September 02, 2017

How Schools Prevent Adolescent-related Health Risks and Maintain Adolescent Health

Schools -- The Right Place for a Healthy Start
In the first part of this 2-article series, we broadly defined adolescence as the period between childhood and adulthood. We saw it is a period of rapid physical and cognitive growth, puberty, and move from the relative security of childhood to an array of social and other life challenges. We defined the age range to be 10-19 years. We also looked at adolescent health, or youth health, which is the range of approaches to preventing, detecting or treating young people’s health and well being (WHO, 2001).

In this article, we look at the role of the school in maintaining adolescent health and preventing health risks associated with the adolescent period of life. We begin by looking at the most prevalent problem among adolescents today-unprotected sexual intercourse with HIV/STD risk, alcohol and drugs; and then move on to asking ourselves, "Why Schools?"

HIV/STD Prevention At A Glance

By the time young people graduate from high school, almost two thirds have had sex. Nearly 40 percent of sexually active students did not use a condom the last time they had sex, and one in five drank alcohol or took drugs before their last sexual intercourse. Young people engage in sexual risk behaviors that can have serious health consequences:
  • Approximately 22 percent of all new HIV diagnoses are among young people aged 13–24 years.
  • Teens and young adults have the highest rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) of any age group.
  • Three in 10 young women become pregnant before they reach the age of 20.
Helping adolescents make healthy choices requires the involvement of families, communities, and many other sectors of society—and schools are an essential part of that effort. There were nearly 42 million youth aged 10-19 in the United States in 2015 (13% of the total U.S. population). Over 90% of students attend a public or private school for at least 6 hours a day during the most critical years of their social, physical, and intellectual development. The school environment is also a key setting in which students’ behaviors and ideas are shaped. Just as schools are critical to preparing students academically and socially, they are also vital partners in helping young people take responsibility for their health and adopt health-enhancing attitudes and behaviors that can last a lifetime.

Adolescent health: Why Schools?

Schools have direct contact with about 50 million students for at least 6 hours a day during the most critical years of their social, physical, and intellectual development. Research has shown that school health programs can reduce the prevalence of health risk behaviors among young people and have a positive effect on academic performance. Schools also play a critical role in promoting the health and safety of young people and helping them establish lifelong healthy behaviors.

It is easier and more effective to develop healthy behaviors during childhood than trying to change unhealthy behaviors during adulthood. In addition, preventable health risk behaviors are often established during childhood or adolescence and continue into adulthood, contributing to the leading causes of death, disability, and social problems:
  • Tobacco use.
  • Unhealthy eating.
  • Alcohol and other drug use.
  • Inadequate physical activity.
  • Behaviors that contribute to unintentional injury and violence.
  • Sexual behaviors that can result in HIV infection, other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and unintended pregnancy.
During the transition from childhood to adulthood, adolescents establish patterns of behavior and make lifestyle choices that affect both their current and future health. Serious health and safety issues such as motor vehicle crashes, violence, substance use, and risky sexual behaviors can adversely affect adolescent and young adults.

Some adolescents also struggle to adopt behaviors that could decrease their risk of developing chronic diseases in adulthood, such as eating nutritiously, engaging in physical activity, and choosing not to use tobacco.

Environmental factors such as family, peer group, school, and community characteristics also contribute to adolescents’ health and risk behaviors.

Societal Influences on Adolescents and Young Adults

Young people’s behaviors are influenced at the individual, peer, family, school, community, and societal levels. 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 comprehensive 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.

To have the most positive impact on adolescent health, government agencies, community organizations, schools, and other community members must work together in a comprehensive approach. Providing safe and nurturing environments for our nation’s youth can help ensure that adolescents will be healthy and productive members of society.

Quick Stats
  • About 50 million students in the United States attended public elementary and secondary schools in 2016.
  • Of these, 15 million public school students were in grades 9 through 12.
  • There were nearly 13,500 public school districts with close to 98,300 public schools in 2013-2014.
Also read: The 3-CAN steps to a healthier eating

1). Centers for Disease Control - Division of Adolescent and School Health (DASH): Adolescent and School Health. Accessed 01.09.17. Available here:

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