This is a guest post by Chelle Stein of, a site dedicated to the prevention and treatment of drug and alcohol addiction.

I’ve been following the recent posts on underachieving students and it reminded me of my own days in high school. Back then, my main motivation was making time for drugs and alcohol – not school work and certainly not achieving my true potential. I started using drugs at the age 16 – but my teachers and not even my parents until much, much later ever knew. Hopefully from my own experiences I can help teachers today understand drug and alcohol abuse in teens and ways they can help.

Many underachieving students have the same characteristics as students who are at risk for developing drug and alcohol habits. Self-esteem issues, the high school drama of making friends, not knowing how to cope with problems effectively, or misjudged guidance from parents and caregivers can all cause students to be enticed by the promises and short term results drug or alcohol use offers. Drug or alcohol use can also result in underachieving behavior in a student, especially if the student is behaving differently than they did at the beginning of the school year or in previous classes.

If you looked at the faces of the students in your classroom today, would you be able to recognize which ones are at risk for drug and alcohol problems?

You might have suspicions, but it’s very difficult to know for sure and ultimately every student is at risk for using drugs or alcohol at some point in their lifetime. Many students will also go to great lengths to cover up their drug use, making it even more difficult to recognize these students at risk.

Here are some signs to look out for that might help you recognize these students:

  • Attendance issues: frequent absences and tardiness, even if excused
  • Lack of interest in school functions and extracurricular activities
  • Changes in friendships – old friends might no longer be close, new or unlikely friendships begin emerging
  • Inconsistent Grades and Completion of Homework Assignments
  • Appearance issues – poor hygiene habits or change in clothing style
  • Taking classes that require little effort – ie: “slacker classes” (By my senior year, I had three study halls, one lunch period, and two classes I could sleep through and still pass!)
  • Parents are uninvolved, often go out of town/work late, or have their own problems
  • Clues in the music they listen to, movies they watch, posters in their lockers, or even drawings in a notebook
  • Extreme interest/disinterest in class discussions about drug/alcohol use (Some students will test how much they can get away with saying – others don’t want to say something incriminating)
  • Rollercoaster of Emotions – excited or happy one day, sullen and withdrawn the next
  • Short attention span or easily distracted, inability to concentrate or focus
  • Your own gut feelings and instincts

If you suspect that one of your students may be using drugs or alcohol, the worst thing you can do is to ignore it or just brush it off as nothing. Each school district should have a plan on what teachers can and should do if they suspect a student is using drugs. Make sure you are familiar with that plan, or if one does not exist to brainstorm with other staff members what would be appropriate.

Here are some other things you can do to help students at risk for drug or alcohol abuse:

  • Talk with the student in a non-judgmental, non-confrontational manner to get them to open up to you
  • Get parents involved with the student’s school work and social life
  • Emphasize coping skills for handling stress and difficult situations
  • Encourage students to participate in after school activities
  • Make students aware of resources they can turn to without getting into trouble
  • Be a positive role model
  • Stay in tune with student concerns and issues, whether academically related or not
  • Work with other teachers and the community to develop stronger drug and alcohol prevention programs

As a teacher, you have an amazing potential influence on the students in your class. Each day is an opportunity to make a difference – and whether it goes acknowledged or not – you do.

If you’ve had any experiences with handling drug and alcohol abuse in your classroom or have any additional ideas on ways teachers can help students stay off drugs, please share your comments below. You can also contact me directly if you need any additional resources in keeping kids drug free.

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3 Responses to “How Teachers Can Recognize and Help Kids At Risk for Drug Problems”

  1. Elona Hartjes on January 26th, 2009 6:29 am

    Thank you so much for being Teachers at Risk’s first guest author and sharing your considerable insight regarding students at-risk for alcohol and drug abuse.

    I now have a better understanding of how I can recognize and help my students who have these issues. I’m going to check to see what our school district’s plan is if I suspect a student is having alcohol or drug abuse problems.

    Your web site is really informative, and I encourage readers to visit and explore it.

  2. chris on January 26th, 2009 1:27 pm

    Back in the old days, most kids took drugs because they had some life issues. They had to go look for the drugs.
    Now, with the proliferation of synthetic drugs, ANY child can find drugs without even looking for it. They may just go ahead and take the drugs because kids are just impulsive.

  3. Chelle on January 27th, 2009 12:03 am

    There are so many reasons even “good kids” get involved with drugs – but it is true that in most schools you won’t have to look too hard to find them.

    Thanks again for the wonderful opportunity to guest post Elona! I hope your readers will find it helpful!

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