As the opioid epidemic roils communities and the popularity of vaping is leading to hospitalizations and even deaths, our nation’s schools are feeling the impact. While the half-century-old “War on Drugs” has not always been consistently or fairly fought, there are signs that something is working, at least with adolescents.
The University of Michigan’s annual Monitoring the Future study found that today’s teens are consuming far fewer substances than their 90’s counterparts and regular use of illicit drugs among students has fallen. EVERFI’s own research of high school students and incoming first-year college students supports these findings. Still, the unrelenting flood of headlines about vaping incidents and the opioid epidemic remind us that the drug crisis is not over–it’s just taken new dimensions.
These conflicting trends–with drug use down on the one hand, but overdoses and related risk factors up on the other–make this question paramount: what works in prevention education? What’s the something that will prevent our students from tumbling down the slippery slope? It’s not enough to implement “just say no” policies. The problem is more nuanced, and the solutions need to be as well.
Over the past 15 years, EVERFI has seen, studied, and implemented prevention education across more than 20,000 K-12 schools and college campuses. Here are five components we have found to be critical elements of effective prevention education:
1. Reach the Total Student Population
Many prevention programs focus on a subset of students who demonstrate high-risk behaviors. While these are important students to reach, it is just as critical to strengthen healthy behaviors amongst the vast majority of students who are not currently misusing drugs.
When we provide entire student populations with an evidence-based curriculum that challenges misconceptions and encourages health-promoting behaviors, all students benefit. Those who already have healthy beliefs and behaviors will see their choices reinforced, and those who may be at-risk will have the opportunity to reframe and reflect on their decisions. By ensuring that every single student experiences high-quality prevention education, you can help establish consistent expectations and baseline knowledge within your school community.
2. Have the Whole Child at Heart
Strong social and emotional programming, especially when coupled with mental wellness training, can target many of the underlying causes of drug abuse. Integrating SEL strategies into programming also reinforces positive prosocial behaviors and social skills such as self-management, goal-setting, problem-solving and decision-making, as well as the cognitive skills and confidence needed to be able to resist unhealthy influences.
3. Form New Norms
Effective prevention programs take a strength-based approach - aligning learners’ values and motivations, while also challenging misconceptions that may exist. By correcting commonly held myths about behaviors (for example, that trying substances is a “normal” part of the adolescent experience), prevention programs can paint realistic portrayals that reinforce the healthy behaviors in which most students want to engage.
One effective way of doing this is surveying the total student population on their perceptions or usage of drugs and alcohol and presenting that information back to them in aggregate. When students believe that most of their peers are behaving a certain way, they are more likely to accept their own behavior as “normal’” or to behave similarly, even when they identify that behavior as “wrong.” This tactic, called a social norms approach, is particularly compelling when large gaps exist between what a student perceives their peers would do, and what their peers would actually do. By sharing data that challenges misperceptions, you can influence behavior change.
4. Go Beyond Knowledge
Provide opportunities to learn and practice a range of personal and social skills, including coping, decision-making, refusal, and bystander intervention. These skills should be practiced and demonstrated in a variety of settings, in response to relatable and relevant situations.
These practices are recommended by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Both organizations are full of great resources for any teacher or administrator looking to improve their prevention education practices.
5. Start Now
Ninety percent of substance use disorders begin between the ages of 12 and 23. We know that to have an impact, you must start early. This is why EVERFI has created free, comprehensive student health programs like Prescription Drug Safety for high school, which features a mini-lesson on vaping. EVERFI also offers a full suite of social-emotional learning resources from grade school onward. For us, this isn’t about winning a war on drugs. It’s about building a movement for mental, physical, and emotional wellness wholly.