Middle school is a wonderful, crazy and confusing time for kids. Their hormones begin to kick into high gear, they are becoming more self-aware and independent, and they begin to feel more like adults and less like children. Indeed, the “middle” in middle school is appropriate—these kids are not quite ready for high school, and in many ways, still behave like tweens.
This is exactly why middle school is not too soon to talk to your students about drugs; in fact, many prevention professionals would tell you to start talking much earlier. In an effort to act older, students may engage in riskier behavior, like trying drugs and alcohol, but as younger teens (as may also be true for older teens), they might not be equipped to understand the consequences of their choices. Florida middle schools cannot be shy or naively believe, “Oh, these kids are too young for this kind of talk.” The reality is, they aren’t too young—this is a perfect time to spread the message about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. Here are some important points for educators to keep in mind as they do:
First, the Facts
Statistics about middle school drug use offer good news and bad news. Let's start with the good: Eighth-grade usage rates, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), are at their lowest since the organization started keeping statistics a few decades ago. Discussion and strong messaging in Florida middle schools and in junior highs across the country are working—students are making smarter choices. But now for the bad news: Middle schoolers are still using, and the risk to them is great. Teen brains are still developing (the brain is not fully developed until around age 25), and any interference from drug use or abuse can permanently influence the brain’s hardwiring , thereby resulting in reduced cognitive ability, a decreased ability to feel satisfaction from life, and an increased risk of addiction when these teen users become adults.
Perception vs. Reality
An unfortunate finding of the latest NIDA report is that students across all grades increasingly believe there is less risk in smoking marijuana. The media that Florida middle schoolers consume contribute to this perception, as do the messages they see on social media—and right around age 13 is when many kids start becoming active on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and so on. Students consider marijuana as less harmful and accept it as fact, rather than recognizing the true reality of the consequences of teen pot use. For example, today’s marijuana is more potent than ever, which is rarely discussed in movies.
A perception versus reality discussion in the classroom can help middle schoolers reflect upon the messages in the media and offers educators an opportunity to counter those misconceptions—at an age when kids still believe and respect your views on the matter.
Prescription Drugs and OTC Medicines
A common argument against discussing drugs with middle schoolers is that they cannot easily obtain marijuana, ecstasy, meth or other hard drugs—and therefore, drug abuse shouldn’t be an issue. This is a myth for two reasons. First, access to the harder stuff is easier than most parents and Florida middle school educators would want to admit. Second, junior high students don’t need to buy drugs from others when they can often find powerful pills inside medicine cabinets at home. After all, 67% percent of abused medication comes from family and friends.
The propensity for pain meds to be overprescribed—as well as the explosion of ADHD drugs, such as Adderall—has led to more middle schoolers using and abusing pills not intended for them. Pills are easy to steal, easy to hide, easy to take and easy to give to friends. Prescription drugs aren’t the only problem either: Middle schoolers can easily obtain and misuse over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, such as cough syrup and caffeine pills.
The unfortunate and false perception about prescriptions pills and OTC products is that because they are medicines, they can’t harm you, so using them recreationally is fine. Florida middle school students need to understand this is wrong and that these drugs can be just as dangerous as anything they smoke or inject.
Bring Parents into the Discussion
Florida middle school teachers are valuable influences in spreading the message about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, but they cannot take on this responsibility alone. Parents can and should be valuable allies in this effort. Communicate with parents that you plan to discuss drugs in the classroom and encourage them to continue the discussion at home. Refer them to the Informed Families website for simple tools they can use to help prevent drug use.
Many parents do want to be involved in anti-drug and anti-alcohol campaigns—or at least want more resources on how to talk with their kids—but don’t know where to begin. Facilitate this effort by hosting a Parent Peer Group training at your school. Such a collaboration reinforces your common goal and, most importantly, provides the best effort possible toward teaching students smart choices.
What kind of anti-drug efforts does your middle school undertake?