Talking to a student could save their life.
If you’re a high school teacher or school staff who has ever tried talking to students about drug and alcohol use, you may have been met with eye rolls and blank stares. It can be challenging to have these conversations and know when it’s your place to intervene. It’s easy to assume parents have this covered at home, but as an educator, you can play a critical role in helping students make smart choices. Talking to students could save their life.
Below are a few examples of approaches and tactics that can help you with discussing drug and alcohol use with your students:
As a teacher or school staff, you may be a trusted adult in a student’s life and someone they choose to talk with about drugs and alcohol. Other times, you may notice changes in a student’s behavior that cause concern. In both scenarios, refrain from judgment and let them know you care about their future. In a group setting, create opportunities for students to engage in active discussions around smart and healthy choices and about things that are important to them. Help them discover positive alternatives to drugs and alcohol when it comes to fitting in or coping with stress and anxiety.
Talk early and often.
By high school, students have likely heard the message that drugs and alcohol are unhealthy, yet substance use is also a and research indicates that these social norms can shape their view of healthy behaviors and influence later substance use. The legalization of marijuana in some states also contributes to this “normalizing.” In 2021, The Monitoring the Future Study found that just under 22% of high school seniors believe regular marijuana use could be harmful, down from 30.5% a year before.
Why does this matter? Since students spend a significant amount of time at school, it is possible students look to you as a role model, and it can matter what you have to say. Research suggests that having regular conversations about the risks of drugs and alcohol can reduce the likelihood of teen substance use. Reinforcing these discussions by implementing themes in your lessons about making smart choices, acknowledging your students in the school hallway, and praising their achievements can build trust and may influence their choices.
Tactic: Know and participate in your school’s plan for encouraging ongoing discussions about drugs and alcohol prevention. Implement substance abuse prevention education that guides them in making smart choices and make it a point to address substance use multiple times a year in different ways—for example, in homeroom, science or health class, during parent-teacher conferences, open houses or with an outside speaker.
Start with the science.
Instead of focusing on morality, start with the facts about the impact of drug and alcohol use on a teen’s health. Try to avoid hyperbolic scenarios that teens may easily dismiss because they’re unrelatable and judgmental. Stick with the science to discuss the long-term effects drugs and alcohol can have on the brain, the likelihood of developing substance use disorders, their academic success, and more.
Tactic: Share a study, like this one, that found people who used marijuana frequently as teens had up to an eight-point drop in IQ even if they quit in adulthood. Being honest with students about the facts – such as a decrease in their intelligence – might impact their decision to experiment with drugs and alcohol.
Work with students on drug refusal skills. Often, good intentions fail when there is no plan. This includes what a student will say and do if they are offered drugs or alcohol. Consider taking time to role play various scenarios addressing how to cope with stress, what to do if a friend offers you drugs or alcohol, or what to do if a friend is using.
Tactic: Encourage students to write out what they will say if offered drugs or alcohol by a peer or close friend. How will they say no? If they are at a party or event without a way home, what is their exit strategy? Who will they call? Encourage students to talk to their parent or caregiver about drugs and alcohol and have them practice how they would start this conversation with them.
Recognize the signs.
By recognizing signs that may indicate a problem with drug and alcohol use, teachers and school staff can identify students who may be at risk and work with families to help students make smart choices. While the following signs do not always mean a student is using drugs or alcohol, take the time to find out, especially if these changes occur suddenly or are combined with other signs.
Changes in mood
- Lack of interest
- Increased irritability.
- Sadness or depression.
Changes in behavior
- Abrupt changes in friends.
- Sleepiness in class and/or zoning out.
- Behavior problems.
- Sudden drop in academic performance.
Changes in appearance
- Bloodshot or red eyes.
- Unexplained weight loss or gain.
- Poor hygiene.
- Unexplained injuries.
- Unusual smells on their breath, clothes, or belongings.
Tactic: If you notice changes in a student that are concerning, ask the student about them. Talk to your student’s advisors or your school counselor. If you suspect a problem, let the student’s family know the changes you are seeing, without speculation or accusation.