Press Release

Fewer than Half of Students are Experiencing Supportive Conditions Linked to Engagement in Learning, Survey of High School Youth Finds

Results underscore urgency for schools, OST programs to cultivate student agency, belonging, and supportive relationships in midst of disruptions caused by COVID-19.

WASHINGTON – A nationally representative survey of 3,300 America high school students shows that fewer than half are experiencing the supportive conditions that are linked to engagement and learning in school and out-of-school time settings.

What Drives Learning: Young People’s Perspectives on the Importance of Relationships, Belonging, & Agency examines four themes (supportive relationships, a sense of belonging, feelings of agency, and meaningful learning) that young people have said support positive educational experiences. This study explores the frequency of those themes across the nation’s high school population and how they combine to affect school engagement and meaningful learning.

Supportive relationships, higher levels of belonging, and higher levels of agency have large, statistically significant, positive effects on engagement and meaningful learning—particularly when they are combined, the survey found. This is true whether the source of support is adults or peers, and whether the relationship is linked to experiences during school or in an out-of-school time environment. What’s more, these conditions have far more influence on engagement and learning than students’ demographic characteristics, including gender, parental education, primary language spoken at home, and race/ethnicity.

“This study makes a unique contribution to how the youth-supporting field understands the powerful effect of relationships, belonging, and agency for adolescents,” said Dennis Vega, the interim president and CEO of America’s Promise Alliance. “But these insights into how we can improve conditions for young people are tempered by the sobering fact that fewer than half of young people were experiencing them—and that has the potential to worsen, as so many of our nation’s schools have opened virtually rather than in-person.”

The survey was conducted during two weeks in April and May, when most students were not physically attending school because of the COVID-19 pandemic and were asked to respond based on their experiences before the pandemic. The authors are from the Center for Promise, the research arm of America’s Promise Alliance, which leads the How Learning Happens initiative.

Young people in cities, those who have a parent who graduated college, and those who speak English at home were much more likely to say they are experiencing supportive conditions. “The disparities that this survey finds are doubly urgent,” the report says, “given that they echo some of the profound inequities that COVID-19 has highlighted in systems that serve young people and their families.”

Highlights of the findings include:

  • Most high school age youth do not report experiencing many of the conditions that support their social, emotional, and cognitive learning. For example, 46% said they did not have supportive relationships with school adults.
  • For those reporting experiencing the four supportive conditions, there are notable disparities. Female students, young people who did not have a parent who graduated from college, or those who did not speak English at home reported lower levels of belonging. Young people who identified as Latinx also reported lower levels of belonging than white students.
  • Supportive relationships from multiple sources have independent and additive positive effects on young people’s reported engagement and meaningful learning. The number of sources of support a young person has predicted increases in behavioral and emotional engagement and in meaningful learning.
  • Supportive relationships combined with either belonging or agency amplify the positive association between relationships and reported engagement and meaningful learning.

While COVID-related school and program closures have understandably deepened fears about inequitable learning losses, the findings suggest that focusing on building relationships and fostering young people’s sense that they belong will accelerate rather than impede academic progress. The report recommends that school and community leaders boost opportunities for more young people to experience more supportive learning environments; ground schools and out-of-school settings in equity and care; engage young people as leaders and partners; and connect learning to students’ lives in meaningful ways. Each recommendation is accompanied by selected resources to inspire and support action.

Other survey questions specifically about young people’s experiences during the pandemic are available in The State of Young People During COVID-19. Together with All of Who I Am,—a qualitative study examining young people’s experiences in schools that prioritize social, emotional, and cognitive development—the three-part How Learning Happens research series explores what young people themselves say about what matters most for their development.


America’s Promise Alliance is the driving force behind a nationwide effort to improve the lives and futures of America’s youth. As an Alliance of hundreds of nonprofits, businesses, community organizations, and education entities, we spark and support collective action to overcome the barriers that stand in the way of young people’s success. Our expansive network allows us to do what no single organization can do on its own: catalyze action on a scale that reaches millions of young people. We do this work in partnership with young people by seeking to understand their perspectives, amplifying their voices, and drawing on their insights to shape our work.