Approximately 35 million adults (25+ years old) in the United States have not earned a high school diploma. While many of these adults want to finish high school, very few adult education programs meet their needs. In addition, many people who dropped out of high school have experienced educational trauma and they are reluctant to go back. People respond to educational failure in much the same way that they respond to a traumatic event. Most people have a flight reaction to trauma. They run and do not come back, having developed a mindset that activated a flight response to school and associated feelings of helplessness and disempowerment. The Career Online High School program was designed within an education and clinical social work model in order to address this issue in a substantive way.


Some of my initial clinical social work experience focused on how people respond to trauma — generally with a “fight” or “flight” response. Educational trauma results when a one-size-fits-all academic system labels those who don’t “fit” as “failures.” These students tend to respond to educational failure by taking flight — and never returning.

Whether it stems from testing issues, different learning styles/abilities, financial realities, health problems, lack of subject matter applicability, overburdened/overstrained school systems, or a lack of family/school support, many of high school dropouts have had negative experiences and received negative feedback in their traditional school settings. Chronic “failure” messaging creates feelings of helplessness and disempowerment relative to the educational system.

A lifelong flight response to academic environments is particularly problematic for adults whose very economic and social stability is premised upon their ability to increase their level of education.

Using an Educational Trauma Framework 

Thus, we built COHS within an educational trauma framework breaks down barriers to re-engage adults into the educational system. Within COHS’s educational intervention methodology, our team directly identifies education performance and trauma as related phenomena. We address students’ educational needs with empathy and compassion through:

  •  A comprehensive, high-support academic coaching model
  •  A competency-based instructional design approach (i.e., no failure)
  •  An “skills training first” model where students start of taking courses in relevant, engaging career focus areas of their choice before moving into the core curriculum (that may have presented obstacles in previous schooling attempts)

These three interventions form the foundation of a supportive, competency-based program model that gets adults back into the education educational system and builds the skills needed to work through their “flight” response and succeed.

“Skills Training First” Helps Students Thrive

COHS’s curriculum is contextualized to prepare students for entrance into postsecondary educational programs and/or to advance in the workplace. COHS initiates learning through electives in areas of workforce and life skills that create context for, and more meaningful engagement in, the core curriculum that follows. All students begin the COHS program in their chosen “major of study,” which helps them experience education as useful, interesting, and relevant to their futures. It helps build educational successes that boost confidence and empower students to move into the ensuing core topics with a more positive mindset. Students can choose from:

  • Child Care & Education*
  • Commercial Driving*
  • Food & Hospitality*
  • General Career Preparation
  • Home Care Professional
  • Hospitality & Leisure
  • Manufacturing
  • Office Management
  • Retail & Customer Service
  • Security Professional

*These tracks also prepare students to pursue the industry-recognized credential: CDA, CDL, or CPFM, respectively.


In addition, to confront the issue of accessibility that plagues adults who may be balancing school with work, families, and life responsibilities, we bring the program to them. It’s 100% online with no commutes or books to buy. Also, through partnerships in various industries, people can access the program for free through organizations such as their:

  • Employer
  • Local library
  • Workforce board
  • Local charities and non-profits
  • Military organizations

The ability to experience school in a familiar setting such as one’s home, workplace, or local library, further breaks down another barrier to educational attainment.

Student Success — By the Numbers

So is it working? The data says, yes. Our students are not only succeeding with us, they are using their high school education as a springboard to brighter futures.

Take these 16,000+ adults that had not been able to finish high school, many of whom experienced emotional trauma and were reluctant to go back to school. And here they are moving onto more education and giving a 99% approval rate to the high school where they finally found success and empowerment.

Want to read more on educational trauma and the COHS interventions?

Overcoming Educational Trauma Part 1:  explains the concept of educational trauma as when “one-size-fits-all” academic systems lead to students having poor experiences and dropping out…

Overcoming Educational Trauma Part 2: explains how to build confidence and boost high school graduation outcomes through a high-support model and applicable, relevant curriculum…