Schools Should Support Holistic Adolescent Development & Here’s How

By: Allison Rae Ward-Seidel & Sophie Yitong Yue


  • Adolescent development is complex and multifaceted, including mental and physical health, cognition, identity, meaning and purpose, emotional, and social domains of development, which are all interrelated.
  • Helping educators support multiple developmental domains may support adolescents’ cognitive development and foster academic success in school.
  • Schools can play a role in holistic adolescent development, and highlighted here are tips and strategies for educators to promote holistic development.
Source: Canva & Youth-Nex’s Portrait of a Thriving Youth

Adolescents spend a substantial amount of their daily time in school. The goal of schools has rightfully been to promote academic skills, such as reading, writing, math, science and history. Since the era of standardized testing, education has been focused on academic achievement, often at the expense of students’ health and wellbeing. However, incorporating students’ health and wellbeing can support academic success.

If we want youth to thrive, we need a holistic approach that not only emphasizes their performance but encourages mental and social development. The Portrait of a Thriving Youth describes domains of adolescent development in a comprehensive way. We highlight those domains and describe specifically how schools and educators can promote positive, holistic experiences for youth that can support academic success.

Physical & Mental Health

Physical and mental health in adolescence includes how young peoples’ brains, bodies, and hormones are changing during puberty. Often physical changes and mental maturity are happening at different rates, which can be confusing for a young person, and the adults who care about them.

To support physical & mental health, schools and educators can:

Cognitive Development

Cognition in adolescence includes the changes happening in the brain that allow students to think more critically and abstractly. This development is important for advanced academic skills, such as in calculus or debate.

To promote cognitive development, schools and educators can:

Identity Development

Identity development in adolescence revolves around important questions like “Who am I?” and “Where do I fit in?”. It is developmentally appropriate for adolescents to ‘try on’ different identities by selecting different clothing styles, appearances, interests, friend groups, or activities.

To promote identity development, educators can:

  • Help youth develop an integrated identity, or a cohesive sense of self, can be motivating for engagement in extracurricular activities and academic achievement.
  • Foster young people’s identity development in both academic and social settings to create a safe and supportive environment.

Meaning & Purpose

Youth are developmentally programmed to reflect on complex questions about their lives and social contexts. An important part of adolescence is actively trying to make sense of the world around you. Adolescents are more attuned to risks and rewards, fairness and justice, and are sensitive to hypocrisy.

To promote meaning & purpose, schools and educators can:

Emotional Development

Emotional development includes identifying and managing emotions in positive and meaningful ways. During adolescence, young people are experiencing more extreme highs and lows, as the part of their brain that initiates and processes emotions is developing rapidly.

Educators can help adolescents:

Social Development

Social development is particularly salient in adolescence as youth spend more time, and place more importance with their peers when exploring independence, identity, and where they fit in the world. Youth model relationship-building and conflict resolution skills after the adults in their lives.

Educators can promote social development through:

  • Active learning strategies that increase engagement, like cooperative group work (e.g., jigsaw assignments can increase empathy), inquiry-based learning, or project-based learning.
  • Building positive student-teacher relationships and student-peer relationships.
  • Implementing restorative practices (e.g., community building circles which can include academic content), and promoting student-teacher relationships among students.  

Supporting healthy young people means supporting all the multifaceted and complex parts of adolescent development. Because these domains are all connected, supporting additional areas of development will contribute to students’ cognitive development and academic success. Balancing these domains can seem overwhelming for one educator; instead, consider building partnerships with community organizations, afterschool programs, and outside groups, to map what resources are available to support different developmental needs.

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Author Bio: Allison Rae Ward-Seidel is a Ph.D. student at the University of Virginia studying sociopolitical development and school conditions that promote a commitment to social justice among adolescents. Allison taught public school for 6 years before transitioning to education research in psychology and human development. She earned a Masters from Harvard Graduate School of Education and worked as a research project director evaluating a Restorative Practices and Racial Equity initiative in schools. She hopes to continue in education by supporting preservice teachers and advancing scholarship in sociopolitical development.

Author Bio: Sophie Yitong Yue is a Ph.D. student at the University of Virginia studying ecological theory and its implications for behavioral health outcomes. She is also interested in using advanced quantitative methods to analyze national longitudinal data. She holds a Master’s degree in Educational Psychology and hopes to continue her academic journey in promoting human- and equity-centered approaches in research and all fields.

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