School Climate & Safety

For Drug Prevention, Scare Tactics Are Out. Here’s What’s In

By Elizabeth Heubeck — January 27, 2023 3 min read
First lady Nancy Reagan speaks at the first national conference of the National Federation of Parents for Drug-Free Youth in Washington on Oct. 11, 1982. “Many people think drug prevention is ‘just say no,’ like Nancy Reagan did in the '80s, and we know that did not work,” said Becky Vance, CEO of the Texas-based agency Drug Prevention Resources, which has advocated for evidenced-based anti-drug and alcohol abuse education for more than 85 years.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Anyone who was a teenager in the 1980s may well remember the phrase “Just Say No,” the centerpiece of a government-led anti-drug initiative launched by the late former first lady Nancy Reagan. The catchy phrase stuck in teens’ minds; its message, not so much.

The same can be said of images of twisted cars and bodies—victims of drunk teen drivers—that flashed from film projectors in high school auditoriums during that same era as a warning of the possible consequences of drug and alcohol use.

Experience and research now tell us that drug- and alcohol-prevention programs centered on abstinence messages and scare tactics don’t work. So, what does?

Given that hundreds of commercially available school-based drug-prevention education programs exist today, it’s not easy to choose. While most of these programs have the same goal—to prevent or delay the onset of substance use among children and adolescents—they vary widely in scope and delivery method, from programs that run from kindergarten through high school to once-a-year “addiction” nights at high schools, where the content varies from time-worn videos of car crashes involving drunk teens to recovering addicts sharing their stories. Throw in vast differences in the amount of human capital and instructional time that schools dedicate to these initiatives, and the landscape gets even more convoluted.

To cut through the clutter and find what works, experts suggest that schools use the following as a guide:

Look for evidence-based programs

Researchers urge schools to adopt prevention programs labeled “evidence-based,” meaning they’ve been designed around current scientific evidence, tested thoroughly, and proven to produce positive results, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. As Amy Goldstein, chief of the prevention research branch at the institute, pointed out: “If you’re going to do something, and you have limited dollars, use the programs we know work.”

Start early

Years ago, prevention programs targeted mainly adolescents. But researchers have found that effective programs begin when children are much younger, before they face decisions around alcohol and drug use. The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines recommend that prevention programs run from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Prevention educators agree.

“You’ve got to talk early and often,” said Karen Pershing, executive director of Knoxville’s Metro Drug Coalition, which works directly with schools and other community entities on prevention initiatives. “They [early-childhood lessons] are stepping stones. You’re not necessarily talking about drugs to young children,” she said. “You’re teaching them how to have respect for your mind and your body.”

Lawmakers are catching on. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, for one, began pushing for schools to start evidence-based drug education starting in kindergarten as attorney general in 2017.

Tap into students’ critical thinking skills

Pershing encourages educators to teach students, especially older ones, to learn how to assess information on drugs and alcohol for credibility, just as they would for any academic research topic. “They’re smart,” she said. “Teach them how to sift through propaganda versus fact-based information.”

Pershing points out that, currently, a lot of propaganda exists around the purported health benefits of marijuana. “There’s a huge industry that is driving messaging,” Pershing said, comparing it to the profit-driven alcohol and tobacco industries. “Get teenagers to understand that the marketing and sales techniques in the cannabis industry try to create new users, just as it is with other types of products.”

Focus on decisionmaking

Teenagers are frequently characterized as being impulsive, and recent research now shows it’s because their frontal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for impulse control, is not yet fully mature. That’s why drug- and alcohol-prevention efforts should focus on explaining the effects that poor decision-making can have not just on themselves, but also on others, said Pershing. “We try to get them to understand they’re a part of a family,” she added, “and how [poor decisions] could affect your parents, classmates, teammates, etc.”

Rely on reputable sources

The following sources provide evidence-based information on substance abuse and prevention:

Related Tags:

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Your Questions on the Science of Reading, Answered
Dive into the Science of Reading with K-12 leaders. Discover strategies, policy insights, and more in our webinar.
Content provided by Otus
Mathematics Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Breaking the Cycle: How Districts are Turning around Dismal Math Scores
Math myth: Students just aren't good at it? Join us & learn how districts are boosting math scores.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
How To Tackle The Biggest Hurdles To Effective Tutoring
Learn how districts overcome the three biggest challenges to implementing high-impact tutoring with fidelity: time, talent, and funding.
Content provided by Saga Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety Michigan School Shooter's Parents Sentenced to at Least 10 Years in Prison
They are the first parents convicted for failures to prevent a school shooting.
3 min read
Jennifer Crumbley stares at her husband James Crumbley during sentencing at Oakland County Circuit Court on April 9, 2024, in Pontiac, Mich. Jennifer and James Crumbley, the parents of Ethan Crumbley, are asking a judge to keep them out of prison as they face sentencing for their role in an attack that killed four students in 2021.
Jennifer Crumbley stares at her husband James Crumbley during sentencing at Oakland County Circuit Court on April 9, 2024, in Pontiac, Mich. The parents of Ethan Crumbley, who killed four students at his Michigan high school in 2021, asked a judge to keep them out of prison.
Clarence Tabb Jr./Detroit News via AP
School Climate & Safety Civil Rights Groups Seek Federal Funding Ban on AI-Powered Surveillance Tools
In a letter to the U.S. Department of Education, the coalition argued these tools could violate students' civil rights.
4 min read
Illustration of human silhouette and facial recognition.
DigitalVision Vectors / Getty
School Climate & Safety Want to Tackle Attendance Apathy? Students Will Show You How
There’s no one-shot solution to chronic absenteeism, but listening to students is a good way to begin.
5 min read
Photo of teenage boy outside of school.
iStock / Getty Images Plus
School Climate & Safety Opinion What Do Restorative Practices Look Like in Schools?
Such practices teach students how to resolve disputes amicably, own their actions, and be empathetic and forgiving.
9 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty