I’ve always remembered the back-to-school season as a time of anticipation. New teachers, seeing old friends, and maybe making new ones. That sense of the unknown is both exciting and worrisome, and it can bring forward feelings of hope and nervousness.
But as millions of young people begin a new school year, many parents and adults are no doubt worried about how well they’ll fare. From concerns about screen time to college and career readiness, there are plenty of headlines that fret over the well-being of young people.
While it’s crucial that we pay attention to the very real challenges that so many young people face, it’s equally important that we spotlight young people’s progress, pay attention to the strategies that produce better outcomes, and learn from our successes so that we can continue to replicate them.
For instance, students are making better decisions about their health today than young people were 25 years ago. According to the recently released Youth Behavior Surveillance Survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC), rates of smoking among high school youth have fallen by 50 percent, alcohol use is down by more than 25 percent, and teen pregnancy and reports of trying hard drugs are at an all-time low.
A recent article from the New York Times detailed how smart phones aren’t having nearly the detrimental impact on young people that we are led to believe, and that today’s teens have more agency and are better communicators than kids before them.
“The press and general public like to see them as spoiled and not having to work hard for anything except grades and being very entitled,” one expert says in the article. “But they’re courageous, energetic, optimistic and really smart.”
Furthermore, the GradNation campaign has shown that we as adults and communities working together can significantly increase high school graduation rates and keep more young people on a path to adult success.
Of course, we also know that challenges continue, particularly around mental health. We must be concerned about suicide rates and the fear that many young people and their parents feel. But we can be serious about the challenges that exist without losing sight of the progress our young people have made and the possibility of more.
In her research on happiness and optimism, Carol Graham from the Brookings Institute notes that people who hope for their future are more likely to plan for it. She concludes: “Hope matters, across the board.”
So as millions of young people start the new school year, let’s strike the right balance of optimism and realism. In fact, I suspect that this is the same advice we would give a young person heading into a new school year. It seems like pretty good advice for us as well.