Commentary: Recognizing the Contribution of Adolescent Substance Use to Poor School Performance

Although the association between substance use and academic performance has been on the radar of researchers for quite some time, what is under-recognized by researchers and policy makers alike is the contribution of substance use to poor academic performance.

This distinction is important because it tells us that doing something about substance use is a viable option for improving academic performance. Because we know that almost one-quarter of students will eventually drop out of high school, we need to add drug prevention and intervention to the list of things we can do to solve the nation’s dropout crisis.

The consequences of dropping out are profound. High school dropouts are much more likely than high school graduates to have health problems, to earn less income over their lifetimes and to be incarcerated. Strangely, this connection between substance use and academic decline, failure and dropout is not mentioned on the numerous websites, including that of the U.S. Department of Education, that advise parents on how to help their teenage children achieve academic success.

The Institute for Behavior and Health, Inc. has released a new report, America’s Dropout Crisis: The Unrecognized Connection to Adolescent Substance Use, which includes the following key findings:

• Substance-using students, compared with non-users, are at increased risk for academic failure, including dropout, especially when the use is frequent and heavy.

• Marijuana use negatively impacts academic outcomes (lower GPA and higher rates of dropout) somewhat more than does alcohol. The authors speculate that this might be due to differences in the patterns of consumption between alcohol (typically consumed on weekends) and marijuana (consumed throughout the week) among adolescents. National studies show that in recent years, as perceived risk of harm from marijuana has declined, marijuana use among youth has increased.

• Sometimes substance use precedes academic failure; sometimes early academic failure precedes use. There are many pathways leading to different adverse outcomes from substance use during adolescence.

• Cessation of substance use following treatment is associated with improvement in academic performance. This evidence shows that doing something about substance use is an important way to promote and improve academic success.

• New neurobiological research tells us that there are short- and longer-term effects of drug use on students’ ability to learn. Certainly, learning is compromised if students come to class under the influence. Motivation to study and achieve declines as the use becomes more regular. Too often, students with alcohol or drug problems aren’t even making it to the classroom.

What Parents Need to Know

Dropout is the extreme result of a complex and interacting set of risk factors. Because of the critical role parents play both in preventing substance use and promoting academic success, they need to know what they can do to prevent use in the first place, and intervene if their child has a drug or alcohol problem. Once use occurs, an entire constellation of change agents may be needed to solve the problem.

Scientific evidence has made it clear that drinking and drug use during adolescence can be risky. Even a little alcohol use may lead to problems. Many research studies show that the earlier the exposure, the more problems later. We know that what parents say to their teenage children about substance use matters; parents need to be clear that they do not approve of substance use. A recent research study followed students from high school through their college years. It showed that parents who communicated to their college-bound children the message of zero tolerance for substance use were less likely to have children with drinking problems in college than were parents who were more permissive.

Given the evidence, parents need to be armed with skills and strategies to prevent substance use, to recognize problems early and to intervene when a problem occurs. With what we now know about the potential risks of adolescent substance use, including the negative impact on academic performance, it is critical that parents and school administrators intervene when substance use is detected. Students that show early signs of academic difficulties should be specifically screened for drug and alcohol use. Steps should be taken to ensure that at-risk students become and stay drug-and alcohol-free. Proper management must be comprehensive and may include assessments and interventions for behavioral problems and mental health disorders.

The authors of the report, which include leading researchers from the Institute for Behavior and Health, Inc., the Center on Young Adult Health and Development and Treatment Research Institute, are interested in learning more about dropout prevention programs that include the identification and intervention of substance use of at-risk students. Rather than develop strategies de novo, their goal is to identify, extend and improve existing intervention models.

The more research tells us about the negative effects of alcohol and drugs on adolescent health and intellectual development, the more important prevention becomes. There should be a shared understanding between families, school systems and the broader community that underage drinking and drug use is not consistent with the goals of maximizing student potential, promoting student health and preparing students for the future.

For more information for parents, visit:

Amelia M. Arria, PhD and Robert L. DuPont, MD

Amelia M. Arria, PhD is a Senior Scientist at Treatment Research Institute and the Scientific Director of the Parents Translational Research Center. She is also the Director of the Center on Young Adult Health and Development at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.

Robert L. DuPont, MD is the founding president of the Institute for Behavior and Health, Inc. He is recognized as a national leader in drug abuse prevention and treatment. Among his many contributions to the field is his leadership as the first Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and as the second White House Drug Chief.

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    May 7, 2013 at 6:19 PM

    Very insightful information on drug use and its effects on school. I think parents dont realize that they need to educate their children at home about drug use and be aware of those signs so they can recognize if their child might be using something. Thank you for the great article!

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    Ben House

    April 24, 2013 at 10:53 PM

    Neurobiological findings are indeed opening whole new ways to understand human behavior. The Adverse Childhood Experiences research and related work in neurobiology are helping us understand the role of toxic stress in brain formation and its role in future substance use, other addictions and a host of other problems. Rather than blame the substance use these studies suggest the brain is already compromised and substance use is an outcome as much as contributor. Other deficiencies in the brain contribute to drop out and poor performance and potentially predispose the adolescent to association with groups more likely to use substances. Substance use in adolescents is not good and abuse is clearly harmful; my message is that there are causal factors predisposing the substance use that need to be addressed for effective solutions.

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    April 19, 2013 at 10:10 PM

    Thank you Amelia M. Arria, PhD and Robert L. DuPont, MD. I have never thought specifically about the connection between adolescent substance abuse and the impact it has on academic performance.
    Many public schools have began implementing random drug testing programs for high school (and some middle school) aged students who participate in any extracurricular activity. Because they are public schools they are some what limited when it comes to substance testing, but I wonder if we aren’t testing the wrong group of kids.
    One of the first warning signs of drug abuse in school aged children is their loss of interest in such activities.
    These policies have often caused controversy among parents as well. As a mom and educator, I understand how important it is for adolescence to trust parents and teachers. I believe how ever that when it comes to substance abuse and our children, all bets are off. It is our job as parents to give our children every tool available to keep them away from drugs and alcohol.
    If one of those tools happens to be random drug testing, whether at school or home, we need to use it.

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    Lisa Frederiksen –

    April 19, 2013 at 12:12 PM

    Thank you Amelia M. Arria PhD and Robert L. DuPont MD! I work with the at-risk student population and their parents, as well as those who are not considered “at-risk.” Time and again, it’s been my sharing of the research on brain development from birth through early 20s (especially developmental changes triggered by puberty, ages 12-15, and those beginning and continuing ages 16-early 20s), key risk factors for developing a substance use problem, and how drugs and alcohol hijack neural networks in the brain that is helping all concerned understand, “teen substance use is not to be treated as ‘just a phase’ or ‘something all teen’s do.’” It is serious and can have serious consequences as you’ve outlined in your opinion piece and must be stopped or prevented. Helping parents, teachers and administrators understand they have to be the “wise decision maker” their/the child is incapable of being – especially ages 12-15 because of the instinctual, hardwired species-specific neural network changes that occur during puberty and the fact that the brain ages 12-early 20s is not the brain of an adult. As such, substances do not work in that brain the way they work in the brain of an adult nor is adult-like decision making possible in that brain the way it is in the brain of an adult.

    This is not going to be easy, but we must help parents, teachers and administrators truly understand the neural network and embedded brain map concepts of the developing brain (and what influences how those wire and map) and what we all must do differently to “talk to” that brain. [One of my recent posts is titled, “Want to Get Through to Teens | Talk to Their Brains.”] I know, myself, that when I was parenting teens over a decade ago, before this new brain and addiction-related research was available, I thought I was a bad parent for not trusting my children. And then one of them was suspended for drinking at a sophomore school dance. There’s a great deal that can be done. We can change this, but I believe it starts with understanding their brains.

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