Back to School

Colorful images of students entering into high school

Schools, families, 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, families, 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.

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.
    • Unfortunately, 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.

Infographic: Schools play a critical role in helping young people establish strong connections to both school and family. When youth feel connected, the positive effects can last into adulthood.
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.

Youth Connectedness is an Important Protective Factor for Health and Well-being

Youth who feel engaged and supported at school and at home are less likely to experience negative health outcomes later in life related to mental health, violence, sexual risk, and substance use.

Connectedness refers to a sense of being cared for, supported, and belonging, and can be centered on feeling connected to school, family (i.e. parents and caregivers), or other important people and organizations. School and family connectedness are linked to reductions in multiple health risk behaviors during adolescence.

Feeling more connected in their schools and to their families during adolescence resulted in as much as a 48% to 66% lower risk of poor health outcomes in adulthood, depending on the specific health outcome, including:

  • About a 65% reduction in lifetime prescription drug misuse and other illicit drug use.
  • 54% reduction in ever having been diagnosed with an STD.
  • 51% reduction in having been the victim of physical violence in the last 12 months.

As the new school year begins, there are steps that schools and families can take to help students have a healthy school year.

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.

Tools for Schools

The Role of Families

Families have a strong influence on their adolescents’ lives.

Families 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 funding and assistance to help plan, implement, and evaluate programs that reduce risks and promote healthy practices within schools.