Teens and School Success

Washington, DC – For parents and educators managing the turbulence that comes along with millions of adolescents returning to the classroom, Child Trends presents an up-to-the-minute review of what works to engage teens in school, to improve their academic performance and to encourage high aspirations.

To answer the critical question of what promotes academic success, Child Trends reviewed more than 300 research studies to determine what affects school success. The review reveals which programs and approaches work, which don’t work, and which look promising and therefore warrant closer investigation. The findings are based on an extensive review of research studies done in partnership with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The results of this comprehensive review are presented in two companion products: a research brief, Educating America’s Youth: What Makes a Difference, and a Web-based What Works that summarizes key research and evaluation findings. The What Works table is a point-and-click resource for the web. It presents information on specific programs and approaches (such as smaller class sizes, academic tracking, mentoring programs, and youth employment programs) and gives users the option to access short, readable summaries or to delve deeply into the research studies.

View and download this brief at www.childtrends.org/PDF/K4Brief.pdfClick here to view the interactive What Works table and the rest of the American Teens series.


Research shows that teens’ experience in school and their long-term academic success (or lack of success) can be influenced by their families, their peers, their schools, and their communities. Among the key implications for parents and educators derived from Child Trends’ review of the research are:


  • Teens whose parents are strongly involved in their children’s school life and whose parents and teachers express high expectations for them are more likely to do better in school and to go farther in their education.

  • Teens should participate in extracurricular activities. On average, such participation is related to positive adjustment, better academic performance, and successful completion of school.

  • Teens should be discouraged from working extensively, commonly defined as more than 20 hours a week. Working more than 20 hours weekly during the school year is related to lower levels of school engagement, academic achievement and educational attainment.

“Once again, the research demonstrates the critical role of parents in their children’s lives. Specifically, adolescents whose parents are supportive yet provide rules and consequences tend to be more engaged in school, to have higher educational expectations, and to do well in school” said Zakia Redd, the report’s lead author and research analyst at Child Trends.

This research also looked at the effectiveness of programs that are designed to improve educational attitudes and outcomes of America’s young people. These findings include:


  • High-quality early childhood programs help improve many children’s chances of success once they enter school. Teens who did well in school as young children have a better chance of success than those who did not.
  • Mentoring programs, particularly quality programs with dedicated staff, trained mentors and intensive case management, have improved teens’ school performance and how far they go in school.

The authors noted that the research base is so thin and mixed on many of the most controversial reforms before the public today, such as school choice, that the effects of such programs and policies could not be reported in this comprehensive report.

Child Trends’ American Teens series summarizes and “translates” key research and evaluation studies on preventing teen pregnancy, encouraging better eating and exercise habits, promoting mental and emotional health, motivating teens in school, promoting positive social skills and encouraging responsible citizenship.

Knight Foundation’s Community Partners Program works in 26 U.S. communities to identify promising approaches to locally identified needs. With Knight funding, several Knight communities are concentrating on better lives for children and families. The Child Trends American Teens work helps the communities better identify strategies that might work locally for at-risk youth.

Child Trends, founded in 1979, is an independent, nonpartisan research center dedicated to improving the lives of children and their families by conducting research and providing science-based information to the public and decision-makers.