Five tips for delivering drug and alcohol education

Mark Bowles

Mark Bowles is the director of The Training Effect. He has worked extensively in the public sector as a practitioner, manager and commissioner. Mark’s work focuses on drugs, alcohol, risk-taking behaviour, families with complex needs, emotional health and wellbeing.

The Training Effect’s Risk-Avert programme, developed in partnership with Essex County Council, can identify those young people who are more likely to take negative risks in later life. The programme delivers cognitive behaviour interventions to help them avoid or manage those risks and is being rolled out to local authorities, academies and independent schools across the UK.

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It is generally safe to assume that in the UK drug and alcohol education is almost universally delivered within secondary schools. What is not universal however is the amount of curriculum time afforded to the subject within individual schools, who actually facilitate these sessions and what they ultimately deliver.

This diversity, coupled with the reality that actually delivering interventions and approaches that are evidence-based have the greatest chance of positive outcomes and can be easily delivered by the school themselves, is challenging. We can see that the task of teaching a high-quality drug and alcohol education programme that ‘works’ is not an easy one for schools.

"We can’t educate pupils about drugs and alcohol with information alone."

It is convenient to believe that the reason young people experiment with drugs and alcohol is because they do not know the risks. In my experience, this is not usually the case. Young people have access to a whole raft of information related to the effects of drugs and alcohol, the risks and the potential consequences. Drug and alcohol education that works cannot therefore just be about providing more and more information.

So if young people already know the risks of drugs and alcohol from a young age, why do some go on to experiment and become users of such substances?

The answer is simple. It is not solely a matter of a lack of information. The reasons young people engage in risk-taking behaviours are numerous, extend across multiple domains and have their roots firmly in the developing adolescent brain.

Despite this, many interventions focusing on the promotion of healthy behaviours take the form of ‘information deficit’ or ‘informed choice’ models. These seek to provide information related to the behaviour, its effects and risks in the hope that increased knowledge will influence attitudes and opinions leading to positive changes in behaviour.

However, these approaches fail to address the increased influence of peers and the pupils’ social environment. This influence, coupled with a still-developing cognitive control system, means that even when adolescents have the required information to make good choices other factors (such as peer engagement in the behaviour) may be a bigger driver than knowledge of the risks or negative outcomes.

The evidence related to effective programmes seems to mirror the key factors influencing behaviour in adolescence, with the most effective programmes being multi-component in nature, focusing on social influence and providing opportunities for skills acquisition (life skills).

The approaches which appear to be most effective are generic rather than substance-specific, and based on understanding social influences and developing life skills. These include a normative education component: correcting misperceptions about how common and acceptable substance misuse is among the young people’s peer group. They also teach interpersonal skills to help handle situations where alcohol or drugs are available. Interactive learning seems to be necessary for success, with more didactic methods being less effective.

Home Affairs Committee - Drugs: Breaking the Cycle

So let us look at five things that we know work when we are educating children and young people in school about drugs and alcohol.

1. Life Skills

‘Life skills’ is a broad term which encompasses approaches and interventions that aim to improve, among other things; decision making, consequential thinking and coping skills. They also seek to improve communication, relationships and problem-solving.

These approaches are crucial in the context of effective drug and alcohol education, as they focus on the drivers behind behaviour not just the outcome behaviour itself. They address the issue previously mentioned in this article; that we cannot educate young people effectively about drugs and alcohol with information and knowledge alone.

It is worth remembering that we can make a very positive impact in relation to drugs and alcohol without mentioning them. Lessons focused on the issues listed above can and do have a more positive impact than just those focused on information.

2. Get the right people

It is important that those delivering drug and alcohol education are knowledgeable, confident in the subject and have received appropriate training. This does not necessarily mean external speakers, as school staff have a valuable role to play in the delivery of drug and alcohol education.

"One-off, drop down days will be limited in their impact."

What is extremely important is that whomever delivers the drug and alcohol education understands the evidence related to effective delivery. As we have seen in relation to life skills, this does not mean being an expert on every single drug. It’s possible to deliver very effective sessions for young people that address substance misuse without having to focus on individual substances.

Helping staff gain these required skills has never been easier with services such as Mentor ADEPIS providing a huge amount of support to schools in relation to resources, evidence and policy briefings related to the teaching of drug and alcohol education.

3. Make it interactive – this is not a normal lesson

Good-quality drug and alcohol education that works must be highly interactive and engaging for the young people taking part. I personally encourage lessons to be led in part by young people themselves, this is not only beneficial and enjoyable for young people but makes lesson planning easier and more effective. By designing lessons which rely on young people’s opinions and experiences, they can be used across multiple year groups, building a consistent whole school approach and increasing confidence in delivery by staff.

4. Multiple Structured Sessions

The evidence is clear; drug and alcohol education is much more effective when it is delivered over multiple sessions over weeks and months. One-off, drop down days will be limited in their impact and will not lead to the outcomes sought. My advice is to make time for delivery, build the knowledge week-on-week and year-on-year.

To be most effective your drug and alcohol education programme needs to be well thought out and thoroughly embedded within your PSHE programme and school curriculum. It should begin in year 7, developing in content and sophistication as your students do.

Think of drug and alcohol education as a spiral curriculum, a core of messages and approaches that deliver more advanced and mature messages and themes throughout the student’s school career.

5. Make it Safe

A key element for effective drug and alcohol education is the creation of a safe learning environment for young people. The setting of ground rules is crucially important. These become much more effective if young people help create them and are encouraged to take ownership.

Make sure pupils understand confidentiality and are given a clear confidentiality statement. Young people should feel able to discuss their opinions and experiences without the fear of consequences, while also understanding that if they or someone else is at risk then appropriate action will be taken and support offered.

How do you handle this sensitive area? Let us know below.

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