Back to School

Male student writing at desk in a classroom

Parents, schools, and communities are key sources of support in helping youth establish healthy behaviors now and as they transition into adulthood.

The high school years are a critical time of development as adolescents are becoming increasingly independent, trying out new behaviors and activities, and navigating influences from a variety of sources.

As students head back to school, parents, schools, and communities all have a role to play in helping adolescents establish healthy behaviors now and as they transition into adulthood.

Health Risks for Adolescents

Among U.S. high school students, health risk behaviors—specifically those related to substance use, sexual risk, violence and mental health and suicide—are linked to lower academic grades. Addressing risk behaviors in school settings provides an opportunity for improving student health and supporting overarching school goals regarding academic outcomes.

Male student writing at desk in a classroom

Each day, the nation’s schools provide an opportunity for roughly 56 million students to learn about the dangers of unhealthy behaviors and practice skills to help establish lifelong healthy behaviors.

Results from the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) found that health risk behaviors and experiences, such as violence, substance use and sexual behaviors continue to contribute to negative health outcomes for adolescents. YRBS results found:

  • The percentage of high school students who have ever had sex declined from 48 percent in 2007 to 40 percent in 2017.
    • Condom use among sexually active students decreased from 62 percent in 2007 to 54 percent in 2017.
  • The percentage of students who had four or more sexual partners declined from 15 percent in 2007 to 10 percent in 2017.
  • Nearly 1 in 7 U.S. high school students reported misusing prescription opioids.
  • The proportion of students who persistently felt sad or hopeless increased from 29 percent in 2007 to 32 percent in 2017.
  • Nearly 1 in 5 students were bullied at school, and more than 1 in 10 female students and 1 in 28 male students report having been physically forced to have sex.

The 2017 YRBS also highlights health disparities that exist among students based on sex, race/ethnicity, and sexual identity. YRBS findings reveal sexual minority youth (SMY) experience significantly higher levels of violence in school, bullying and sexual violence and face incredibly high risks for suicide, depression, substance use, and poor academic performance. For SMY to thrive in their schools and communities, they need to feel socially, emotionally, and physically safe and supported.

The Role of Schools

Schools can build environments that are safe and provide connectedness for all students, delivering quality health education with a focus on building skills for healthy decision-making, and connecting students to necessary health services and supportive adults.

Research has shown that school health programs can reduce health risk behaviors among young people and have a positive effect on academic performance.

To help young people develop healthy behaviors, schools can:

  • Conduct standards-based health education that sets expectations for what students should know to protect their health.
  • Provide cost-effective access to school-based health services.
  • Implement school policies and programs designed to create environments that are safe, positive, and supportive of healthy behaviors.

Diverse young students outdoors

Although the adolescent years are a relatively healthy stage of life, preventable causes of death, illness, and injury still occur during this period.

The Role of Parents

Parents have a strong influence on their adolescents’ lives. Research shows that parent and family involvement can reduce risk behaviors and improve health outcomes across multiple areas.

Parents can influence healthy behaviors in adolescents by:

  • Talking about healthy, respectful relationships.
  • Communicating expectations about relationships and sex.
  • Providing factual information about ways to prevent HIV, STDs, and pregnancy.
  • Focusing on the benefits of protecting oneself from HIV, STDs, and pregnancy.
  • Providing information about how youth can speak with a health care provider and receive sexual health services.

What is CDC Doing?

CDC works with other federal agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and departments of education, health, and social services to —

  • Identify and monitor youth behaviors and related school policies and programs.
  • Summarize and apply research findings to increase the effectiveness of school-based prevention strategies.
  • Provide tools, funding and assistance to help plan, implement, and evaluate programs that reduce risks and promote healthy practices within schools.

Tools for Schools

The Health Education Curriculum Analysis Tool (HECAT) assists education agencies in selecting or developing health education curricula.

The School Health Index (SHI) assists educators in identifying the strengths and weaknesses of school health programs.

The Sexual Health Education Scope and Sequence pdf icon[665 KB] resource assists education agencies in identifying what students should know about a given topic and when that topic should be taught for each grade or grade group to lower students’ risk of HIV, STD, and pregnancy.

The Program Evaluation Tool assists state and local agencies in evaluating education and public health programs.

CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) results help in understanding the factors that contribute to the leading causes of illness, death and disability among youth and young adults.

The YRBS Data Summary and Trends Reportpdf icon uses YRBS data to focus on four priority areas closely linked to HIV and STD risk including sexual behavior, high-risk substance use, violence victimization, and mental health over the past decade.