When should students start learning about alcohol and drug abuse? Experts are now recommending that evidence-based substance use prevention education start in kindergarten. Waiting until students are in fourth or fifth grade means they may have already been exposed to alcohol and drugs.
Students already know more than we think. In one study of Massachusetts third graders, over 95% were aware that alcohol and cigarettes are dangerous, but only 68% knew prescription drugs could be harmful. It’s important to close the gaps in knowledge and discuss these issues with our children. Some elementary school students have already experimented with drugs and alcohol. Others have witnessed their parents, family members, or friends misuse drugs and alcohol. Others have seen the effects of alcohol and drugs in their neighborhoods. And some students may have no prior experience or exposure to drugs and alcohol at all.
Parents should always be given a take-home memo discussing upcoming prevention education and given the option for their child to opt-in or opt-out. It’s also important to communicate to parents the importance of continuing the conversation at home, especially if they choose to opt-out.
Another factor to remember is that not all substance use prevention education is scientifically-based — in a study of 1,563 schools, 72% were offering substance use prevention education, but only 14% were using an evidence-based curriculum. The DARE Program is commonly used in schools, but it is not evidence-based. Another issue with D.A.R.E. is that it assumes every child will respect the opinion of a police officer. However, children bring their own experiences to the classroom. Some children have experienced a traumatic event involving law enforcement. Maybe they were removed from their home with a DCF worker and a police officer. Or they were evicted from their family home by law enforcement. Perhaps they witnessed a family member, family friend, or neighbor being physically apprehended by a police officer. When we ignore these realities, it creates health inequities in substance use prevention education.
Prevention education should begin very simply — by teaching young children about their bodies, and how different substances effect their organs. For example, teaching about our lungs, their function in our bodies, and how smoking and vaping affects them negatively. For young children, no moralizing or scare tactics are needed, just basic health education. Every moment we spend educating children about their bodies is time invested in preventing future drug use. The guideline is to give children the information, not the answers.