Winter 2019

Preventing Problematic Substance Use Through Positive Youth Development

School administrators and educators have long had concerns about their students’ substance use. The recent legalization of non-medical cannabis, ongoing opioid crisis, and growing attention to the costly social and health harms associated with alcohol use have intensified discussions within the education system on the role of schools in addressing problematic substance use[1]. Since youth are at a greater risk of experiencing certain social and health consequences associated with problematic substance use, school administrators, educators and other members of school communities have a vested interest in supporting students through school-based prevention efforts.

Traditional approaches to achieving this goal have centred on increasing youths’ understanding of the health risks associated with substance use. While having open, nonjudgmental conversations about substance use and sharing balanced, evidence-based information on its potential risks are critically important, there is evidence that these efforts are largely ineffective in isolation.[i] Problematic substance use is complex and shaped by numerous factors that can make youth more likely to use substances in ways that are harmful, including having poor mental health, limited social support, and experiences of adversity, trauma, violence and abuse. Interventions focused solely on communicating risks do not reflect this complexity or the diversity of youths’ experiences.

School-based efforts to enhance youths’ well-being and promote positive youth development are an important complement to traditional health education.  The role of school administrators and educators in ensuring students are safe, supported and ready to learn has long been appreciated. There is a growing awareness of how healthy school communities that support positive youth development can also have a major protective influence against problematic substance use, poor mental health, bullying and violence.

The Centre for School Mental Health at Western University and the Public Health Agency of Canada have partnered to develop a series of resources for school communities to promote positive youth development through school-based initiatives. Following an extensive literature review and consultations from diverse stakeholders (i.e., representing educators, principals, mental health organizations, researchers, and government organizations), three key themes emerged to guide the development of these resources: (1) promoting well-being, (2) creating welcoming environments, and (3) effective programming.

Promoting well-being

There are many known protective factors that increase youths’ overall health and well-being and counterbalance risk factors that can lead to problematic substance use.[ii] Key protective factors that are critical to positive youth development include: stable and caring relationships with adults; a sense of belonging and social support;v self-efficacy, strong communication and decision-making skills;v engaging in positive social behaviours;v a healthy lifestyle;[iii] a high degree of school engagement;v and a sense of faith, hope, and cultural identity.[iv]

School administrators, educators and others within the school community can bolster these protective factors by:

  • Building authentic, positive relationships with youth;
  • Providing opportunities for youth to engage in positive social behaviours (e.g., sharing, helping, volunteering, etc.);
  • Acknowledging their achievements and acts of kindness (no matter how small);
  • Providing diverse opportunities for students to develop their physical and emotional skills; and,
  • Encouraging students’ sense of hope.

Through these efforts, students are supported to develop healthy relationships with others, discover their strengths, and effectively manage the challenges and stress in their lives, which, in turn, lowers their risk of problematic substance use.

Creating welcoming environments

Student well-being is enhanced when school staff cultivate positive social and learning environments. Positive school communities are places where youth are included, connected, supported, accepted, and represented. Administrators can foster positive school communities by applying a whole-school model that incorporates well-being as a vital aspect of student success (see Comprehensive School Health Framework, 2018).[v] A whole-school, comprehensive approach recognizes the importance of reinforcing messages and actions that promote health and well-being through numerous channels. It also acknowledges the well-established link between health and learning outcomes (Comprehensive School health Framework, 2018). v

School administrators are uniquely positioned to champion comprehensive school-based approaches to supporting positive youth development by:

i) Adopting policies that discourage negative behaviours and actions (e.g., bullying, discrimination, etc.) and facilitate appropriate support for students’ struggling with poor mental health, problematic substance use and other challenges;

ii) Working closely with other adults within the school community, students, families and community organizations to create and/or strengthen partnerships and services that reflect and respond to the school community’s diversity and needs;

iii) Creating a positive social and physical environment in the school by funding, promoting and participating in regular, inclusive community-building school events and activities (e.g., diverse interest groups and recreation activities, gay-straight alliances, etc.) that facilitate relationship building between students, and between students and adults in the school community; and,

iv) Supporting school staff to adopt teaching and learning practices that are culturally-responsive and enhance social-emotional learning. School administrators are encouraged to consider these approaches when seeking learning opportunities for staff and coaching and supporting staff through annual learning plans and formal performance appraisals.

Effective programming

There are evidence-based positive youth development programs that align with existing curricula expectations versus adding on to school staffs’ existing responsibilities. Effective programs address topics such as healthy relationships, resisting peer pressure, communication skills, self-awareness, and empathy. Program activities are typically interactive in nature, incorporate engaging and relevant material, allow for personal reflection, and encourage peer-to-peer sharing. Conversely, initiatives that rely on one-time events, scared straight tactics or “just say no” messaging are largely ineffective, and in some cases, even increase the likelihood of problematic substance use. [vi] Administrators can support positive youth development in their schools by encouraging school staff to implement evidence-based practices and by providing resources for carrying these out in the classroom.

The Fourth R (Relationships) and the Fourth R Healthy Relationships Plus (HRP) programs were developed for Canadian school systems and have shown promising results in promoting social-emotional skills and reducing violence and related risk behaviours. (see [vii] All Fourth R programs are based on the contention that relationship skills can be taught the same way as other academic or athletic skills. There are different Fourth R curricula to match different grade levels and education systems. The Fourth R has also developed specific programming for LGBTQ2+ youth and Indigenous youth because these populations have unique protective factors that can be bolstered by emphasizing identity and connectedness, but are also at higher risk for experiencing negative outcomes, such as problematic substance use.vii, [viii]

As leaders within school communities, administrators play a critical role in preventing problematic substance use among their students by promoting positive youth development through comprehensive school approaches. All youth have the capacity for wellbeing and resilience, even in the context of academic, social, or health challenges. Administrators that recognize this potential and are committed to leveraging these capacities through supportive environments and relationships are critical for fostering positive school communities and equipping students with the resources they need to support their healthy development, both today and tomorrow.

1 Problematic substance use is defined as the use of any psychoactive substance in a circumstance, amount, frequency or method that is harmful or potentially harmful to an individual and/or others.

For further information on this topic, check out our teacher and administrator series, preventing problematic substance use through Positive Youth Development, which can be found at:
Courtney Cadieux is a research assistant at the Centre for School Mental Health at Western University and a Master’s candidate in the Field of School and Applied Child Psychology.

Katelyn Godin is a Policy Analyst in the Prevention of Problematic Substance Use Unit at the Public Health Agency of Canada, where she leads the Unit’s youth-oriented projects. She has a PhD in public health from the University of Waterloo.

Alicia Lapointe, Ph.D. is a Research Scientist with the Centre for School Mental Health at Western University. She leads the centre’s work on developing and evaluating mental health promotion programming with LGBT2Q+ youth.

Claire Crooks, Ph.D., C.Psych. is the Director of the Centre for School Mental Health at Western University and a professor in the Faculty of Education. Her team develops, implements and evaluates violence prevention and mental health promotion programs for youth.
i Cuijpers, P. (2002). Effective ingredients of school-based drug prevention programs: A systematic review. Addictive Behaviors, 27(6), 1009-1023. ii Kia-Keating, M., Dowdy, E., Morgan, M. L., & Noam, G. G. (2011). Protecting and promoting: An integrative conceptual model for healthy development of adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health, 48(3), 220-228. iii Cairns, K. E., Yap, M. B. H., Pilkington, P. D., & Jorm, A. F. (2014). Risk and protective factors for depression that adolescents can modify: a systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. Journal of Affective Disorders, 169, 61-75. iv Currie, C. L., Wild, T. C., Schopflocher, D. P., Laing, L., & Veugelers, P. (2013). Illicit and prescription drug problems among urban Aboriginal adults in Canada: The role of traditional culture in protection and resilience. Social Science & Medicine, 88, 1-9. v Pan-Canadian Joint Consortium for School Health. Comprehensive School Health Framework. (2018). Retrieved from vi Wolfe, D.A., Jaffe, P. G., Crooks, C.V. (2006). Adolescent risk behaviours: Why teens experiment and strategies to keep them safe. Grand Rapids, MI: Yale University Press. vii Wolfe, D. A., Crooks, C. V., Chiodo, D., Hughes, R., & Ellis, W. (2012). Observations of adolescent peer resistance skills following a classroom-based healthy relationship program: A post-intervention comparison. Prevention Science, 13, 196-205. viii Reisner, S. L., Greytak, E. A., Parsons, J. T., & Ybarra, M. L. (2015). Gender minority social stress in adolescence: disparities in adolescent bullying and substance use by gender identity. The Journal of Sex Research, 52(3), 243-256.

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