Do Idaho schools play a role in preventing substance abuse?

Blog, youth education

Do Idaho schools play a role in preventing substance abuse?

Do Idaho schools play a role in preventing substance abuse?

Remember signing the D.A.R.E. pledge to not use drugs? Or seeing the aftermath of a S.A.D.D. mock crash in the high school parking lot?

It kind of makes you wonder what prevention education your child is experiencing in school these days. How do schools help combat substance use and abuse in a relevant way, when kids face increased exposure to alcohol-, vaping- and drug-related content on social media?

In Idaho, many school districts offer prevention curriculum throughout the year in the form of ongoing, weekly lessons. Others do so only on occasion via classroom talks by school counselors; some, usually at the high school level, offer more intensive intervention on a case-by-case basis.

Elementary and middle school prevention education
Prevention education is generally a component of a broader curriculum like Positive Action, whose lessons support the notion that when students feel good about themselves, they make more positive decisions. Another, Second Step, focuses on helping students develop self- and social awareness, better regulate emotions, improve relationship skills, and make responsible decisions.

How do these curricula tie into alcohol and drug prevention?

“The lessons focus on making healthy, responsible decisions in all parts of students’ lives, including those that involve drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and vaping, and they teach students the life skills that help them avoid these substances in the first place,” explains Charlotte Combe, a certified prevention specialist with Lifespan Community Services (LCS). LCS delivers prevention curricula to schools via weekly half-hour lessons, usually for 20+ consecutive weeks.

In the younger grades, prevention falls under lessons about overall good health.

“We talk about using someone else’s medication, tobacco use, vaping and, for third grade and above, alcohol,” says Charlotte Combe. “We ask, ‘Is this good for your body?’ ”

In fifth and sixth grades, lessons explore peer pressure and why people start using. “Nobody ever got up one morning and said, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a drug addict or I want to go to prison,’” says Combe. “We talk about how much of our prison population is due to using [drugs]. Not as a scare tactic, but just to present the facts—and we ask them, ‘What do you guys think?’ ”

Lessons for older students explore brain function, brain growth, and the effects of alcohol and drugs on the brain.

In middle school, instructors hone in on more details about the dangers of substance use and abuse, including opioids.

Kids are certainly curious about what it feels like to be drunk or high. Combe often explains to the students that, yes, people may say it feels good–and that it actually may, for awhile. “But if you drink because you’re depressed, when it wears off, you’re even more depressed,” she says. “We talk about how it affects you in a lot of different ways and what you can do instead to feel better.”

Middle school sessions also focus on life and coping skills, like defining personal values, setting goals, staying in control when experiencing heightened emotions, and resolving conflict.

“The curriculum helps students believe in themselves and teaches them skills to have healthy friendships; manage feelings like anger, jealousy, envy, and worry; and take care of themselves,” says Combe.

“We make children aware that they have choices, and that they’re responsible for those choices,” she adds. “We ask them, ‘What’s your code of conduct? What are the rules you choose to live your life by?’ ”

High school prevention education
Substance abuse prevention education is more likely to be offered in Idaho alternative high schools than non-alternative ones.

Substance abuse prevention education is more likely to be offered in Idaho alternative high schools than non-alternative ones.

Popular prevention programs include Project Toward No Drug Abuse, which helps student improve communication, social self-control, and coping skills, as well as make healthier decisions. It’s conducted over 12 sessions. Two other programs, Life Skills and Life Skills Transitions, address many of the same topics and additionally help prepare students for life after high school.

ReVisions Community Social Services facilitates both of these programs in several eastern Idaho alternative high schools. Depending on the school’s preference, ReVisions staff delivers the programs through regular classroom sessions and/or counseling groups.

“A lot of these kids come from homes with parents who have their own drug use or legal issues, and a lot of the skills we’re teaching are the skills they’re not being taught at home,” says Jess Tanner, director of ReVisions. “Like, how do you handle anger? Do you blow up and freak out on people, or do you slow your life down and take a breath and realize that maybe someone’s just having a bad day?”

Alcohol and drugs are woven into many lesson topics. “When we talk about stress management, it comes up that a lot of people use drugs and alcohol to cope with stress,” Tanner relates. “So we explore whether the kids think those are good coping mechanisms, and why or why not.”

Group or class discussions are key, Tanner says. “Sometimes kids, especially the ones who have been in our program for awhile, tell the others, ‘It’s not worth it—I used to drink or get high on the weekends and now that I’m not doing it, my head’s clearer.’ It’s those moments, when kids teach the other kids, that’s where you get the most effect.”

Students who receive the instruction in a group setting receive confidentiality, as ReVisions’ services are provided by counselors. “Some of these kids are scared to go to the school counselor to talk about something going on at home–like if a parent asks the student to drink with them–because they’re afraid their parents will go to jail,” says Tanner. So, the ReVisions counselors help the students develop strategies for coping with these types of situations.

“Once the students realize we’re there to help, to give them new skills, that we’re not there to get them in trouble, they do really well,” adds Tanner.

Tanner believes the programs really work. In the schools ReVisions serves, fewer students are leaving school because of drug and alcohol problems, and graduation rates are higher.

“Some kids may never get anything from what we teach, partly because they’re not open to it right now,” says Tanner. “But for others, this just changes their lives.”

How you can help prevent underage drinking at home
How can you support prevention education at home? First, learn the risks of underage drinking and start talking to your child about how to avoid it!


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