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The Educator’s Guide to Addiction Prevention

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The Most Effective Strategies and Resources to Implement in the Classroom

This guide will first discuss the most effective forms of addiction prevention education, as well as outdated forms,  proved to be ineffective. There will be tips on ways to make your drug and alcohol prevention lessons both productive and practical, plus we’ve gathered some of the best free educational resources for you to consider using.

Always consult your administration before making major changes to your teaching curriculum, and keep in mind that many ideas can be adapted to meet the needs of your school.

Tried and True, or Outdated and Futile? Knowing Which Methods Work and Why

If you worry that your school may be behind the times on effective drug prevention education, you’re not alone. Studies have shown that only 13% of private schools and 35% of public schools use programs with proven success. For some schools, strict curricula don’t allow the time for more extensive programs; for others, there are budgetary restrictions to keep in mind. It’s likely that many are simply unaware that more effective programs have been developed, and there are valuable options that won’t kill the budget.

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First, it’s important to rule out the usual suspects: large, one-time presentations on the dangers of drugs and scare tactics. Large assemblies are often a preferred method because it allows all students to participate in a single event. Students are provided the facts about drugs and alcohol, potential consequences of use, and may even be shown some kind of emotionally-stimulating presentation.

Unfortunately, this somewhat simplifies the issue — youth begin experimenting with substances for all kinds of reasons like gaining social status, escaping from problems at home, or to do better in school or a sport. Those underlying issues can’t be addressed with a single general drug information assembly but require more focused consideration. Further, even if a student reports being moved by the emotional presentation, they reflect more on the sadness or destruction they saw rather than relate it to their own future intentions.

Using scare tactics is another common approach to drug and alcohol education, but not only has it been proven to be ineffectual, some research even suggests it can backfire completely. Exaggerating the facts, or making potential consequences seem absolutely imminent, can lead to distrust not only of the message but of the messenger.

Youth are also notoriously fearless, thinking worst-case scenarios “could never happen” to them, even if they’ve been warned. That kind of dangerous courage can even make drugs seem more appealing to high-risk youth with a tendency toward sensation-seeking.

Kids also lack experience, giving many of them a somewhat inaccurate view of the world: if the only drug use they’ve “seen” is on television, they have no idea how gritty and dangerous the world of addiction truly is, and what a slippery slope leads up to it.

The drug education in your school needs to truly focus on addiction prevention at every level: preventing any future use is always ideal, but it’s also vital (and practical) to reach out to students who may already be experimenting with substances. The message shouldn’t be a resounding: “Drugs (and the people who use them) are bad.” Not only can that have a negative impact on those who may see addiction issues at home, but it can further alienate youth who already use and make them less likely to reach out for help.

Similarly, zero-tolerance policies are found to be ineffective, and even harmful to students. It’s important to put the situation into context and consider all factors involved when punishing a student for this kind of offense. Students should feel that their school administration means business, but also that it genuinely cares for them and their well-being.

This isn’t to suggest that there should be no punishment for a drug-related offense, only that showing a student — who may have been crying out for help, attempting to overcome severe social anxiety, or repeating behavior seen in their home environment, for instance — compassion and second chances can sometimes be the best decision for all.

So then which methods do work?

You may need to change the way you think about prevention education — focus less on the negative and more on the positives. Instead of focusing only on what not to do, teach your students positive, healthy behaviors. Create stronger ties with students and be a positive role model in their life. Help them form positive, meaningful connections with their peers — especially those outside their usual friend group.

Reward positive behaviors and demonstrate that all actions come with a consequence, for better or worse. Give students a place to discuss topics like peer pressure and the desire to do well in school, as well as positive ways to overcome the many types of anxiety that youth face as they grow up. Finally, but most importantly, you must regularly measure the efficiency of your program; in fact, many states require yearly or bi-yearly risk behavior surveys to be issued to students.

To more clearly demonstrate the kinds of strategies you can employ for addiction prevention in your own school, we’ve collected some free online lesson plans. We’ll offer tips on the best ways to implement them and advice for making your program stronger.

Drug and Alcohol Education

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has more than 50 lesson plans and activities for grades 4-12. They range from lessons on the physical effects of substance use on the body to social issues that often lead to addiction. Look for opportunities to tie in lessons to the world students see every day: for example, the Choose Your Path lesson puts students in the shoes of teens facing very common dilemmas (like a recent breakup). The interactive video shows everyday immediate consequences for choosing to use drugs, even subtly dispelling the idea of, “Everyone is doing it.”

Have your students try multiple different actions to see what happens, then open up a discussion:

  • Did students relate to the situation or that level of stress?
  • Do they think what happened was realistic?
  • Why or why not?
  • What other feelings do they have about these kinds of situations?

Give your students the chance to discuss your addiction prevention lessons as often as you can. You never know which child may need someone they trust to open up to about substance-related issues.

Role-playing is a great way to get the conversation going about drugs and alcohol, especially with younger students. Go over this tip sheet from the American Heart Association (AHA) on saying no to smoking, and broaden it to include alcohol and illegal substances:

  • Do your students have their own ideas for saying no?
  • Do they feel confident declining, even if the offer comes from someone they trust?
  • Would the fear of social rejection make anyone feel pressured to say yes?

Remind your students that everyone — even adults, and even you — faces peer pressure sometimes. Discuss the challenges that come with standing up for yourself and saying no in the heat of the moment.

Also, from the AHA comes this brief activity on advertising that can be used to discuss the ways’ alcohol is marketed:

  • What are people usually doing in beer and alcohol commercials?
  • What message does the ad send?
  • What kind of marketing do they see online?
  • Does it seem to be tailored to a certain demographic?

Pose questions that will get them thinking, too: for instance, if a beer commercial shows a big group of people at a party drinking heavily, how are those people getting home? Does the ad send a positive or negative message about drinking and driving?

GenerationRx offers lessons for both high school and college students on avoiding prescription drug use and positive stress management. Prescription drug use is not only a national epidemic, but it’s also an especially volatile issue for teens and adolescents. Some youths don’t consider it drug use if it’s a prescription and see little to no harm in stealing a few pills from a parent or sibling.

It’s important to emphasize that prescription doesn’t just mean “better,” but in fact, they are written with very specific considerations in mind; taken outside of those parameters, the medication can be incredibly dangerous. Further, even if a medication was prescribed to them, they must never take more than what their doctor specified — again, some may not recognize what is and isn’t use when it comes to pills they get from a professional, so it’s important to spell it out.

Teaching Positive Behaviors and Social Habits

“Think It Through” offers students the chance to break up into small groups and role-play scenarios involving positive choices. Some situations tackle social “norms” and expectations, others involve owning up to mistakes. Follow up on the group activity with a class discussion about what situations each group encountered and how people responded:

  • Were there disagreements?
  • Can they relate to the situations?
  • Do they ever feel that kind of pressure?

Mentoring systems can be another way to create a sense of support and belonging among students in your school. Faculty, coaches — including non-teaching staff — can volunteer to become a mentor to an interested student, meeting once or twice a month after school or during lunch. Having a strong, positive role model is important for every child, even if it’s just an additional layer of support outside the home. Keep in mind that the mentoring may or may not involve drug prevention education directly: the emotional support and positive example you’ll provide are often enough to make an important impact.

You may not be able to completely revamp your school’s drug prevention program overnight but look for the opportunity (and seek approval as needed) to make adjustments where you can. Even offering office hours a few afternoons a week when students can come to you in confidence can be a great jumping-off point.

Do what you can to be a positive role model, and encourage your students to positively interact with each other. Start small, be open to new ideas and compromise, and always strive for positive results.