Why Schools?

Schools: The Right Place for a Healthy Start

Image of 5 students in front of the wall

Schools have direct contact with 56 million students for at least 6 hours a day during the most critical years of their social, physical, and intellectual development.1,2

School health programs can reduce the prevalence of health risk behaviors among youth and have a positive effect on academic performance.3

Each school day provides students the opportunity to learn the importance of behaviors and skills needed to engage in a healthy lifestyle. It is easier and more effective to develop healthy behaviors during childhood than to change unhealthy behaviors during adulthood.4 Schools can contribute directly to a student’s ability to successfully practice behaviors that promote health and well-being.5

Health Risk Behaviors Often Begin in Adolescence

Many adolescents engage in behaviors and experiences that place them at risk, sometimes without realizing it.

Preventable health risk behaviors are often established during adolescence and can continue into adulthood, contributing to several of the leading causes of death, disability, and social problems including:6

    • Sexual behaviors that can result in HIV infection, other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and pregnancy
    • Behaviors that can contribute to unintentional injury and violence
    • Behaviors that can contribute to substance use

These risk behaviors can result in serious health outcomes such as early sexual initiation, substance use, and violence, which can adversely affect adolescents and young adults.7

The Role of Schools in Adolescent Health

Youth should be taught early about HIV and STD prevention with information they can understand and use. This includes education about health risks and skills to help delay sex and prevent HIV and STDs. Improving the health of youth requires working through education agencies to reach adolescents in schools.

Schools can impact the health and academic performance of students by working collaboratively with CDC to:

  • Foster the delivery of quality sexual health education
  • Increase youth access to sexual health services
  • Establish healthy, safe and supportive school environments
  • Implement effective policies and programs to prevent HIV, STDs and pregnancy

School Health Programs Are Effective

CDC’s school-based programs improve the health and well-being of youth by working with education and health agencies and other organizations to reduce HIV, STDs, unintended pregnancy, and related risk behaviors and experiences among students.

Quick Stats

  • In the United States, 56 million students are projected to attend elementary and secondary schools in fall 2020.1,2
  • Of these, 15 million students would be enrolled in grades 9 through 12.1,2

Societal Influences on Adolescents and Young Adults

Environmental factors contribute to the health of adolescents. Adolescent behaviors are influenced at the individual, peer, family, school, community, and societal levels.8 Because many sectors of society contribute to adolescent health, safety, and well-being, a collaborative effort that engages multiple partners is necessary. Such joint efforts can also help to promote a more collaborative approach to addressing adolescent health—one that views each adolescent as a whole person, recognizing and drawing upon his or her assets and not just focusing on risks.9

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School environments can affect student health and academic outcomes.10 School and family connectedness during adolescence are linked to reductions in poor health outcomes in adulthood. 11

To have the most positive impact on adolescent health, schools, government agencies, community organizations, and community members must work together. Providing safe and nurturing environments for youth can help ensure that they will be healthy and productive members of society.

  1. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Educations Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics (2020). Fast Facts: Back to school statisticsexternal icon. Washington, D.C.
  2. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Educations Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics (2020). The Condition of Education: Elementary and Secondary Enrollmentexternal icon. Washington, D.C.
  3. CDC. Health-Related Behaviors and Academic Achievement Among High School Students — United States, 2015. Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2017;66:921–927. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6635a1external icon
  4. Allensworth D, Lewallen TC, Stevenson B, Katz S. Addressing the Needs of the Whole Child: What Public Health Can Do to Answer the Education Sector’s Call for a Stronger Partnership. Preventing Chronic Disease. 2011;8(2):A44.
  5. Joint Committee on National Health Standards. National Health Education Standards: Achieving Excellence (2nd ed). American Cancer Society; 2012.
  6. CDC. Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance—United States, 2019. MMWR Suppl 2020;69(1):1-83.
  7. Banspach S, Zaza S, Dittus P, Michael S, Brindis CD, Thorpe P. CDC Grand Rounds: Adolescence — Preparing for Lifelong Health and Wellness. Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2016;65:759–762. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6530a2
  8. Viner RM, Ozer EM, Denny S, Marmot M, Resnick M, Fatusi A, Currie C. Adolescence and the social determinants of health. Lancet. 2012;379(9826):1641–1652. DOI:10.1016/S0140-6736(12)60149-4
  9. Hunt, H. (Ed.). (2015). The Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child Model [Special issue]external icon. Journal of School Health, 85(11), 729-823.
  10. Bonell C, Parry W, Wells H, Jamal F, Fletcher A, Harden A, et. al. The effects of the school environment on student health: A systematic review of multi-level studies. Health & Place, 2013;21:180-191, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.healthplace.2012.12.001external icon.
  11. Steiner RJ, Sheremenko G, Lesesne C, et al. Adolescent Connectedness and Adult Health Outcomesexternal icon. Pediatrics. 2019;144(1):e20183766