Adolescents and many young adults spend the majority of their lives in a school setting. As a result, school professionals have a significant opportunity to reach students. You can help protect their health when experimentation or use of substances, including the misuse of prescription drugs, and the risk of addiction are high.

Schools that implement comprehensive, age-appropriate and research-based prevention programming, starting at an early age and continuing throughout a child’s academic career, can have a real impact on reducing youth prescription drug misuse and its many adverse consequences. Such programming is especially effective if families and other caregivers take part.

If you haven’t already reviewed our information on the many causes and concerns surrounding medication misuse, it’s a good place to start before diving into your specific role as an educator.

How you can safeguard against youth prescription drug misuse

Know the facts

The misuse of prescription medications at a young age interferes with a child’s physical and mental health, cognitive and emotional functioning and academic success. It also increases the risk of addiction. Of all types of substances that can be misused, prescription drugs may be the most complicated to address. Why? Because they are prescribed by trusted doctors and used to heal and treat legitimate medical conditions.

Children are given medications to make them feel better and get well when sick. Because of children’s early introduction to this type of drug, schools have an opportunity to educate on the dangers of misusing any medication at a young age. Educators can reinforce that medications should only be used as given by a doctor (or parent, in the case of over-the-counter medications).

Schools teach young children about fire safety, household poisons and other health safety issues. The safe and appropriate use of medications can and should be among the safety topics covered throughout a child’s academic career.

Students of all ages should see their schools as credible and honest sources of information. There are, of course, less credible or reliable sources, like peers, social media, popular culture or advertisements. Therefore, it’s helpful if they are motivated to rely on information they receive about substances from their schools. Whether part of the curriculum or through other programming, the information relayed to students should also be provided to families and caregivers whenever possible.

Reduce stress

A key driver of certain forms of prescription drug misuse among youth, especially the misuse of ADHD stimulant medications, is to enhance academic or athletic performance and remain awake and alert to complete assignments well into the night. Schools have begun to recognize the adverse effects of academic and extracurricular pressure on students. Some have taken steps to reduce the burden, encourage more sleep and foster more balance in young people’s lives. This requires a cultural shift in schools such that the overall health and well-being of the student takes precedence over optimal performance. It also requires strong leadership and guidance to help adjust the faculty, students and parents’ expectations.

Communicate expectations and focus on student health, not punishment

Clearly communicate to students the school’s drug-related policies and the consequences of violating these policies. Prescription drug misuse is illegal, and educators are well within their rights to discipline students who break the law. However, it is important to address all forms of youth substance use as a health rather than a behavior or disciplinary issue. Punitive methods tend not to be effective in eliminating youth risk behaviors. Instead of rushing to punitive measures, a health-driven approach may be more effective in reducing risky behaviors and helping students turn to healthy alternatives.

Use effective prevention strategies based in science, not fear tactics

Utilize evidence-based practices and principles of prevention. This includes offering credible and accurate information and supporting life skills that decrease risk and help delay the onset of substance use. The National Institute on Drug Abuse details essential principles of prevention for youth. These include, but are not limited to:

Encourage peer-to-peer intervention

Young people often respond better to guidance from their peers than from teachers or other adults. Peer-to-peer intervention can help successfully sway youth attitudes about prescription drug misuse and can help to promote protective strategies among students. You can teach these strategies through role-playing and other interactive measures.

Engage family and the community

Schools often are at the center of their community and serve as important resources for families. Their ability to collaborate with families and other systems within the community can create a unique environment that promotes and reinforces healthy adolescent behavior. Providing substance use prevention programming and other educational resources is essential to achieving an informed base of parents and a safe body of students. Therefore, whenever possible, ensure parents receive the same information about substance use as their students.

Collect data and adjust programming to be responsive to findings

Collecting data on the types of addictive substances students are using and tracking trends in use can help inform schools’ intervention efforts and policies, address emerging trends and adjust policies and practices to best meet student needs.

Identify and help students who show signs or symptoms of medication misuse

Through screening of all students, and especially those at risk, identify those in need of help. Offer intervention services and professional counseling. If they need services beyond those available within the school, be prepared with quality referrals to professional counseling and treatment within the community. School professionals can serve as a source of positive reinforcement and support for students receiving interventions or treatment for drug-related problems.

The specific signs will vary to some extent based on the substance, but some of the more common signs of misuse include:

Additional resources for schools

Resources to share with parents and caregivers