Risky Student Behaviors and Academic Achievement

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Risk-taking declines between adolescence and adulthood, but the high school years remain a time of increased susceptibility to risky and reckless behavior.[1] What is the relationship between these behaviors and academic success? Not surprisingly, it isn’t good, but there is some fascinating research being done on the subject and tremendous data to be collected to learn more.

Teens & Risk Factors to Academic Success

As part of their Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS), the CDC identifies the following as risky student health behaviors: alcohol and drug use, sexual risk behaviors and violence, teen pregnancy, tobacco use, and youth violence. A recent study published in the American Journal of Health Economics looked at the correlation between some of these behaviors (specifically drinking, smoking, and marijuana use) and stringent math and science high-school graduation requirements.[2] Their results suggest that a demanding curriculum could be a potential tool to curb alcohol consumption among high-school students, especially males and non-white students.[3]

In our own Risk and Protective Factor Student Perception Survey, Pride Surveys has crafted a questionnaire with one of the original authors of the communities that care youth survey to measure the most significant risk and protective factors related to impactful youth behaviors. It’s a hybrid of two of our other student surveys, Communities That Care (CTC) Youth Survey and the Pride Questionnaire for Grades 6 to 12, and asks about the incidence of alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use for both the last 30 days and lifetime data including:

  • Where alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use occurred
  • When alcohol, tobacco, and other drug use occurred
  • Perceived availability of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs
  • Perceived risk of drugs
  • Perception of friends’ disapproval and parents’ disapproval

Results from the 2015-16 Pride Surveys Questionnaire for Grades 6-12 revealed that 40% of students who responded that they never make good grades also used an illicit drug. By contrast, only 11.4% of those who make good grades “a lot” reported using an illicit drug. 52.9% of respondents who stated that they get in trouble at school “a lot” reported using an illicit drug. Of those that never get into trouble at school, 11.6% use an illicit drug.

Why Do Teens Engage in Risky Behaviors?

In The Power of the Adolescent Brain, author Thomas Armstrong explains that around the age of 15, teens can make decisions as competently as adults except when they’re with their peers, experiencing emotional overstimulation, or under social pressure.[4] In those situations, their decision-making skills become less reliable. Is this related to the concept that the reward center of the brain motivates and controls teenage behaviors? Perhaps. Because the decision-making portion of the brain isn’t fully developed until about the age of 25, teens can sometimes struggle to make good decisions as their brain continues to mature.[5] Before this information came to light though, it was believed that raging hormones ran a teen’s life through their adolescent years. Now there is new research by Dr. Dan Romer at the University of Pennsylvania suggesting that, instead, teenagers may be wired to seek out risk to gain experience.[6] Dr. Romer argues that risk-seeking would be significantly more common if brain function were to blame and that some teens make risky choices simply to gain experience. In other words, their main job during adolescence is to discover where they fit in the world through exploration and experimentation.

Bad Outcomes from Teen Behavior

One study connected early sexual activity and alcohol use with “bad adult outcomes” finding that the earlier a teen engages in an activity, the more likely that teen is to face consequences of the behavior as an adult including alcoholism.[7] Another study found that healthy eating and participating in team sports had a positive impact on academic outcomes for students while the effects of “alcohol use, smoking, early sexual intercourse, bullying, and certain screen time behaviors were overall negative.”[8]

It has also recently been suggested that sleep habits among teens are a negative factor in their academic performance. Researchers found that lack of sleep on the weekend combined with early mornings for school easily led to a detrimental accumulation of sleep debt during the school week.[9] As a result, sleeplessness is now being cited as a risk factor that can lead to and poor school performance.[10] Many have suggested that school start times should be adjusted to better suit the adolescent brain – with some benefit to the faculty and staff as well, certainly.

The behavior of teenagers is complex, and it’s important to understand the whys and hows so we can help prepare them for the future and keep them away from serious risk. The benefit of working with a survey company to find out these answers is that we can anonymously and effectively ask the difficult questions through multiple survey tools. Survey results can offer insights into the intersection of risk and academic success including the learning environment and school climate.

Please browse through the different types of scalable student surveys we offer and find out why more than 13.9 million students, parents, and faculty members have responded to Pride Surveys. Questions? Please call us today at 800-279-6361 or fill out our quick online contact form.



[1] “A Social Neuroscience Perspective on Adolescent Risk-Taking.” Retrieved 28 May 2018 at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2396566/

[2] “The Effects of Graduation Requirements on Risky Health Behaviors of High School Students.” Retrieved 28 ay 2018 at https://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/ajhe_a_00112

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Power of the Adolescent Brain.” Retrieved 28 May 2018 at http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/116017/chapters/The-Amazing-Adolescent-Brain.aspx

[5] “Understanding the Teen Brain.” Retrieved 28 May 2018 at https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?ContentTypeID=1&ContentID=3051

[6] “Why Teens Take Risks: It’s Not a Deficit in Brain Development.” Retrieved 28 May 2018 at https://www.annenbergpublicpolicycenter.org/why-teens-take-risks-its-not-a-deficit-in-brain-development/

[7] “Long-Term Impact of Adolescent Risky Behaviors and Family Environment.” Retrieved 28 May 2018 at https://aspe.hhs.gov/execsum/long-term-impact-adolescent-risky-behaviors-and-family-environment

[8] “The Effects of Adolescent Health-Related Behavior in Academic Performance.” Retrieved 28 May 2018 at http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.3102/0034654313518441?journalCode=rera

[9] “Sleep Habits, academic performance, and the adolescent brain structure.” Retrieved 28 May 2018 at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5299428/

[10] Ibid.

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