What Everyone is Really Doing

“Everybody’s doing it. I’m the only one who isn’t!” I’m sure you have heard your students or maybe your own kids say this to you more than once. They think they are the only one who isn’t wearing the latest fashions, staying out late, having a cell phone, accessing social media or going to a party.

The question is, “Are your kids right? Is everyone their age really doing these things?”

It is somewhat true.

When it comes to drinking, smoking and other risky behaviors there are more kids who begin to experiment with alcohol, tobacco and other risky behaviors in the middle and high school years. If we look for kids who are participating in these behaviors we will always find them. So will your students.

For example, what would catch your students’ attention most – four kids their age vaping or thirty kids who aren’t? What would grab your attention – those who are or those who aren’t?

Your students will very likely pay more attention to the kids who are vaping than those who aren’t and will generalize, from just a few, that lots of kids their age vape. Perhaps you would do the same.

Research has shown that our perceptions drive our behaviors. What we perceive as being normal or common behavior influences what we do. When you couple this along with your students’ increasing need to fit in and be accepted by their peers, the pressure to do what they think everyone else is doing also increases. So, if your students perceive “everyone” or a lot of kids their age are vaping, smoking, drinking or doing other risky things the more likely they will do the same.

One of the most effective research strategies you can use with middle and high school students to influence their attitudes and behaviors is called, “normative beliefs.” Normative beliefs is about two perceptions your students have: 1) The perception of prevalence or how many peers their age they think engage in risky behaviors and 2) The perception of acceptability or how acceptable it is by their peers to engage in risky behaviors.

Let’s focus on the first perception – their perception of prevalence.

The blue line on the graph below shows alcohol usage rates nationally among students in grades 6-12. As you can see, usage does increase over the years. More and more kids are using alcohol.

The red line in the graph shows what students’ perceptions are of alcohol use. As you can see, as kids grow older and move through middle school and into high school they begin to perceive more kids their age are drinking alcohol than what really are.

Why is this a problem?

Remember, perceptions drive behaviors. So, the sooner your students perceive more of their peers are drinking alcohol than what really are the sooner they are likely going to drink alcohol, too.

The research challenges you to correct your students’ “normative beliefs” if you want to prevent them from using. You need your students to see and perceive that a majority of kids their age DO NOT drink alcohol, vape, smoke or use other drugs.

Here’s one way you could begin correcting your students’ normative beliefs…

The 2019 Monitoring the Future national survey asked 8th, 10th and 12th graders if they consumed alcohol in the last 30 days. This chart shows the percentage of students who said, “yes”, to the question or who reported using alcohol in the last 30 days.

But, here are the results from the same survey question asked, but instead looking at the percentage of students who said, “no”, to the question. Or, in other words, DID NOT use alcohol in the last 30 days.

What would it look like if we compared the percentage of students who said, “yes”, to the question of drinking alcohol in the last 30 days to those who said, “no”, as I do below? When you look at it this way, what are a majority of middle and high school students doing when it comes to drinking alcohol regularly?

Is “everyone” drinking alcohol or not drinking alcohol?

You are right. Through middle and high school a majority or almost “everybody” is NOT drinking alcohol. This is the perception we need your students to have because it is the reality and the truth.

Kids who perceive a majority of their peers DO NOT engage in risky behaviors are more likely NOT to engage in the behaviors themselves.

Remember, our perceptions drive our behaviors.

Take a look at the results of any survey done locally or in your state of adolescent use of substances. Don’t look at just the statistic of those who reported using. Look also at the statistic that lies within the same survey of those who reported not using. For every number of students reporting they used there is another number of students who reported not using.

The good news is that the number of those who are NOT will almost always be greater than those who are! Your job is to help your students see, believe and perceive this!

So, I have to ask…Is this what you would perceive or believe about kids in your community? Do you believe most of your students are or aren’t engaging in risky behaviors? If your perception is that most are or will, then maybe your perception needs to be corrected, along with your students.

YOU need to believe that a majority of your students are NOT drinking, smoking, vaping and doing other risky things or will in their future if you are going to be effective at helping your students believe it, too.

So, the next time a student says, “Everyone else is!”, don’t believe or agree with them so quickly. Look around. Ask questions. Talk to other students. Chances are the student is already doing what “everyone” else is doing – the right thing. Don’t expect anything different or less.

P.S. A prevention approach using the “normative beliefs” strategy has proven to not only be effective with middle and high school students, but even more effective with college-aged students. Many studies have shown that changing college students’ perceptions of drinking norms can lower the proportion of students who engage in binge drinking.

A Story of How a BIG Dream Influenced a Young Man’s Behaviors and Future

I first met Craig Shelburne when he was a high school student and I was organizing alcohol and drug-free youth groups in schools around the state of Nebraska. Craig was active in his local drug-free group. His desire to achieve a big dream in his future gave him the strength, tenacity and focus to do what he needed to do to make it happen and stay away from the people and things that would get in the way of it, including alcohol and other drugs. His story is a real life example of how “idealism” can give a young person their own personal reasons to not use alcohol and other drugs when they want something so much in their future. Craig is now a grown adult living in Nashville, TN. I recently interviewed Craig about his journey to achieving his dream job and his decision to not use alcohol, tobacco and other drugs along the way.

Kathleen: You made the decision to not use alcohol, tobacco and other drugs when you were in high school. When you look back at that time, what do you think were the driving reasons for you to not engage in these behaviors?

For me, I knew it would get me in trouble at home and I knew that it wouldn’t really work as a way to get popular. As a non-athletic teacher’s kid who was interested in listening to music and reading books, I spent a lot of time solo in a very small town in Nebraska. Looking back I see a low-maintenance teenager who was just biding his time until college. Also, I never liked the smell of smoke and I wouldn’t have known how to find (or even use) drugs. As far as drinking alcohol, if I’d been taking part in that scene, I knew that word would get around because there are no secrets in a small town.

Kathleen: Even though the college years are a high-risk for using alcohol and other drugs, I know you also continued to not use. What was influencing your behaviors during this time of your life?

That’s true, I stayed sober all through college. That first year, I went to a college in Lincoln, Nebraska, and my roommate wasn’t a drinker either. That made a difference because I didn’t feel the need to party or cut loose just for the sake of doing it. My main extracurricular activity that year was writing for the college newspaper. I had taken some journalism classes and realized that I could see myself as a writer. So the next year I moved to Nashville to study journalism at Belmont University. I figured if I was going to be a journalist, I might as well write about something I loved, which was country music. So, what better place to go?

Also, sometimes it sounds like a punchline when I say it, but I didn’t want to drink while I was studying in Nashville because I didn’t want to get kicked out and have to go back to Nebraska.

Kathleen: Did you have to take any risks to pursue your vision of the future?

I didn’t see it as a risk at the time, but I came to Nashville in 1994 without knowing anybody and enrolling in a college that my family really couldn’t afford. If it didn’t work out, I’d have to acknowledge that it was all a costly mistake. I had to pretty much focus on studying and working to stay afloat. As far as socializing, I would go to free, all-ages concerts around town or go to movies. But what I remember most about college is the constant work – some formative, music industry-related internships that were invaluable to me, and then picking up kids after school for a family I was working for, sometimes helping them with homework, but mostly taking them to soccer games.

I don’t have any wild and crazy “Can you believe we did that?!” moments from college. But without a doubt, going to Belmont was the best decision I’ve ever made. Even though I was scraping by, I was living a dream of just being in Nashville. I still feel this way sometimes.

Kathleen: Were there people in your life who were your cheerleaders and supporters or who thought your future vision was impossible or “too big” for you to achieve? What impact, if any, did these people have on you and your vision?

The first time someone outwardly supported me beyond the general “Good luck!” was my college professor, Thom Storey. When I made my first campus visit to Belmont, he showed me around. I told him that I wanted to write for music magazines and he said something like, “OK, we can help you with that.” He didn’t emphasize to me that there are a lot of people who were trying to do that, or who are better writers, or who have connections that I didn’t have, etc. He was a working journalist, in addition to being a professor, so maybe there was a deeper understanding of that calling that comes with journalism. (This was before the ominous term “media.”) It felt like a noble profession, and to be honest, it often does today.

I never did get the “Go for it!” pep talk from anyone in my family, although my mom did buy me a plane ticket for that first visit. For my parents I think it was more like, “We’ll see what happens.” But I knew I could do it. I think it was such a shock to my family and friends in Nebraska that I wanted to give this a real shot. In Nebraska, you are taught from birth that it’s the best place to live and raise a family. Or, at least, that was my experience. Then at some point I thought, “You know, people raise families everywhere and they seem to be doing just fine, so….” Off I went, and arrived in Nashville on August 20, 1994.

Kathleen: Sometimes pursuing our dreams and visions for the future isn’t always easy. At times, we can do everything we need to do to get it and still not achieve it. Did you face any challenges or roadblocks as you pursued your vision?

The hardest part of the career path came during those first five years after graduating from Belmont. Right away I landed a job at what I considered the best country music magazine at the time. When that closed, I tried to make a living in Austin (because I liked going out to hear music once I was old enough to get into venues), but that didn’t work at all. I came back to Nashville totally broke and I remember buying a newspaper with my last 50 cents. One of my friends let me stay at her apartment while I sorted things out.

Around this time, the internet was still catching on and all kinds of music websites were popping up. I was willing to take free tickets (for concert reviews), always had an opinion (handy for album reviews), and never got nervous about interviewing people (even Waylon Jennings, which I will never forget). Outlets were paying reasonable wages to writers and there were quite a few outlets — with funny names like CDNow.com — so I got published a lot back then. And I made sure people knew I was available.

I held up my end of the bargain, too. If the outlet needed a story first thing in the morning, I’d stay up. If they needed me in the office (like my writing gig at the Tennessean), I’d show up twice a week and write on their antiquated machinery. For a year, I was writing for a site called CitySearch, covering music and nightlife, but even then I don’t recall being a big drinker. I was still striving for the big goal. That finally happened when I landed a writing job full-time at CMT (Country Music Television) in 2002 which made my mother cry in relief.

Kathleen: Catch us up! What are you doing today? Are you living out your dream?

It’s been 25 years now and that dream worked out. With the ever-changing media world, I’m adjusting to the “work from home” life, but fortunately the work is there. (Not always the case in this career field.) These days I am the managing editor of The Bluegrass Situation, which covers roots music better than any other site in my opinion, and then contributing two stories a day for CMT.com, plus assorted other projects for the Academy of Country Music and more. I spent a few years writing a biography about the legendary country star, Don Gibson, so that’s on the horizon to be published too.

Over the years, Craig has interviewed hundreds of country music stars as a journalist in Nashville, TN!

Kathleen: The big question is…did you ever drink alcohol?

I never did until the night before I graduated from college. Then, I had a beer on the front step with one of my college friends.

Kathleen: What advice would you give parents, teachers or other adults today when it comes to building “idealism” with kids – giving them a vision of their futures and helping them see that risky behaviors can get in the way of it?

I’ve trained myself to be a long-term thinker. When faced with a difficult decision, I might think, “How will this impact me five years from now?” Or, “Is this going to put me on the course to where I want to be?” It took me many years to understand the old saying, “A stitch in time saves nine.” But now I remind myself of it nearly every week. If you can prevent or stop a situation before it gets unruly, it’s a whole lot easier to fix it.

As for advice, maybe parents and teachers can think of these conversations from the role of an interviewer or journalist, asking “Why is that?” or saying things like, “Tell me more about that.” Or that skillful pause where the interview subject will feel the need to keep talking. I think it’s a fair question to ask, “What are some of the things that can get in the way of achieving your dream?” Your kids might even surprise you with the answer. It’s remarkable how much we can learn when we listen to each other and how much we can achieve when someone believes in us.

Thank you, Craig, for sharing your story of “idealism.”


P.S. I would love to hear your personal story about a time when you may have chosen to not use alcohol, tobacco and other drugs because you wanted to achieve something much more important to you in your future! Share it in the Comments section below or send me an email at kathleen@knslearningsolutions.com!

The Importance of Giving Your Kids 20/20 Vision of Their Future

Have you ever had the opportunity in your past to do something that you knew, at the time, was illegal, unsafe or would break some rule and you didn’t do it because you knew that if you did you would risk losing something that was more important to you than what you had the opportunity to do?

Can you think of a time when this was true for you?

If so, then you had “Idealism!”

Idealism is having a vision for yourself and your future and believing that risky behaviors will get in the way of what you want in your future.

Research has found that kids who have idealism are more likely to NOT participate in risky behaviors. Idealism is one of the five most effective prevention strategies you can use to influence the attitudes of middle and high school students if you don’t want them to drink alcohol, use tobacco or illicit drugs, fight or engage in early sexual activity.

The important question to ask yourself is…Do ALL of my students have idealism?

If you were to ask your middle school students what they would like to be, do, have or achieve in their future, would ALL of them have ideas to share with you?

There’s no doubt that some of your students will have ideas for their future. But, unfortunately, others won’t. Not every student in middle or even high school have an idea of what they want in their future. For these students, their answer to your question might be…

“I don’t know!”

In contrast, if you were to ask your elementary-age students what they want to be or do when they grow up almost all of them will have quick and definite answers. They have hope and optimism for their future.

What happens with students between the elementary and middle school years?

During the middle school years a sense of hopelessness, apathy and discouragement can set in with some students. The 20/20 vision they once had of their future is now blurry or completely gone. Research shows that students who have lost sight of what they want in their future are more likely to participate in risky behaviors. From their perspective, there’s nothing on the line for them to lose – no matter what they do.

So, if I’m one of your students today who says, “I don’t know what I want in my future!”, and I have the opportunity to drink alcohol tonight, I’m more likely going to do it because there isn’t anything important enough to me to risk losing tomorrow.

This is why research has found that kids who have “idealism” – who have something they want in their future so much and that is so important to them are more likely to NOT do anything to risk losing it – including risky behaviors!

Are there any of your students that come to mind as having idealism? Can you think of a student who you know had the opportunity to engage in risky behaviors, but didn’t, because there was something more important that they wanted in their future and they didn’t want to risk losing it?

If so, this student has idealism!

I love idealism for so many reasons. Most of all, I love how it challenges the attitudes towards risky behaviors that begin to erode in the middle school years.

One of those attitudes is, “Nothing bad will ever happen to me.” Middle school student believe bad things will only happen to others who drink, smoke or use other drugs. Idealism challenges this sense of invincibility. You can talk and talk and talk to kids about the consequences of using alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, but the consequences that really matter to kids are personal consequences – the things that are most important to them. Idealism helps kids see what the personal consequences could be to them if they do engage in risky behaviors.

Idealism also takes on attitudes of hopelessness. Students who say, “I don’t know what I want in my future” or “I can’t see anything in my future” can feel a lack of hope for the future. Idealism takes on this “I don’t care” attitude by giving students the opportunity to dream about and imagine their future in ways they may never have before. Idealism gives kids a glimmer of hope for the future when they most need it.

Idealism also challenges the developmental characteristics of middle school students that can be roadblocks in our prevention work. Middle school students are more likely to think and act “in the moment”. Thinking and planning ahead isn’t something they can or will naturally do on their own. Idealism pushes kids into future thinking and planning and understanding the “cause and effect” of their actions.

I had the pleasure of being a guest on this week’s Win This Year podcast, hosted by NotMyKid, where we talked about the importance of kids having a clear vision of their future. The episode is full of tips and ideas on how you can build idealism with kids – whether they be your own or those you work with. Take some time in the next couple of days to listen to it. Download it for your own future reference or to share with others. (By the way, it’s a great resource to share with parents!)

You and I can’t take away the opportunities your students will have to engage in risky behaviors. But, what we can give them, is their own personal reasons to walk away from the opportunities. Just like you possibly have done in your past. Your job and my job is to help them figure out what those reasons are and it starts by having a 20/20 vision of the future.

Go forth and imagine, dream and vision with your kids!

P.S. Interested in training for yourself or your staff on activities that build idealism with middle or high school students? I’ve got tons of proven ideas to share with you! Give me a call or shoot me an email. We can do this TOGETHER!

How To Get Back 66 Million Hours of Instruction Time

I know I said I would share with you in this week’s blog the most effective prevention strategies you can use to work on the attitudes your middle school students have about alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. However, I’m not. But, I promise I will – next week.


I want you to think about something else that is impacting approximately 2.8 million students or about 6 percent of our U.S. public school student population. It’s something that is impacting students in every school and community – even yours.

What is it?

Out-of-school suspensions.

Did you know that in the 2015-2016 school year alone, students lost more than 11 million school days to out-of-school suspensions?

You read that correctly. Broken down further, that amounts to:

  • 66 million hours of instruction time lost in one school year
  • 63,000+ school years’ worth of learning

Out-of-school suspensions leave kids at home unsupervised and able to cause more problems. They also do nothing to teach appropriate alternative behavior nor address underlying issues that may be causing the bad behavior.

Students suspended from school lose important instructional time, are less likely to graduate on time, are more likely to repeat a grade, drop out of school and become involved in the juvenile justice system.

No matter if you work with students in school or out of school, the long-term impact out-of-school suspensions can have on your kids’ futures, their families and your community is concerning.

Finding a more successful solution to dealing with problem student behavior than out-of-school suspension is something I have found many schools struggle with. Administrators, classroom teachers and even parents know another alternative is important and needed.

But, what?

That’s the big question. And for years, when I was asked for my opinion, I didn’t know what the answer was either.


I met Bill Michener of The Lighthouse in Lincoln, Nebraska.

The Lighthouse

In all of my 34 years of working with schools and community-based youth organizations around the country, I have NEVER heard about an alternative suspension program like the one at The Lighthouse.

This program has all the components needed to make it one of the most successful alternatives to suspension:

A collaborative relationship between the school district and a well-established and respected community-based youth program

  • The cooperation of school administrators and classroom teachers district-wide
  • Parent/Guardian involvement
  • Adequate and shared funding
  • Skilled and dedicated staff
  • Outcome evaluation measures

The alternative suspension program at The Lighthouse is so unique and the results it has seen in just three years has caught the attention of other school districts, community-based youth organizations and me!

There is no way I could do justice describing the program in a blog to you. The best and only way to capture what this innovative, proven alternative suspension program is doing is to have Bill Michener, the Executive Director of The Lighthouse, tell you himself.

I recently sat down with Bill to have a recorded conversation about how the idea of this alternative suspension program came to be, how the partnership between The Lighthouse and the Lincoln Public School district was formed, what the program challenges and successes have been, how the program has grown to what it is today and how you can replicate the program in your school or community.

After the conversation I was convinced even more that this program is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen or heard of and I’m pretty sure it will be for you, too!

And, that is why I’m sharing my conversation with Bill with you this week!

If you’re concerned about the number of single and/or repeat out-of-school suspensions in your school and the number of students falling behind academically or dropping out because of it, you definitely want to hear how The Lighthouse – a community-based youth program – was able to turn those same concerns into solutions and give students the opportunity to achieve success in their future!

So, grab a cup of coffee, sit back and relax and listen to my conversation with Bill and hear how you can reduce out-of-school suspensions with your students!​