ISSUE: During the past two decades, schools have been the focus of massive efforts to prevent children and youth from engaging in alcohol, tobacco, and other drug (ATOD) use. Much has been learned by examining the effectiveness of these efforts. As a result, a new approach to prevention has emerged. This approach cultivates both school and community environments to promote the positive development of young people. It emphasizes the goals, attitudes, knowledge, and competencies that maximize the ability of all young people to nurture and protect their minds, bodies, spirits, and future possibilities. By focusing on positive development, effective prevention promotes avoidance of high-risk behaviors, particularly ATOD use and violence. But prevention does more than focus on individual students; its collective effect is to change systems and cultural norms.
For schools as well as communities, this reframing of prevention reflects an ongoing debate regarding the precursors of substance abuse and problem behaviors, the presumed causes of such problems, and new understandings of potentially effective prevention strategies. In a joint effort, schools and communities can work together to develop comprehensive services that typify the goals of prevention.
OVERVIEW: During the late 1970s and 1980s, concern about ATOD abuse led to massive government funding for something akin to a prevention industry. Commercial and academic organizations alike created and packaged drug-prevention products geared to the school market. To satisfy the need to take action, many school districts adopted packaged programs with neither a proven track record nor a research base. Despite admirable commitment, such efforts often met with disappointing results.
Most school-based prevention programs emphasized information on drugs, adverse health effects, refusal skills, avoidance of danger, and other techniques to delay or prevent high-risk behaviors. Such strategies were found to be only marginally effective in the limited area of ATOD use, and only with certain categories of youth. At best, they could be shown to increase young people's knowledge about drug use, with few sustainable changes in behavior.
Many preventionists of the '70s and '80s took issue with what they perceived to be rigid and unyielding treatment approaches based on the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Treatment professionals, recovering alcoholics, and recovering drug addicts, on the other hand, often limited their involvement in prevention activities to telling the stories of specific addictions rather than addressing the precursors of the addiction. While impassioned in their commitment, such individual-centered approaches based on scare tactics were not particularly effective in preventing alcohol and drug involvement.
Typical prevention strategies prior to the 1990s had several other disadvantages. They often required add-on programs and resources that were beyond the capabilities of many schools. Such single-focus efforts also had the disadvantage of focusing on problem behaviors--often labeling certain students as "problem kids"--while giving little attention whatsoever to a complex array of related cultural and social factors. Other youth behaviors such as school failure, violence, early pregnancy, and parenthood seemed to take a back seat to the more obvious problem of ATOD abuse.
Research and evaluation studies of these strategies have indicated that the most effective prevention approaches are quite different from those employed in the 1970s and '80s. These new efforts often fall under the banner of youth development--an approach that focuses on positive behaviors of youth rather than only on negative behaviors. The youth development approach offers meaningful opportunities for youth to engage in positive behavior, decision making, and mutual support.
Jacky Schwartz, a prekindergarten teacher in District 348, Mt. Carmel, Illinois, describes her school's early childhood program, which teaches children how to make wise choices and to feel good about themselves. [504k QuickTime slide show] Excerpted from the video series Schools That Work: The Research Advantage, videoconference #6, Preparing Students for Drug-Free Lifestyles (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1992). A text version is available.
Research on the topic of resiliency has broadened the manner in which children's development is perceived. Instead of merely identifying risk factors in home, school, and community, the new approach to prevention focuses on enhancing protective factors in the lives of children and youth. It also emphasizes the mission of schools and the importance of resources outside school walls.
Morton Silverman, director of the Student Counseling and Research Service at the University of Chicago, talks about the need for drug education to be a collaborative and life-long effort. [252k Audio file] Excerpted from the video series Schools That Work: The Research Advantage, videoconference #6, Preparing Students for Drug-Free Lifestyles (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1992). A text version is avalailable.
Put simply, youth development sees young people as resources rather
than problems. It emphasizes ways that youth can make meaningful contributions
to their community. Full endorsement of such an approach can result in
an inversion of the African proverb, "It takes a whole village to
raise a child." The newer version does not negate the old. Instead,
it says metaphorically, "It takes a child
to raise a whole village."
GOALS: The ultimate goal of prevention is thoroughly integrated with the goals of education: intellectually, personally, and socially competent youth who have healthy understandings, habits, and skills. To achieve this goal, schools and communities can develop comprehensive services that adhere to the following principles of prevention:
Maxine Womble, director of the Midwest Regional Center for Drug-Free Schools and Communities, stresses the need for using multiple strategies to teach all children about the dangers of drug use. [179k Audio file] Excerpted from the video series Schools That Work: The Research Advantage, videoconference #6, Preparing Students for Drug-Free Lifestyles (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1992). A text version is available.
ACTION OPTIONS: The following action options provide practical suggestions for using prevention principles in the school, family, and community. Note that several options may be appropriate for more than one stakeholder group and that collaboration improves the effectiveness of prevention.
IMPLEMENTATION PITFALLS: Schools may be tempted to adopt quick solutions to youth ATOD problems. Although all-school assemblies with impassioned motivational speakers or videos of drunk-driving victims may be appealing to school administrators, there is little evidence to show that such programs have long-term preventive effects. Nor can fancy prevention curricula be taken off the shelf a few weeks each year and be relied upon for anything more than the evidence of good intentions. Research indicates that curriculum infusion is an effective approach to teaching prevention in the schools. (See the critical issue "Infusing Prevention into the Curriculum.")
Ed Virant, project coordinator for Drug-Free Programs in the Omaha Public Schools in Omaha, Nebraska, talks about the necessity of infusing prevention efforts into the curriculum and community rather than supplementing such programs into one school day every few months. [357k Audio file] Excerpted from the video series Schools That Work: The Research Advantage, videoconference #6, Preparing Students for Drug-Free Lifestyles (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1992). A text version is available.
To be effective, efforts to nurture resiliency in children and youth must be matched to the unique cultural, social, developmental, political, and economic context in which students find themselves. Many "generic" prevention curricula, for example, are likely to have minimal impact because they cannot attract support throughout the school and community. If the realities of kids are very different from the curriculum writers (which is often the case), prevention efforts will waste time and resources.
Darlene McClendon, coordinator of the Peer Intervention Program in Chicago from 1991-1993, describes how prevention programs can be tailored to meet the needs of different schools and communities [284k audio file.] Excerpted from the video series Pathways to Prevention, videotape #1, The Mather High School Story (Chicago Public Schools and the Midwest Regional Center for Drug-Free Schools and Communities, 1994). A text version is available.
Categorical funding with rigid compliance guidelines can force school districts to choose approaches that are ill-suited to the real needs of their students, faculty, staff, and community. To resist the temptation to be diverted from thorough youth development to more faddish (and perhaps more fundable) "quick fixes," schools need to have proactive, long-term prevention plans with goals and measurable objectives.
Youth development clearly requires more energy and resources than schools alone can muster. Collaboration is essential--between schools and communities, teachers and parents, businesses and nonprofit organizations, civic groups and intervention groups. All the adults and young people engaged in the educational enterprise need to take an active role in prevention.
DIFFERENT POINTS OF VIEW: The fundamental concepts and methods of prevention are not universally accepted among various ethnic and cultural groups. Problem behaviors in one culture may well be perceived as acceptable or favorable in another, and "common sense" risk-avoidance techniques can have very different implications in different cultural contexts. Peer refusal skills and assertiveness, for example, have long been thought to be critical components of effective prevention. But the display of such individualism could be seen as antisocial and rebellious in more traditional cultures.
Political and religious beliefs also have influenced the direction of prevention. Some government and school officials favor law-and-order approaches, which promise harsh punishment for drug use and drug-related crime. Some parents resist school-based prevention efforts because they believe teachers are usurping parental authority. Others assert that moral persuasion should be enough; kids merely need to "just say no." Still others believe that the appropriate way to deal with at-risk behaviors is to declare them sinful or wrong.
Such discussions focus on different assumptions about young people themselves as well as different strategies for changing behavior. At one end of the spectrum are prevention-education strategies based on positive perceptions of young peoples' characters and optimism about their futures; at the other end is an emphasis on coercive social control and regulation.
Government leaders, taxpayers, school personnel, parents, and students often have intense debates about the school's balance between academic and nonacademic responsibilities. Such debates focus on the school's accountability for academic content versus the preparation of youth for good decision-making throughout their lives. The topic of ATOD abuse serves as a lightning rod for such debates.
Catcher's MITT (Making It Through Together)
Wisconsin's Framework for Student Services, Prevention, and Wellness
VOX: A Vehicle for Involvement and Participation
Helping Us Grow Through Service and Smiles (HUGSS) Program
American Council on Drug Education (ACDE)
164 W. 74th St.
New York, NY 10023
Contact: Tom Dessereau
Adams City High School
4625 E. 68th Ave.
Commerce City, CO 80022
(303) 289-3111; fax (303) 288-6113
Contact: Dr. John Lange
7205 Ohms Lane
Minneapolis, MN 55439-2159
(800) 231-5165; fax (612) 831-1631
Contact: Dee Stuart
National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information (NCADI)
P.O. Box 2345
Rockville, MD 20847-2345
(800) 729-6686 or (800) 487-4889; fax (301) 468-6433
Wisconsin Clearinghouse for the Prevention of Alcohol, Tobacco and
Other Drug Abuse
P.O. Box 1468
Madison, WI 53701-1468
(800) 322-1468; fax (608) 262-6346
Contact: Terri Holznecht
Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction
Student Services, Prevention, and Wellness Team
125 S. Webster St.
P.O. Box 7842
Madison, WI 537078-7841
(608) 266-8960; fax (608) 267-3746
Contact: Michael Thompson
This Critical Issue was researched and written by Richard Brooks, Director, Health Promotion Project, University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Date posted: 1996