best illustrated by a true story.

As a Maternal/Child Public Health Nurse, I am frequently called into the homes of adolescent mothers to provide assessments, guidance, and support as they recover from childbirth and learn how to care for their newborn. Although my responsibility is to check on the immediate well-being of the mother and the newborn, I am always acutely aware that their ultimate well-being inevitably is connected to the mother’s future ability to provide for herself and that baby.  I believe that the most significant leading indicator of this future ability is the mother’s intention and ability to stay in school and complete her education.  While there are variations on the theme, the following conversation between myself and a teenage mother took place within the past few months.

Nurse: “So, how is school going for you? Do you have a teacher coming to your home?”

Mom: “I’m doing it all online.  I check into the school every month and write a test.”

Nurse: “You just mentioned that you don’t have a laptop and you don’t have WiFi.  How are you doing the work?”

Mom: “I’m using my phone. It’s hard, though.  I have to take care of the baby, and sometimes I’m so tired.  But I’m sick of school. And I don’t want them here.  They judge me, and judge my home.  I’m turning 16 this summer.  And that’s when I’ll quit.”

Despite my efforts to provide encouragement and reassurance, and to repair the damaged relationship between the school and this student, I will not be surprised if this teen mother follows through with her intention to drop out.

These are third generation issues.  Both this girl’s mother – and her grandmother – were teenage parents.

The statistics regarding the effect of teen pregnancy on education are disheartening.  According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, almost 50% of teenage mothers drop out of school, an action that is directly linked, in most cases, to the birth of their babies.  It is understandable, perhaps even inevitable, if one looks at it from the teenage mother’s perspective.  Providing for the 24/7 needs of a newborn can be overwhelming for the most highly prepared mother.  When that mother is in her teens, she is balancing a load that at times must seem crushing.  Adolescence is a time of exploration, of looking inward, and discovering and making peace with how one fits into the one’s world.  Pregnancy and parenting do not enter easily into this picture.

The story does not get better.  Less than two percent of teen mothers graduate from college.  Their children, too, have a difficult time in school, being more likely to drop out, repeat a grade, and perform below average on standardized tests. The cycle continues, for risk factors contributing to teenage pregnancy include poor school performance.  Yet another identified risk factor is family dynamics, for those who describe their families as dysfunctional are more likely to engage in unprotected sex.   Smoking, drinking, and drug use also place teenagers at higher risk for an unplanned pregnancy, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

In addition to compromised educational achievement, teen mothers are also at greater risk for mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression.  Their pregnancies are complicated and endangered by compromised nutrition and inadequate prenatal care; among the probable adverse outcomes are premature and low-birth weight babies.  The challenges faced by teen mothers extend to the next generation, for their babies face an uphill battle from the moment of conception.

Primary prevention, including sex education, plays a critical role in preventing teenage girls from becoming pregnant in the first place. These programs reduce the risk up front by empowering teens to take control of their sexuality, while promoting protective behaviors. If education is the great equalizer, then this is where such measures begin. Ideally, this would be all that would be needed.  Regrettably, the ideal is rarely achievable.

Efforts to provide meaningful assistance to those charged with educating pregnant students is based on legislation and regulations that are intended to provide oversight and protection.  Title IX of the Education Amendment Act of 1972 makes clear provisions for access, extracurricular activities, absences, and specialized support.  For example, schools are expected to provide services such as at-home tutoring for a student who is temporarily disabled.  The same is expected for a student who misses school due to pregnancy.  Schools also must provide adaptive physical accommodations (such as larger desks to accommodate the pregnancy), while ensuring that the pregnant student has access to opportunities and activities available to non-pregnant students.  The pregnant student is not to be denied the full range of voluntary activities or programs due to the demands of her pregnancy. Schools can request a doctor’s note in order for the pregnant student to participate, but only if such notes are requested for all students who are receiving medical care.  Basically, the law states that a student who is pregnant is not to be discriminated against, either physically or emotionally.

School officials are aware of, and knowledgeable about, requirements such as those delineated by Title IX.  These requirements promote inclusiveness and help prevent discrimination – and are intended to make it less likely that a pregnant teen will drop out of school.  Why then does the trend of drop-out teen mothers persist? Why, when we know that success in life is heavily predicated on educational attainment, do I continue to have conversations like the one above?

The solution may lie in coordinated, comprehensive, and cooperative community efforts.  Programs involving representatives from public health, education, social services, and the business sector are required in order to successfully meet the psychosocial, logistical, and emotional needs of these students.  Too many of them share stories that are similar: lack of positive role models, histories of risky behavior, low expectations, and a sense that their opportunities are limited.  Why bother staying in school, making that effort every day, when the prospect of delayed gratification seems so far out of their grasp?

We must begin by acknowledging that these students need strong community support, and a wide range of services that will enable them to effectively parent while gaining the education that will position them for success. Their needs are considerable, and there are many.  The Family and Youth Services Bureau of the Department of Health and Human Services outlines such measures, including programs that enhance self-sufficiency and financial independence.  Increasing the teen’s self-sufficiency improves self-control and self-reliance, allowing her to progress to independent living. Core components such as relationship-building, engaged parenting, and achieving financial stability set the stage for a better life, both for the mother and her child.

Overriding all of this is the need to set clear expectations for consistent and reliable school attendance and behavior.  This is where the business sector should have a role, as internship opportunities will allow the teen to appreciate that her academic effort can eventually be parlayed into real-life benefits. The National Women’s Law Center, quoting from a survey conducted by the Gates Foundation, identified teenagers who dropped out of school because of parenthood as being the ‘dropout population’ that stated most strongly that if their schools had demanded more from them – and provided the support – they would have worked harder to remain in school.

Although the U.S. trails other developed nations in reducing teen pregnancies, we have seen significant gains. According to the National Institutes of Health, rates of teen pregnancies have fallen to record lows among all ethnicities, and fewer adolescents report engaging in unprotected sex.  That said, the Centers for Disease Control reported that in 2015, the most recent year for which statistics are available, there were almost 230,000 babies born to teenage mothers.

Conversations like the one at the beginning of this article, between the public health nurse and the troubled teen mom, are not inevitable.   But it is only through focused efforts to maintain educational attachment that gains may be made.  Until then, each workday will present more teen mothers, and more conversations.



About the author:

Mary Ryan works for the Department of Public Health! She teaches nursing and travels as much  as she can. She’s an awesome gardener and loves dogs and cats. Always picking up strays.