Giving Thought: Healthy Kids survey provides a window into teens’ minds |

Giving Thought: Healthy Kids survey provides a window into teens’ minds

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought

Adolescence is a complex time of life. This transitional stage from childhood to adulthood can be a time of both disorientation and discovery; as adolescents cultivate their sense of self, they may face difficult choices about academics, friendship, sexuality, gender identity, drugs and alcohol.

Getting a teenager to open up about their feelings is often a challenge. Yet, parents and educators need to know what’s happening with teens to help them develop healthy habits and make good choices.

There is a lot of speculation and assumptions about what teens are doing and thinking, especially when it comes to risky behavior like substance use or sexual activity. Since 2013, instead of relying on assumptions, educators and other youth service professionals have been able to use data to learn about student attitudes and perceptions about a variety of health and behavior related topics.

This data is gathered through the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, conducted every other year by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The survey is a tool for policy makers, school officials, counselors and mentors to better understand young minds, and to respond with effective, data-based strategies. In 2017, the most recent edition of the survey, roughly 56,000 youth were surveyed in 190 schools around the state. It’s a massive undertaking that gives school officials, policy makers and other interested parties a glimpse into the minds of our young adults.

“If I were asked to point someone to a place where they could learn about the trends among teens, I would point them to Healthy Kids Colorado,” said Kyle Crawley, executive director of Stepping Stones of the Roaring Fork Valley, a Carbondale-based nonprofit that works with at-risk youth.

For example, the data show that teen risky behavior in the Aspen to Parachute region, particularly related to alcohol and tobacco, continues to be higher than the state averages. These findings have spurred local efforts to raise the legal consumption age for tobacco to 21 and to prohibit the sale of flavored nicotine products, the first bans of this kind in Colorado.

Healthy Kids Colorado data also influence government funding for important services and programs such as behavioral health specialists and substance use prevention for schools. Philanthropy can use the information to identify community needs and direct resources to promising approaches.

For Leigh McGown, principal of Yampah Mountain High School in Glenwood Springs, the survey is an important tool that helps the school shape its curriculum and messaging to students. Sometimes the survey results reinforce or confirm something school officials are already doing; other times the results reveal something new that they incorporate into their lessons.

For example, McGown recalled, “We realized that kids clearly understand the danger of getting into a car with someone who’s been drinking. But there’s a very low perceived risk when it comes to the driver being under the influence of marijuana.” In other words, most respondents didn’t express concerns about riding with a driver who’d been smoking marijuana.

Whatever the reasons for teens’ perceptions about marijuana, the survey helps McGown and her staff to respond.

“When we get the results back, our staff usually looks through it for things we didn’t know about,” she said. “We also look for things that are going well. We always want to do more of whatever is working.”

One encouraging result from the 2017 survey was that Yampah Mountain students appreciate trusted adults and mentors in their lives and reported that those adults give them strength and support.

“That’s a really positive thing,” she said.

Stepping Stones’ Crawley agrees that the survey often points to areas of concern among teens, or areas where teens need more information. “Things are evolving really quickly and there’s so much misinformation out there,” he said.

McGown and Crawley look forward to the latest survey results on the subject of e-cigarettes and vaping. Colorado is No. 1 in the country for teen vaping, and recently the subject has become scarier amid reports around the country of vaping-related lung illnesses.

“Our kids are vaping as an alternative to smoking cigarettes and thinking that they’re getting off scot-free,” Crawley said. “That’s a big issue for us.”

Hearing directly from our teens is the best way to learn how to support them. And the Healthy Kids Colorado survey is a vital tool for adults who work with teens or make teen-related policy decisions. The data findings are available to the public on the CDPHE’s website:, which includes information specific to the Aspen to Parachute region.

The Healthy Kids survey goes out to the state’s school districts, who then administer the survey to students. The students may opt out if they wish, and all answers remain anonymous and confidential. Surveys are going out to schools right now, and the 2019 results will be available in early 2020.

“It’s valid data,” Crawley said, “and you don’t get that everywhere.”

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.