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Critical Issue: Infusing Prevention into the Curriculum

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ISSUE: During the past decade, schools have been the focal point of the nation's efforts toward alcohol, tobacco, and other drug (ATOD) prevention for children and youth. As educators attempt to add prevention education to the curriculum, they often find that academic subjects are pitted against ATOD concerns for valuable class time. Also, separate ATOD prevention programs may mesh awkwardly or not at all with core classroom lessons. For students, such "add-on" programs often mean a series of brief, fragmented units on critical life issues, squeezed in around the regular curriculum and isolated from "real" classroom work.

These problems challenge educators who are committed to creating classrooms that harbor, meaningful learning experiences for all students while also supporting ATOD prevention efforts. Fortunately, research and best practice are revealing that an approach known as curriculum infusion can enhance both ATOD prevention and academic learning experiences for students.

OVERVIEW: In a curriculum infusion approach, educators design lesson plans that use real-life issues as the context for teaching academic skills and knowledge. Students learn subject matter in the process of solving "real-world" problems. A prevention-infused curriculum addresses critical health and social issues of ATOD use while teaching and reinforcing a subject's skills and concepts. It integrates prevention education through the subject lesson's content and process, teaching academic lessons while focusing on the negative consequences of ATOD use. Schools that infuse prevention education into the curriculum will better equip their students to avoid high-risk behaviors. As Hixson (1994) notes, the needs of our complex society cannot be met by adults who are simply academically prepared; they must also be personally and socially competent (p. 43).

Picture of Betty Despenza-GreenBetty Despenza-Green, principal of Chicago Vocational High School in Chicago, describes how teachers can help students learn how to combat drug use by including prevention in their lesson plans and by identifying students who could be at risk of becoming drug users. [336k audio file.] Excerpted from the video series Pathways to Prevention, videotape #2, The Chicago Vocational and Benito Juarez Stories (Chicago Public Schools and the Midwest Regional Center for Drug-Free Schools and Communities, 1994). A text version is available.

Prevention-infused curriculum design promotes a no-use philosophy; all ATOD prevention efforts are aimed at developing "zero tolerance" norms and helping students completely avoid ATOD use. Although health and safety classes are the subjects most commonly associated with ATOD education, prevention can be successfully infused into any subject area (e.g., math, history, composition, social studies) because ATOD issues impact all aspects of life and learning.

Picture of Dr. Don BenningDr. Don Benning, assistant superintendent with the Omaha Public Schools in Omaha, Nebraska, talks about the need for drug education to be given a prominent position in the lesson plans at every school. [213k 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.

Infused curriculum design is research-based and differs from traditional curriculum design in several key ways. Academic objectives of the infused curriculum promote engaged learning, in which students use their critical thinking skills by applying subject knowledge to solve authentic problems. Lessons often are collaborative and consist of challenging, authentic, interdisciplinary tasks. Such lessons present ATOD projects that require students to synthesize knowledge from several subject areas. A teaching technique known as "webbing" helps students interrelate concepts from various disciplines to structure meaningful learning into their own lives. At the far end of the infusion spectrum, service learning projects take students out of the classroom and into their communities, using their academic knowledge to solve real problems--for class credit. Such projects demand the development of critical thinking skills. Infused lesson design also takes into account students' cognitive and social stages of development to determine which strategies will maximize learning at different ages. Thus, infusion goals are different for various age groups. Because these educational practices draw on constructivist teaching and learning models, infused curricula also are designed to recognize and use students' cultural heritages to inform and enhance their learning experiences.

Research shows these "thinking curriculum" models are more effective than traditional curricula at boosting learning and achievement for students of all ages--from kindergarten to senior year--and students of all abilities--from low achievers to high achievers (Fennimore & Tinzmann, 1990).

Prevention-infused lesson plans have twin objectives: an academic objective and a prevention objective. The academic objective is based on age-appropriate information and skills for the subject discipline. The prevention objective is based on important ATOD information and appropriate life skills for the age group. Prevention objectives draw on youth development models to create lesson goals that meet young peoples' developmental needs, build their decision-making skills, and focus on resiliency--all critical facets of ATOD prevention. Youth development focuses on unique aspects of prevention at different grade levels. Youth development frameworks also have become a significant part of new paradigms for school change and restructuring that integrate traditional academic goals with broader student concerns. In fact, many of the same competencies that form the foundation of effective prevention models are critical skills needed by students in order to be successful thinkers and learners. High-level "life skills" and "school skills" are, in many ways, one and the same.

Although the prevention-infused curriculum may seem to require a radical overhaul of the traditional curriculum, its fundamentals are basic to effective teaching. Curriculum infusion uses the same kinds of classroom techniques that many effective teachers already use on a daily basis. Such educators use real-life issues to make their subject lessons interesting and relevant to their students' lives; they challenge young minds to use information rather than just absorb it; and they help students build personal and social skills to become well-rounded, capable people in and out of school. Curriculum infusion actually increases a teacher's efficiency by keeping class time focused on academically rigorous content and by avoiding time-consuming "special programs."

Research indicates that curriculum infusion is one of the most effective school-level prevention approaches (Dryfoos, 1990), even when it is a school's sole prevention effort. Its effectiveness, however, is enhanced by appropriate collaboration with other ATOD prevention initiatives in the school and the community (Dryfoos, 1990), as well as thorough planning, implementation, and evaluation.

GOALS : Successful infusion of ATOD prevention strategies should ultimately realize the following goals within schools, districts, and communities.

Student Goals:

Teacher Goals:

Picture of Steve SchwartzSteve Schwartz, curriculum director for District 348 in Mt. Carmel, Illinois, describes the need for prevention efforts to address the different events that influence the lives of children. [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 available.

Administrator and Curriculum Designer Goals:

Picture of Maxine WombleMaxine Womble, director of the Midwest Regional Center for Drug-Free Schools and Communities, discusses the importance of properly infusing drug prevention into the curriculum. [136k 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.

Picture of Arthur CervinkaArthur Cervinka, principal of Mather High School in Chicago, Illinois, discusses the need for principals to trust the judgment of teachers and delegate authority to them, and for teachers to be committed to prevention [347k audio file.] Excerpted from the video series Pathways to Prevention, videotape #3, Lessons Learned (Chicago Public Schools and the Midwest Regional Center for Drug-Free Schools and Communities, 1994). A text version is available.

Parent and Community Member Goals:

Policymaker Goals:

ACTION OPTIONS: The following action options provide short- and long-term suggestions for moving from theory to practice. Note that several options may be appropriate for more than one stakeholder group.



Administrators and Curriculum Designers:

Parents and Community Members:


IMPLEMENTATION PITFALLS: For many schools, infusing prevention into the curriculum will challenge the staff to update their teaching skills. Not all teachers have the background, confidence, or commitment needed to integrate curriculum or to infuse prevention into their teaching strategies. To ensure effective results, infused-curriculum efforts should include appropriate professional development.

Effective ATOD prevention requires that educators gain significant knowledge about their students' lives. Some teachers may have inadequate or inaccurate information about their students' communities and life circumstances; other teachers may feel overwhelmed to learn about so many important, complex aspects of students' lives. Learning about the particular ATOD cultural issues for different ethnic groups may also increase the burdens these educators feel.

Learning techniques associated with the infused curriculum may change traditional classroom dynamics. Some teachers (and even some students) initially may be uncomfortable with what they perceive as a lack of control in the classroom. Furthermore, ATOD issues can be emotionally charged topics for students, leading to intense discussions and reactions. Effective conflict resolution skills are critical for teachers in order to keep the classroom environment productive, supportive, and focused on learning.

School structures and policies may not be supportive of a collaborative, innovative, learner-centered curriculum. Tight fiscal climates, changing resource needs (such as new lesson materials), accountability structures, or miscommunication about the nature of prevention-infused curricula may affect implementation pacing.

Finally, even a well-planned, implemented, and integrated prevention curriculum can be undermined by a lack of collaboration with other ATOD prevention initiatives in the school and the community. Curriculum content should enhance, not repeat, the strategies used to reach youth in complementary student programs (Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, 1992).

DIFFERENT POINTS OF VIEW: Some policymakers, educators, and government leaders currently are questioning the need to include any prevention issues in the school curriculum. They may think that ATOD issues are not suitable academic topics, or they may believe that no prevention program can keep all students away from drugs. Others may object to using tax dollars for any prevention efforts.

Curriculum infusion may raise some educators' concerns that instruction would become superficial; they may think that some subject content would be lost or replaced, or that infused learning is beneficial only for gifted students (Drake, 1993).

Some educators believe that the expanded teacher roles in infused curricula are not part of their professional responsibilities. Similarly, some educators think that collaborating across grade and subject boundaries is beyond the call of duty.

Certain parent and community interest groups may believe that ATOD issues do not belong in the classroom. They may think ATOD education should be addressed at home, especially because ATOD issues often intersect with other, more sensitive issues (such as adolescent sexual activity, gang activity, or violence). Some people believe that the infused curricula's collaborative, discussion orientation detracts from the "basics" that students should learn and turns classes into encounter groups rather than places for substantial learning.


Mt. Carmel Schools, Wabash County, IL

Fox Chapel Area High Schoool, Pittsburgh, PA

Walnut Elementary School, Newbury Park, CA


American Council on Drug Education (ACDE)
164 W. 74th Street
New York, NY 10023
(800) 488-DRUG
Contact: Tom Dressereau

Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD)
1250 N. Pitt St.
Alexandria, VA 22314-1453
(703) 549-9110
Fax: (703) 399-8631

Center for Critical Thinking
Sonoma State University
1801 E. Cotati Ave.
Rohnert Park, CA 94928-3609
(707) 664-2940; fax (707) 664-4101
Contact: Richard Paul

Johnson Institute
7205 Ohms Lane
Minneapolis, MN 55439-2159
(800) 234-5165; 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; fax (301) 468-6433

Western Center for Drug-Free Schools and Communities
Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory
101 S.W. Main St., Suite 500
Portland, OR 97204
(503) 275-9480

Wisconsin Clearinghouse
Drug Abuse
P.O. Box 1468
Madison, WI 53701-1468
Phone: (800) 322-1468
Fax: (608) 262-6346
Contact: Terri Holznecht

References ButtonReferences

This Critical Issue was researched and written by Mary Kleusch, Education Consultant, Student Services, Prevention and Wellness Team, State of Wisconsin, Department of Public Instruction, in conjunction with Ann Freel, Program Assistant, Center for School and Community Development, North Central Regional Educational Laboratory.

Date posted: 1996
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