Student Well-Being

Teen Morale and Optimism Are on the Rise. Are You Surprised?

By Alyson Klein — February 24, 2023 3 min read
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Kianna Victor found herself stuck at home at the beginning of a global pandemic three years ago doing virtual learning and not much else. So, she took up two hobbies that she could do while keeping a safe social distance: Roller-skating and mental health advocacy.

In-person instruction has been back in full force for a couple of years, but Kianna, 17, has continued to explore both of those interests. She skates regularly and now heads up a student mental health organization at the high school outside Baltimore where she is a senior.

Spending all that time at home “allowed me to develop the things I’m actually passionate about,” Kianna said. “When I got out of the pandemic, there were so many opportunities now to actually implement those things.”

Though a crisis in student mental health—especially among girls—has dominated headlines for the past several years, many students, like Kianna, feel a renewed sense of optimism about the future, according to an EdWeek Research Center survey of 1,011 teenagers, ages 13-19, taken Dec. 21 to Jan. 5. More than a third of teens—36 percent—say their morale these days is higher than it was before the pandemic, including more than one in six who say it is “much higher.”

It’s not all rosy: Another quarter of teens say their morale is lower, including 6 percent who say it is much lower. Another 39 percent say it’s about the same as before the crisis.

In general, students are more optimistic than they were in 2020. Eighty-two percent of students say they are hopeful about the future, compared with 69 percent in a previous survey, taken in the fall of 2020.

Those figures jibe with Kiana’s experience. Making it through such a difficult time for the world gave her confidence, she said.

“Just experiencing the pandemic itself allowed me to really understand my capability,” she said. “We’ve been so resilient. I started to believe in myself, but I also started to believe in other people more because I feel like everyone was able to go through such a hard struggle.”

‘The apathy has started to leave’

Cole Woody, 18, a high school senior in Sugarland, Texas, shares her outlook. Like Kianna, he was able to deepen some of his interests despite social isolation, in part because of changes to the workforce brought on by the pandemic. Woody studied health policy at a California-based nonprofit organization, an internship he did from the comfort of his home that he would have had to move out of state to do before the pandemic.

Still, Woody worried a lot about older family members before vaccines and treatments were available for COVID-19. These days, he feels fortunate that he didn’t lose anyone he loved, though he knows that’s not true for many people.

“I’m grateful for the things I have and the experiences I’ve overcome,” Woody said. The pandemic, he said, also crystallized for him that he wants to go into medicine, so that he can help prevent or mitigate future public health crises.

Aaron Huff, the principal of Benjamin Bosse High School in Evansville, Ind., has noticed a change in student attitudes this school year.

“The apathy has started to leave,” he said. “Kids are getting more excited about what’s happening in schools. The attendance is starting to creep up. School spirit is starting to creep up.”

His students, for instance, organized a special school spirit week to close out Black History Month in February. Huff sees a trend toward elevating student voice, something he’s embraced at his school, as a big morale booster.

Schools have also been investing in mental health professionals, including counselors, school psychologists and social workers, financed in part by federal relief funds, said Jill Cook, the executive director of the American School Counselors Association. The EdWeek Research Center survey seems to indicate that those efforts have made a difference and should be sustained, she said.

“I think it shows the benefit of the investment,” she said. “We know [mental health supports] can help improve all student outcomes. So why wouldn’t we want to continue to invest in that?”

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