Health Education in Schools

School-based health education helps adolescents acquire functional health knowledge, and strengthens attitudes, beliefs, and practice skills needed to adopt and maintain healthy behaviors throughout their lives.

Classroom image with a teacher and students

Schools can play a critical role in reducing adolescent health risks through the delivery of effective health education.1-3

The specific content and skills addressed in health education, including sexual health and other related topic areas (e.g., violence prevention, mental and emotional health, food and nutrition), are commonly organized into a course of study or program and often summarized in a curriculum framework.

Health education curriculum should include:

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A set of intended learning outcomes or objectives that directly relate to students’ acquisition of health-related knowledge, attitudes, and skills.

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A planned progression of developmentally appropriate lessons or learning experiences that lead to achieving health objectives.

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Continuity between lessons or learning experiences that clearly reinforce the adoption and maintenance of specific health-enhancing behaviors.

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Content or materials that correspond with the sequence of learning events and help teachers and students meet the learning objectives.

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Assessment strategies to determine if students have achieved the desired learning.

Health education is effective at addressing adolescent behaviors

Youth behaviors and experiences set the stage for adult health.1-3 In particular, health behaviors and experiences related to early sexual initiation, violence, and substance use are consistently linked to poor grades and test scores and lower educational attainment.4-7 In turn, providing health education as early as possible can help youth to develop positive well-being, academic success, and healthy outcomes into adulthood.

Health education tends to be more effective when it is taught by qualified teachers, connects students to health services, engages parents and community partners, and fosters positive relationships between adolescents and adults who are important to them.

Research suggests that well-designed and well-implemented school health programs can influence multiple health outcomes, including reducing sexual risk behaviors related to HIV, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and unintended pregnancy, decreasing substance and tobacco use, and improving academic performance.8-10

What Works In School
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This info brief focuses on delivering quality sexual health education—a systematic, effective way schools can provide adolescents the essential knowledge and critical skills needed to decrease sexual risk behaviors.

See CDC’s Characteristics of an Effective Health Education Curriculum to learn more about research on effective curricula in school health education.

National Health Education Standards

The National Health Education Standards were designed to establish, promote, and support health-enhancing behaviors for students in all grade levels – emphasizing planned, sequential learning from Pre-K through grade 12. The standards outline what students should know and be able to do by grades 2, 5, 8, and 12, serving as a valuable tool for schools in designing or selecting effective health education curricula.11

Sexual health is a critical component of health education

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School-based sexual health education provides youth with the knowledge and skills they need to protect their health and become successful learners. Increasing the number of schools that provide health education on key health risks facing youth, including HIV, STDs and unintended pregnancy, is a critical health objective for improving our nation’s health.12

National Sex Education Standards
A female student talking with a school counselor

The National Sex Education Standards outline foundational knowledge and skills students need to navigate sexual development and grow into sexually healthy adults. The standards are designed to help schools focus on what is most essential for students to learn by the end of a grade level or grade span and can be used to create lessons and curricula with aligned learning objectives.13

  1. Eisen M, Pallitto C, Bradner C, Bolshun N. Teen Risk-Taking: Promising Prevention Programs and Approaches. Washington, DC: Urban Institute; 2000.
  2. Lohrmann DK, Wooley SF. Comprehensive School Health Education. In: Marx E, Wooley S, Northrop D, editors. Health Is Academic: A Guide to Coordinated School Health Programs. New York: Teachers College Press; 1998:43–45.
  3. Nation M, Crusto C, Wandersman A, Kumpfer KL, Seybolt D, Morrissey-Kane, E, Davino K. What works: principles of effective prevention programsexternal icon. American Psychologist 2003;58(6/7):449–456.
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. School Health Profiles 2018: Characteristics of Health Programs Among Secondary Schoolspdf icon. Atlanta: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2019.
  5. Rasberry CN, Tiu GF, Kann L, et al. Health-Related Behaviors and Academic Achievement Among High School Students— United States, 2015. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2017;66:921–927
  6. Basch CE. Healthier students are better learners: high-quality, strategically planned, and effectively coordinated school health programs must be a fundamental mission of schools to help close the achievement gapexternal icon. J Sch Health. 2011 Oct;81(10):650-62.
  7. Murray NG, Low BJ, Hollis C, Cross AW, Davis SM. Coordinated school health programs and academic achievement: A systematic review of the literatureexternal icon. J Sch Health 2007;77:589-600.
  8. Kirby D, Coyle K, Alton F, Rolleri L, Robin L. Reducing Adolescent Sexual Risk: A Theoretical Guide for Developing and Adapting Curriculum-Based Programs. Scotts Valley, CA: ETR Associates; 2011.
  9. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Preventing Tobacco Use Among Young People–An Update: A Report of the Surgeon Generalexternal icon. Atlanta (GA): U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2011: 6-22–6-45.
  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Youth Risk Behavior Survey: Data Summary & Trends Report: 2009-2019pdf icon. Atlanta: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2020.
  11. Joint Committee on National Health Education Standards. National Health Education Standards: Achieving Excellence. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Accessed February 2021.
  12. United States Department of Health and Human Services. HP 2020 Topics and Objectives: Early and Middle Childhoodexternal icon. Healthy People website. Accessed February 2021.
  13. Future of Sex Education Initiative. (2020). National Sexuality Education Standards: Core Content and Skills, K-12pdf iconexternal icon.