Substance Abuse Prevention Takes to the Classroom

By Mayer, Olivia | State Legislatures, October 1999 | Go to article overview
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Substance Abuse Prevention Takes to the Classroom


Mayer, Olivia, State Legislatures


Researchers finally think they know what can keep kids away from drugs and alcohol. Now they hope legislators will make sure money set aside for such programs is spent effectively.

By the time children reach eighth grade, nearly one in four has tried marijuana, a quarter have been drunk and one in five has sniffed inhalants. More than half have tried beer, wine or the like. The number of teens receiving substance abuse treatment on any given day between 1991 and 1996 - when illicit drug use soared among adolescents in this country - almost doubled from 44,000 to 77,000.

But children start experimenting way before that.

Two percent of fourth graders (9- and 10-year-olds) huff inhalants on a monthly basis, and nearly 8 percent have tried beer, according to a recent nationwide survey by the National Parents' Resource Institute for Drug Education. Kids also say such substances are "easy to get."

How do we get them to stop before they even start? Researchers agree the best defense is comprehensive prevention involving the community, parents, the media and schools. For years, the bulk of the effort has been waged where kids are most accessible - school. But schools might not be doing all they can. Some experts say state leaders need to take a look at more successful and sophisticated programs that are working in a handful of places.

FOCUSING ON WHAT WORKS

School prevention programs today are far more sophisticated than those of 30 years ago when they made their debut. As the body of research on what works has grown, programs have changed.

Initially, if substance abuse prevention was introduced at all, it was maybe a onetime discussion in health class or during a special assembly preaching what alcohol and drugs were and about their dangers. These attempts gave way to emotional and moralistic appeals that often bordered on, if not crossed into, scare tactics. Sometimes, prevention addressed the self-esteem and emotional well-being of students.

About 15 years ago or so something called the "social influences" strategy was developed, and it appears to be working, says Doug Longshore of the Drug Policy Research Center of RAND, a nonprofit research and analysis group. Successful programs include two major components, "normative education" (in other words letting kids know that not everybody is doing it) and resistance skills.

"Kids typically overestimate how widespread drug use really is," says Longshore. Actual statistics, he adds, "come as a real eye-opener and take a lot of the peer pressure off."

Teaching resistance skills gives kids effective ways of saying no. Kids role-play or act out situations like being offered a cigarette. Videos and workbooks give examples. Rather than a simple no thank you, Longshore explains, kids are taught to say things like, "No thanks, I'm running track." Or "No, I don't smoke. Let's get a soda instead."

The results from such programs - Project ALERT, developed by RAND, and the Life Skills Training program from Cornell University Medical College to name a couple - have been impressive.

More than a dozen studies show Life Skills Training can reduce tobacco, alcohol and illicit drug use by an average of 50 percent when schools using the prevention program are compared with control groups. Even more impressive are studies that have shown that six years after participating in the program, kids are still saying no to alcohol and other drugs.

"We now have solid scientific evidence that prevention can work - with the right kind of prevention program and when properly implemented," says Gilbert Botvin, professor and director of the Institute for Prevention Research at Cornell University Medical College and developer of the proven program called Life Skills Training.

Botvin's program has won the approval of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association, who all call it a program that works.

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