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Matters of Substance

Caught with cannabis - A stoner or a scholar?

Friday, February 1, 2008

Incidents involving cannabis provide some of our best chances to foster students' success even while the important social and health issues involved are addressed, argues Trish Gledhill. The way we view and deal with these events can make all the difference in promoting young people's resilience, and the results can be quite surprising.


Our views of young people, their risk taking and, by implication, their resilience drive the ways we respond to drug issues. When there is an incident, the student is typically seen as the problem and often described as being ‘at risk' or having complex needs. Adults tend to focus on the drug, dissecting the incident and speculating on reasons for its use. The more we discover, the more pervasive these issues seem. The student may be described as living in a dysfunctional family where "everybody smokes" and failing at school and in the community.

When drugs are involved at school, the initial reaction is typically about discipline and the so-called seriousness of the issue. Sadly, the focus is often on removing or ‘fixing' the ‘problem'. But perhaps there is another way of looking at young people during these events.

In these situations, young people's capacities usually go unnoticed, but actually, the young person is showing resilience. Intelligence, determination, resourcefulness and other talents keep young people safe and help them survive from day to day, but these factors are overshadowed when the focus is on their drug using behaviour alone.

Without ignoring high risk issues such as abuse, perhaps we should develop views of young people that highlight their potential and scenarios that inspire hope and optimism. Taking the camera as an analogy, perhaps we should widen the aperture and let in more light to help identify and validate young people's strengths in spite of their difficulties. Encouraging, supportive relationships that maintain high but realistic expectations support better outcomes. Resilience studies reveal that these approaches are more likely to open up pathways forward.

We can use events as opportunities to promote resilience. When cannabis is in the picture, there is an ideal chance to respond constructively and create these pathways. Schools, which have key roles in fostering resilience, significantly influence young people's futures.

Most schools are highly protective, providing accessible support and health services, with a range of opportunities to foster success. Young people agree with adults that, as well as being looked after, they need boundaries that convey expectations of success. So some caution is warranted to ensure we don't lower the bar by expecting less, ignoring issues, or overprotecting and removing opportunities for students to develop their own capacity. Reduced expectations of achievement permit, or even create, a picture of risk rather than resilience.

Interestingly, everyday events matter most to young people. They notice the small things, such as the teacher who recognises their potential. They favour inclusive rather than special services to maintain their identities as resilient young people.

When students are striving to manage the complexities of their lives, they tell us that they do not necessarily expect school to ‘take off the lid' and fix up these issues, but they do expect school to protect them when necessary and, most importantly, to do their job by providing opportunities to succeed. They want accessible support, but need opportunities to exercise their own strengths. As young people argue, the best drug education is not about focusing on problems, but about good information and encouragement to build capacity. It's often about giving young people what they need, with respect for their realities and their abilities.

Ideally we expect families to be included. However, sometimes youth just want a break from stressful home environments. When we discover that families are immersed in problems, it is important to determine who constitutes the main support systems for the student. If family is not available, it is vital that we maintain access to the one place that can provide visions of success. For some young people, this is best achieved by viewing school as a different world from home and community.

Students caught with cannabis tell us very clearly not to overreact over something that is often normalised in the community and in their environment. Students are often caught as a result of experimental use. Their stories illustrate the impact of school exclusion for offences that are often unrelated to educational activities and achievements.

Once a young person is labelled a drug user, it becomes very difficult for them to access other mainstream education. This single event can determine a trajectory of escalating problems leading to increased contact with troublesome peers, nonachievement, unemployment and possibly offending. Ironically, they have many good role models in adults with a history of cannabis use. Real and important issues, such as their mental health or social concerns, can be overlooked in the rush to over-reaction or over-protection.

Recently, I witnessed a young student appearing before a school board of trustees. As the incident was described and questions asked, the young woman sat with her head down, offering no explanation and demonstrating no willingness to address the incident or discuss her return to school.

The principal noticed this and began to outline her potential as a bright young woman. He gave examples of high achieving students who had similar backgrounds and abilities to her own. He also outlined the possible consequences of her actions. He acknowledged her resilience but emphasised how much she would need it to get through the next year ‘trouble free' and to manage peer relationships alongside significant family responsibilities. He portrayed hope and possibility far beyond her own expectation of leaving school early and unqualified.

The approach taken by the principal had far more impact than the threat of exclusion from school. When the promising vision was presented, the student visibly straightened in her chair, looked up and asked questions, becoming far more alert and engaged. This intervention was significant in providing a turning point to both reinforce boundaries and provide high expectations of potential.

Let's not, as a first response, remove young people from school, when it's one fundamentally protective system for young people. Let's not oversimplify the issues either. Young people's lives, like their school environment, can be complicated and hard work.

Some schools are an example to others, undertaking innovative and collaborative responses to drug issues. Schools should also be resourced to maintain organisational resilience, such as validation, strong agency support and robust information about these issues.

We can still address risk, responding with the best interests of the school and community at heart, while allowing students to strive. Let's be sure to view these events as opportunities to create a picture of potential in the young person's life.

As the educationalist Swadener maintains: "We must find the will and the character to view all children through the lens of promise."

  • Trish Gledhill is the Executive Trustee of Kina Trust. She also sits on the board of trustees of a low-decile secondary school, and was recently elected as a member representative to the New Zealand Drug Foundation board.