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We need to acknowledge that alcohol and drugs are part of our society, and preparing students to take their place in society means working together.
Being proactive will give your school more options to keep students engaged. Waiting until issues arise limits the options available.
The evidence shows that a whole-school approach, outlined below with four increasingly targeted tiers, works to both keep students engaged in education and reduce their drug and alcohol-related harm.
Used individually, all four tiers have positive effects. But together they make the biggest difference.
A positive environment focuses on student wellbeing, promotes positive relationships, and encourages the development of social, emotional, and intellectual skills.
This sets the foundations for positive outcomes in a broad range of areas for schools and their students, so it is not surprising that many initiatives promote this, including the Ministry of Education’s Positive Behaviour for Learning programme and the Education Review Office’s Wellbeing for Young People’s Success at Secondary School guide and resource.
The New Zealand curriculum covers skills like critical thinking, especially around drugs and alcohol, and how to self-manage.
What works is giving students factual and normative education about substances, which builds skills. Normative education involves helping students to develop an understanding of real-life norms (for example, that regular substance use among teenagers is uncommon) instead of perceived norms (e.g. everyone my age seems to drink).
We know that ‘hard hitting’ information or trying to evoke fear does not work. These approaches tend to highlight the extreme examples of what can happen from substance use, which will not occur after only a few uses, and do not explore how problems from substance use actually develop. Any problems that a young person may experience from substance use will appear small in comparison to the information they received earlier in their life, creating a false perception that they are OK, which can delay them making changes or seeking help.
This can come in the form of help from school counsellors, nurses, deans, and so on. Many young people see their form teachers, deans, and assistant principals as key support people. Being able to start a conversation about drugs and alcohol when a student’s attendance or achievement is dropping can help them to get support earlier, and help them feel like someone cares.
This works when additional specialist support complements a school’s existing services and values. This can be on an as-needed basis or through a regular arrangement with a local provider, and could involve a range of professionals: Youth workers, social workers, counsellors, alcohol and other drug counsellors, psychiatrists or psychologists.
How well does your school explicitly promote wellbeing and student connectedness?
How does your school demonstrate consistent messages (even at school events)?
How well does your school provide opportunities to engage or reengage in extracurricular activities?
How well does your school provide effective education on drugs and alcohol when it is relevant?
Does your school proactively have conversations with students about slipping attendance or achievement at school?
Do school staff feel confident to raise alcohol and other drug use in these conversations, and would students feel ok to talk about it with them?
What is your school doing to identify need and get support for students as early as possible?
Does your school and pastoral care team work collaboratively with professional treatment services?
(Following an incident) What have we done to support this student before this incident happened? Where can we improve?