School attendance at a young age is crucial for an individual's social and emotional development. It allows children to be around peers, form friendships and connections, and work toward their future. But as we get older, school may not be for all of us — some of us may prefer to work with our hands, and some may prefer to live life free of assessments and deadlines. A new study indicates that a high school education, at least, is necessary to lead young adults down the right path.

In a new study of 1,300 teens in 7th through 11th grade, researchers found that those who disengaged from school were more likely to lead lives punctuated by substance abuse and crime. Worse, the study indicated that an estimated 40 to 60 percent of teens show signs of disengagement from school. These signs include a lack of effort, inattention, or poor participation in classes.

If allowed to disengage from school, these youths do not develop into effective members of their communities. As a result, they turn to crime, substance abuse, and degenerate behavior to create emotional meaning for their lives, no longer defined by education or improvement.

Researchers wondered if it was the engagement of the youth in learning, instead of social engagement, at play here. While tests of cognition were limited, the researchers did identify behavior patterns, set up by the social expectations created by school, that would lead to effective learning versus those that tend to lead toward delinquency.

What's more, they found that teens who remained engaged in, and even excited by, school had learned time management, effective planning, goal-setting, and discipline that not only served them in school, but also continued to serve them throughout life. Similarly, these teens were less likely to participate in risky behavior in the future. These were the students who performed better in school and received excellent grades — and as a result, they were likely to feel competent and fulfilled by their supportive learning environments.

"The findings support the idea that behavioral, emotional, and cognitive engagement are assets that help students cope with the stressors, setbacks, and difficulties they face in school," said Ming-Te Wang, Ph.D., leader of this study.

So in the end, the major finding of this study is the importance of staying in school. Having a complete education can only open doors of opportunity, while leaving school too soon may open Pandora's box of wasted potential. It is up to all of us to ensure that the next generation does not become ridden with criminals, but instead, motivated and educated individuals.

Source: Wang M, Fredricks J. The Reciprocal Links between School Engagement, Youth Problem Behaviors, and School Dropout during Adolescence. Child Development. 2013.