Substance Abuse Prevention Programs for Children
Education and Career Path
I graduated from Messiah College in 2017 with a B.A. in Human Development and Family Science. I began in the substance abuse prevention field as an intern in prevention at TrueNorth Wellness Services during my last semester of college and was hired after graduation as a Prevention Specialist. I have one more course to complete and can then apply for certification as a Family Recovery Specialist (CFRS). I currently am accumulating the required number of professional work hours to move from provisional to full status as a Certified Family Life Educator.
Family Life Education and Childhood Substance Abuse Prevention Programs
It is commonly known that there are large numbers of adolescents and young adults with substance use disorders in this country. Treatment centers are overflowing with clients requesting treatment support, and the opioid epidemic continues to be a large problem. But what if we can prevent the heartbreak and devastation before it begins? I like to think that is where prevention and education come in. We have learned over the past several decades that scare tactics and “just say no” campaigns don’t work, and we have identified what has promise: prevention education. When children have accurate knowledge about drugs and alcohol as well as their effects, they may be less likely to misuse them later. In addition, an aim of prevention is to provide children and adolescents with coping skills and resources to fall back on when they experience stress and hardships as they age. Prevention education includes teaching children coping skills they can use to make themselves feel better in healthy ways.
I feel privileged to be one of two people who provide childhood substance abuse prevention programs through my agency, TrueNorth Wellness Services. Although I haven’t been in this field long, I have learned a lot and grown to understand that although early prevention is relatively new and we are just beginning to see the fruit of it, that doesn’t diminish the efforts and attitudes we have toward preventing substance abuse. Studies show that the earlier an intervention occurs, the greater the potential to take advantage of biologically, emotionally, and behaviorally sensitive periods and alter the course of development in a positive, healthy direction.
A primary goal of prevention is to change the balance between risk and protective factors. Risk factors are qualities, of children or their environments, that increase the likelihood of future substance misuse or other behavioral problems. Protective factors are qualities that promote successful coping and decrease the likelihood of substance misuse or other behavioral problems. According to Robertson, Sims, and Reider, authors of “Principles of Substance Abuse Prevention for Early Childhood: A Research-Based Guide” (2016; https://bit.ly/2UcN2lX), prevention aims to shift the balance toward protective factors. The guide, jointly developed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, includes discussion of seven principles of substance abuse prevention for early childhood. The fourth principle states that intervening during early childhood can have positive effects on a wide array of behaviors, “even behaviors not specifically targeted by the intervention” (p. 34). The authors continue:
The theoretical rationale for intervening in early childhood is that modifying internal and external risk and protective factors . . . can influence intermediate or proximal outcomes such as academic and other achievements; effective learning, competence and skill development; and effective self-regulation. This in turn may reduce the exposure to drugs and the desire to use them during adolescence. (p. 33)
For example, when children or adolescents gain skills and knowledge such as healthy coping when stressed—an important protective factor in building resiliency—they can be better prepared for their overall future.
The programs I run take place in school classrooms with either a small group of children or the class as a whole. I lead two childhood prevention programs: Healthy Alternatives for Little Ones (HALO), designed for children ages 3 to 6, and Girl’s Circle, designed for girls 9 to 18.
HALO (http://haloforkids.org/research) is classified as a universal intervention program, indicating it is suitable for all children aged 3 to 6 years, regardless of risk factors present in the children’s lives. It is also evidence based, according to information included on the program’s website. A formal evaluation conducted in 2007 indicated the program was effective in increasing children’s knowledge about making healthy choices, the functions of selected internal organs, and the harmful effects of substance misuse on these organs. The study results were included by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) on the formerly available National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs and Practices (NREPP) in 2011 (http://haloforkids.org/recognition)
HALO teaches students concrete, age-appropriate information about what physical health looks like and includes discussion about the body, exercise, and nutrition. They are also taught about emotional health including how to identify different feelings, coping with stress, and relaxation techniques. Children aged 3 to 6 haven’t received much health information in a classroom setting; what they know about bodies, emotions, food, communication, family, medicine, drugs, and other related areas was primarily learned either at home or from some form of technology, such as games or television. We can tell how much the children initially know about these areas based on their pretest results. We love to see how much their knowledge has grown at the end of the HALO program when their pre- and post-test results are compared.
HALO supplies parent involvement letters for teachers to send home every week to explain what the children learned that week. The program also provides caregivers with resources that parallel the classroom curriculum to further reinforce the messages children receive in the program.
We have found that both children and teachers like the program. For example, a kindergarten teacher at a school where we have run the HALO program for the past 3 years wrote this to me about the program:
I have seen the benefits of HALO in my classroom when I hear the students talk about making healthy versus harmful choices—whether it be making a healthy food choice when they are eating, a situation they are in (usually at home) and see something they know could be harmful and they shouldn’t touch/do it or when we are reading a story and someone makes a choice they know is harmful, the kids comment on it. I love that our program plants seeds for kids to know what healthy versus harmful choices are. I also love that the kids learn things about themselves and people around them. They learn about being a well-rounded human being which our society greatly needs!
Girls Circle, a structured support group, is an evidence-based, gender-specific program developed by One Circle Foundation (https://onecirclefoundation.org/material-gc.aspx). Girls Circle focuses on building protective factors such as girls’ self-esteem/self-efficacy and their social skills, along with building relationships with each other. Discussion themes can be selected from the many available according to the needs and demographics of the group (not all themes focus on the entire 9 to 18 age range; some are designed for older girls, and some for younger). According to the program’s website, evaluative research of Girls Circle found that the program reduces delinquency among the participants, and the study results were included by SAMHSA on the formerly available NREPP (https://onecirclefoundation.org/research.aspx).
We are frequently asked by schools to run more groups and must turn down many requests because we don’t have the staff to provide much-needed prevention programs. We are primarily funded by our county’s drug and alcohol commission. This past year, we were awarded a grant for additional staffing, but it continues to be inadequate to meet the needs of our communities.
The famous quote by Benjamin Franklin, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” motivates those of us working in substance abuse–related fields. Time and time again, research has shown that when we focus more on preventing the problem, we save lots of time and resources that would have otherwise been used in intervention and treatment. I have hope that by continuing prevention efforts and reaching more people, we will be able to prevent substance abuse and mental health issues in adolescence and emerging adulthood.
Markell Kunzelman, B.A., CFLE-P, is a graduate of Messiah College and a Prevention Specialist at TrueNorth Wellness Services, a behavioral health nonprofit organization based in Hanover, Pennsylvania. Markell is finishing courses required to become a Certified Family Recovery Specialist (CFRS).