What Is a Prevention Climate, and How Can You Build One at Your School?

Student talking to counselor
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Effective prevention is an ongoing conversation and a collaboration across the entire educational ecosystem.

Here at Hazelden Betty Ford, our prevention experts actively endorse and encourage the building of a prevention climate. What is a prevention climate? Rather than limiting the discussions about alcohol and drug use to a small sub-segment of health class or one-off prevention programs, we believe that prevention is best done continually and as a community.

The school prevention climate is a systems approach where family members, faculty and students all contribute to an environment where it's safe to discuss and navigate the topics of alcohol and drug use.

This approach teaches teens and young adults to build resilience, overcome stress and adversity without resorting to alcohol or drug use, and encourages complete transparency—free from misinformation—during the decision-making process. The end result, hopefully, is a healthier community where teens make health decisions based on fact, not fiction.

How can you dispel student fictions around alcohol and other drugs? And how can you build a thriving prevention climate at your school? Read on to find out.

A Good Place to Start: Become Familiar with Student Perceptions

High quality prevention efforts are not born from a singular prevention program, and they don't stem from a single teacher or counselor. Effective prevention is an ongoing conversation and a collaboration across the entire educational ecosystem. The most successful prevention climates:

  1. Highlight and strengthen a teen's protective factors against substance use
  2. Identify and address the risk factors that might lead to substance use
  3. Intervene on any precursors to substance use and other risky behaviors

It goes almost without saying: to identify a community's risk and protective factors, and to nurture student health and resilience, educators need to have an intimate understanding of their students' perceptions—what they believe about alcohol and other drugs.

How is that possible? Educators can conduct surveys like the Student Attitude and Behavior Survey, which measures student perceptions of substance use among peers, and tracks actual alcohol or drug abuse. In combination with other data, schools can begin to tailor prevention plans based on a student's actual needs and beliefs.

Use the Data to Locate and Build Upon the Pre-existing Strengths

Yes, the surveys will reveal some areas for improvement—perhaps there's a sub-segment of risk-inclined students or widespread misinformation about peer drug use. But the data will also reveal the pre-existing strengths and protective factors that exists within the community and are valuable resources for students as they build resilient and healthy lives.

With this information, educators can build out additional support structures and improve the resources that promote healthy paradigms. Educators can also leverage the social norms approach, sharing with students the actual numbers behind peer substance use—a number that is likely to surprise them.

When a school demystifies student drug and alcohol use, and when it builds out additional resources, it is creating an effective environment for prevention. The students who elect not to use substances are given validation and additional outlets for their healthy inclinations, and the higher-risk students are given a chance to reflect on their own behavior and make healthy changes.

What Are Some of the Risk Factors for Substance Abuse?

Without intervention, the student who has more risk factors is likelier to misuse alcohol and other drugs. Some of the most common risk factors for students include:

  • Periods of transition like changing schools, moving, advancing a grade or joining a team
  • Chronic stressors like peer pressure, learning differences, mental health disorders or trauma
  • Easy access to substances from family members who use or within the community

Every student will have different and highly personal risk factors. Educators play an important role both in shaping the climate of prevention and in supporting their students through their individual risk factors.

How to Respond to Trauma and Create a Culture of Resilience

Sadly, many students have already experienced a traumatic event: They may have a family member or another loved one who is actively addicted to alcohol or other drugs. They may be a victim of sexual violence. They may have lost someone close to them or experienced a whole variety of other traumatic events.

Trauma represents a giant risk factor for substance abuse, and research shows that student outcomes vary based on their protective factors. When left unchecked, trauma will impact student behavior, relationships and academic performance, so it's incredibly important for adults to be sensitive to any potential trauma and to help promote a culture of safety.

How can educators build up student resilience and protective factors against trauma? By being trauma-informed. Schools can implement comprehensive policies, procedures and practices that address student trauma. Educators can shift their mindsets, and ask not "Why a student is behaving so poorly" but "Has my student been harmed?" And the ecosystem can seek always to protect its students.

Expand the Curriculum to Include Prevention, and Implement Other Intervention Strategies

Educators play an important role in creating healthy, protective and responsive prevention climates in schools. Here are some strategies to promote prevention every day:

  • Identify and grow peer leadership: Identify the older students who choose to delay alcohol and other drug use. Give them a platform to discuss their healthy choices and the reasoning behind them, and celebrate those choices among younger or same-age peers.
  • Integrate prevention into more lesson plans: You can teach prevention outside of health class. Biology and neuroscience address the impact of alcohol and other drugs on the teen brain. Literature and English courses can plainly discuss traumatized or addicted characters, or challenge the trope of "addicted artists." Sociology can tackle false normative beliefs about teen drinking and so on.
  • Intervene early: An early intervention faculty team can be trained to receive referrals about potential student substance use, and to identify and intervene upon students of concern before that concern rises to a discipline issue or health crisis.

Caring adults and a good education are both pivotal support nets for student health. With a thriving prevention climate, teens will be given the tools and protective factors they need to succeed in and out of the classroom, and they will learn to overcome and out-communicate whatever adversity awaits.

A Summarizing Note about Prevention

School-based addiction prevention programs are most effective when they create an ecosystem of support and engage in ongoing conversations about health. They empower and teach students how to become resilient in the face of adversity, and to separate fact from fiction when it comes to alcohol and other drug use.

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