I’m Never Doing That Again

Have you ever done something that caused you to walk away and say, “I’m never doing that again!”? And, you really meant it!

Believe it or not, a lot of kids think or say the same thing after their first experience* with drinking alcohol. And, they mean it, too!

A majority of kids report their first experience with alcohol as being a negative experience for them. The #1 reason kids give for why it was negative is because they didn’t like the taste of it. Other reasons they give are not liking the way it made them feel, the loss of control they felt, feelings of a hangover the next day, doing or saying something they later regretted, the guilt of knowing they did something illegal or wrong and the fear of getting caught and the consequences if they did.

No matter what the reason is a lot of kids who have drank at least once in their lifetime do not drink again for another extended period of time. The line of, “I’m never doing that again!”, actually buys more time before they might do it again.

You see this extended period of abstinence from kids who have done it at least once in data collected from surveys on adolescent usage. The Monitoring the Future (MTF) study of substance use among U.S. adolescents has been conducted annually since 1975 by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research and funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. It is one of our most credible surveys nationally to get a glimpse of trends and usage each year.

If you look at the summary of the 2018 MTF survey which involved about 44,500 students in 8th, 10th and 12th grades enrolled in 392 secondary schools nationwide you will see…

24% of 8th graders,

43% of 10th graders, and

59% of 12th graders

reported having used alcohol at least once in their lifetime*.

But, when asked about their 30-day use, you find that only…

8% of 8th graders,

19% of 10th graders, and

30% of 12th graders report using alcohol regularly.

We need to be careful not to jump to the conclusion that every kid who uses alcohol (or any other substance) once automatically continues to use. This is not the case with a majority. Most kids walk away from their first experience without doing it again until later – if at all. These kids are just as important to reach with prevention as the kids who have never used yet. Buying additional time before they use alcohol again can make a positive difference in all aspects of their life.

However, there is that small percentage of kids – the minority – who do use alcohol for the first time and who have a positive experience. Perhaps they liked the taste or the way it made them feel. Maybe they didn’t have any guilt doing what they did or they didn’t fear getting caught or the consequences of it. For these kids, the chances of using alcohol again and sooner, rather than later, are quite high. They represent the minority of kids who will report using in the past 30 days on a survey.

As I wrote about in last week’s blog, it is the kids who begin drinking on a regular basis at an early age who have the highest risk for problems in adolescence and later in life. They are also trend setters among peers. Trends start with just a few people and grow to include more over time. Reaching these kids before their usage influences other peers to join in and before it begins to impact their own life negatively is imperative.

It’s important to recognize that when you work with middle and high school students you will have all three groups of users – those who have never used, those who have used just once or twice and those who are using on a regular basis. They ALL need an effective prevention approach as they are ALL at risk.

We tend to classify or label certain groups of kids as being at risk, based on where they live, who their family is, their socioeconomic status and other factors. Instead, I would challenge you to think about ALL kids being at risk and in need of effective prevention approaches.

At any time, any one of your kids – no matter who they are, where they live or the family they come from – can drink alcohol for the first time. And, none of us can predict which side of the fence they will land on once they do.

Will they be one of the lucky ones who walks away with a negative first experience vowing, “I’m never doing that again!”?

Or, will they be one of the unfortunate ones who has a positive experience and begins to walk down a path of regular usage?

We really can’t predict which experience kids will have. They don’t know either – until it happens.

If you have ever used alcohol in your life, could you have predicted what your first experience was really going to be like? Was it negative or positive for you? Did you walk away wanting to do it again and you did? Or, did you walk away and think, “I’m never doing that again!”, and you didn’t or you didn’t until some time later?

Well then, my friend, you need to know that your experience isn’t that much different than the first time experiences your kids are having today.

P.S. *“First experience” or “Once in your lifetime” refers to someone drinking more than a few sips, unsupervised and not for spiritual or faith-based reasons.

Is it All or Nothing

I am thinking about a mother I met who was so distraught when she heard her 18 year old son had drank alcohol for the first time the night before. She was disappointed in him. Her expectation of him was to not drink alcohol until the legal age of 21. He fell short of her expectation. She believed her prevention efforts as a parent failed.

This mother’s experience reminds me of how we sometimes measure our success in prevention. If our kids drink alcohol before age 21, we see it as a failure. If our kids wait until the age of 21 or later, we see it as success. This “all or nothing” mentality with substance use prevention is common.

But, is our success in prevention really “all or nothing?”

Research shows that kids who start drinking alcohol before age 15 are 5 times more likely to develop alcohol dependence or abuse later in life than those who begin drinking at or after the legal age of 21.

But what happens to kids who begin to drink alcohol between the ages of 15 to 21? There’s this middle ground between the two extremes – the highest risk period (before age 15) and the lowest risk period (age 21 and older) – we don’t always think about.

The research shows the risk for problems drops slightly every year, after the age of 15, a child waits to begin using alcohol. That means a 16 year old is at a little less risk for problems than someone who is 15 years old or younger. If the 16 year old waits another year before using alcohol, or until the age of 17, their risk drops a bit more. If the teenager waits until the age of 18 to begin to drink, their risk drops again. Risk drops about 4-5% each year between the ages of 15 to 21. There is risk every year – just less risk.

The drop in risk every year, between the ages of 15 to 21, can add up to be significant the more years a kid waits to begin using alcohol. It’s why research has found that the later the age someone is when they begin to use alcohol the less likelihood they will experience problems related to use later.

So, let’s go back to the mother who thought her prevention efforts as a parent failed with her son. Was it a complete failure as she thought?


If she had not done what she did as a parent, her son could have used alcohol at an age much earlier than 18. I reminded her of all her son gained by waiting until age 18 to have his first experience with alcohol compared to his peers who may have started drinking before the age of 15. He got additional years to experience academic success and earn scholarships for college, build positive relationships with his family and friends, learn on-the-job skills through his employment and develop physically, mentally, and emotionally in healthy ways. I congratulated her on what she had accomplished with her son.

The success of prevention shouldn’t always be measured by what we didn’t accomplish. Instead, look for what did get accomplished. Know that what you do really does make a difference one year at a time. And, the more years you can do it, the better off your kids will be.

So, is our success in prevention really “all or nothing?” Absolutely not! There’s always a middle ground to celebrate if you look for it.

The Drunk Uncle

Do you remember the Saturday Night Live (SNL) skit, “Drunk Uncle”? Bobby Moynihan plays a character on SNL’s Weekend Update that stumbles in, slurs his words and makes obscene and outrageous remarks. His skits are usually based around holidays or other monumental days – Drunk Uncle on Christmas, Drunk Uncle on New Year’s and Drunk Uncle on Election Day.

SNL is known for poking fun at sensitive topics – things that everyone knows about or things that everyone needs to or is already talking about. “Drunk Uncle” is one of those topics. It portrays a reality that is far too common in families today.

According to the American Addictions Center, every one in 13 adults in the United States (nearly 14 million), abuse alcohol or have an alcoholism problem.

How many people are in your family and extended family? More than 13? There are in mine. The chances of having a family member dealing with alcoholism or alcohol dependency are staggering.

Family gatherings during the holidays can be stressful enough, but when they include a “Drunk Uncle” (or a “drunk parent,” “drunk grandparent”) it can be unbearable for everyone, especially kids.

Be mindful that many of the kids you work with will be spending the Thanksgiving holiday with family members who abuse alcohol or have an alcohol problem. It might not be a “happy holiday” for these kids or a holiday they are looking forward to. In fact, the worry, dread and stress is likely weighing on them right now.

Be mindful of what you say to your kids as you send them home for the holiday. Wishing them the common greeting of “Happy Thanksgiving” might not be what they most need to hear from you.

Give thought to what you might say instead. Acknowledge the feelings that are present among them. It might be as simple as telling them you will be thinking about each one of them over the holiday. Perhaps you let them know you are available to talk if they are worried or nervous about anything regarding the holiday. Most importantly, tell them how you look forward to seeing them back after the holiday weekend.

Don’t assume that all kids are excited about the holiday and long weekend. Being aware of and sensitive to this is one of the best things you can do for your students. It can diffuse their anxiety while letting them know you understand and care. Perhaps you can even personally relate to their situation.

If so, then I want to wish you a Thanksgiving that is free of anxiety, worry or dread. You and your kids deserve it.

Thinking about you,


Pay Now or Pay Later

Does alcohol and other drug prevention make sense in a time of shrinking budgets, fewer staff resources and an increasing emphasis on student performance? 

Should we make the time to do substance use prevention?

Is there any benefit to keeping prevention alive?

The answer is clearly, “Yes!”

According to a recent article published by Verywell Mind, the estimated cost of substance abuse in the United States, including illegal drugs, alcohol and tobacco, is more than $820 billion a year and growing.

The total annual costs related to each type of drug is…

$300 billion for tobacco use.

$249 billion for alcohol abuse.

$193 billion for illegal drug abuse.

$78.5 billion for prescription drug abuse.

The total costs to society for substance abuse goes beyond the financial costs. Other costs include workplace productivity, unemployment, crime, domestic abuse, divorce, homelessness and physical and mental health issues.

For adolescents, more specifically, the costs can be life changing. Research shows the earlier the age a person begins to use substances, the more likely they will have problems later in life as an adult. Beginning to use alcohol and other drugs at an early age places a kid at higher risk for academic failure, social, emotional, mental and physical developmental issues, teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, crime, addiction, accidents and injuries and relationship problems – just to name a few. The earlier these problems begin to emerge in adolescence, the more likely they are to carry over into adulthood and become even bigger problems for the individual, their families and the community.

If you are concerned about what the adults in your community are doing when it comes to alcohol and other drug use and the costs of their behavior to your community, then making a commitment to doing effective prevention with your kids today is imperative. Why? Because your kids today will become your adults and parents in the future.

The bottom line is…the later the age a kid begins to use alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, the less likely they will have problems later in their life as an adult. Pushing back the age of when kids begin to use substances (or in other words, delaying the onset of use) needs to be a primary goal in every prevention effort. Achieving this goal increases the likelihood kids grow up to be productive, responsible and healthy adults in the future.

Investing your time and financial resources in effective evidence-based prevention programs and approaches with your kids today is important and does pay off in the future.

According to a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the average evidence-based prevention program costs $220 per pupil including materials and teacher training. While this isn’t necessarily cheap, the benefits in purely economic terms are tremendous. The average evidence-based prevention program could save an estimated $18 for every $1 invested.

Think about prevention like the old Fram oil filter commercial that had the tag line, “You can pay now or you can pay later.” Spend a little bit of money now on prevention and it will reduce the unavoidable greater expense of paying for bigger problems later.

The benefits of substance abuse prevention are not always the most immediate or obvious, but they are there. Investing a little in each of our students will not only make their life better today, but also give them a better life later.

Using a Friendship Survey to Identify Peer Opinion Leaders and Isolates

These past two weeks we have talked about the importance of identifying two groups of students in your classroom or group – the peer opinion leaders and the social isolates. Knowing who these students are can have a significant impact on your overall program outcomes.

The challenge is how to successfully identify the peer opinion leader and the isolate. We tend to think we know who the peer opinion leaders and isolates are based on our own observations or knowledge. Research suggests that teachers are right a little more than half the time. A more effective approach is to let the students tell you who their peer opinion leaders and isolates are using a Friendship Survey.

Why bother with a Friendship Survey? There are two reasons.

First, results of the survey can be used to identify students who have no or few friends. Research shows that these students are at increased risk for engaging in drug use and other problem behaviors. Knowing who these students are can help you when you create small groups to complete activities. Your goal should be to help each of these students connect with other prosocial students. Do not to simply put the social isolates together as this tends to foster more peer isolation and increase their risk for becoming deviant. Read last week’ blog, Kids Without Friends, for more ideas on how to support and work with your social isolates.

Second, results of the survey identify peer opinion leaders. Peer opinion leaders set trends and have a profound influence on other students. They exist within all groups. They define norms within the peer group. Some peer opinion leaders have a natural positive influence. Some have a negative influence and can lead others to join them. In either case, peer opinion leaders should not be ignored. Refer to my blog, How to Use Peer Opinion Leaders as Change Agents, on strategies for involving peer opinion leaders in your class or group.

The bottom line is… the Friendship Survey is an effective, scientific, research-based tool, for identifying your peer opinion leaders and social isolates. It is more reliable than your own prediction.

The Friendship Survey I am sharing with you comes from the All Stars Core program. It can be administered with middle and high school age students as part of All Stars or as a stand-alone activity.

Download the Friendship Survey, tally sheet and instructions for free and give it a try. When you introduce the survey to the students tell them the survey will help you to know more about them as a group and how you can use their positive qualities and talents in the classroom or group. You also need to reinforce the survey is anonymous and they should not put their name on it.

You have nothing to lose and alot to gain by integrating the Friendship Survey into your group or classroom work. You gain insight into your students and their social networks while also earning the trust and respect of the peer opinion leaders and isolates. The mileage you can get from achieving this can have long-lasting effects not only in your classroom, but also in the lives of your students.

Kids Without Friends

I think I am like many of you. I know that understanding and addressing the needs of kids who don’t have friends – social isolates – is important. The challenge is where to start. If you feel a little stumped, take heart that there are many who feel the same way as you.

Friendships, belonging and acceptance grow in importance as kids move through adolescence. Their identity becomes defined by the group of friends they have. Spending time with friends provides opportunities for social interaction, information sharing, demonstration of values and reinforcement of behaviors important to the peer group. Sometimes we fear peer groups have a negative influence on adolescent behaviors; however, research and experience generally shows that, with the exception of getting high-risk kids together, the influence of peer groups is almost always positive.

Social isolates interact much less with their peers giving them fewer opportunities for peer social interaction. They are cut off from firsthand information about norms, which usually comes from their peers. Instead, their guesses about what is normal may be based on fantasy. Isolates may behave in risky ways thinking this will gain them acceptance. Kids without friends are at risk for experimenting with alcohol, tobacco, and drugs because they perceive this as a way of gaining acceptance. Unfortunately for them, acting inappropriately usually has the opposite effect. Honest feedback about what is and is not acceptable may help them see that participating in risky behaviors is not a way to gain acceptance.

Small group activities provide an opportunity for the integration of isolates. Avoid allowing students to partner or work with those they wish to as it will almost guarantee the isolate will not be selected by anyone. You do not want to reinforce a negative message they have likely received many times over from their peers. Instead, assign students to small groups by giving careful consideration to which small group an isolate is assigned to ensure positive feedback and integration.

Encouraging positive standards of behavior in the classroom is important for all students, but especially kids without friends. Ensure you have a positive learning environment. Encourage inclusiveness and allow only positive comments, feedback and body language from the students towards each other. Isolates need the assurance of being in a safe and accepting classroom.

One-on-one meetings also allows you to give an isolate a little more attention than they normally receive and can have a profound influence on their lives. Isolates, as all kids do, need at least one positive adult in their life to coach, mentor and guide them. Perhaps you are that adult in their life! During a one-on-one session with an isolate, ask them to name at least one trusted adult in their life they can talk to. If they can not name an adult, seek a staff person within your organization who is willing to “adopt” the student and begin developing a genuine and positive relationship with them.

Isolates usually emerge in the early years of elementary school. Identifying and connecting them with positive peers and adults as soon as possible is key to ensuring they feel accepted and a sense of belonging. Achieving this can prevent a lot of problems later.

In next week’s blog I will share a proven, research-based tool you can use to identify social isolates and peer opinion leaders in your classroom or group. It will be a time saver and a life saver. Trust me.

How to Use Peer Opinion Leaders as Change Agents

Peer opinion leaders are students who set the trends and patterns of behavior. They define “what is in and out”, “what to do and not to do” and “what to believe and not believe.” The bottom line is…peer opinion leaders influence the opinion and behaviors of others. Knowing who the natural peer opinion leaders in your class or group are is key to establishing positive standards of behavior, setting positive norms and making anything you do successful.

Almost every peer group has an opinion leader. During early adolescence, girls will have their leaders and boys will have theirs. Some can be positive leaders while others may be negative.

We tend to think we know who the peer opinion leaders are on our own. We sometimes see them as the class clowns, the most vocal or the most popular. These characteristics can be misleading. Not all peer opinion leaders have these traits. Some peer opinion leaders exercise their influence quietly and in subtle ways.

It’s very important we correctly identify peer opinion leaders. Research suggests that teachers are right a little more than half the time in identifying friendship groups. A more effective approach is to let the students tell you who their peer opinion leaders are. With the right survey, students’ answers will identify peer opinion leaders with confidence. Typically, they will be the one who the students see as having the best ideas, is the most respected and is a natural leader.

We can’t change who the peer opinion leaders are, but we can learn how to work with them. Once identified, it is important for you to bring the peer opinion leader in as part of your team. Your goal is to empower a positive peer opinion leader to continue influencing positively. The same goes for a negative peer opinion leader. However, your goal with them is to turn their negative influence into positive. You need to win both of them over. Know how each peer opinion leader feels about things and what their special talents are. Spending one-on-one time with each leader can help build a spirit of trust and cooperation. It will also help you anticipate what they might say or share in class when called on.

Peer opinion leaders can play an important role in your classroom. The most important role is expressing their opinions in classroom discussions. This should be an opportunity for them to express positive norms to the class and not just an opportunity to talk. When they speak others will be listening. Ask them to lead small group activities and help with demonstrations and role plays. What they do and the positive attitude they do it with will influence other kids’ attitudes.

Correctly identifying and involving the group’s peer opinion leaders can have a significant impact on your success as an educator or group leader. Peer opinion leaders have their followers. One peer opinion leader can lead and influence 8-10 other students. I visualize the influence of peer opinion leaders much like a mother duck leading her ducklings!

Affirming or changing one student, especially if they are the peer opinion leader, can naturally affirm and change many others in the group at the same time. Work with peer opinion leaders to ensure positive messages are carried outside of class as they are change agents that can amplify your efforts when students leave the classroom or group.

In next week’s blog I will talk about the importance of identifying another group of students in your classroom or group – the isolates. I will also offer a scientific, proven survey for identifying the peer opinion leaders and isolates among your students.

How to Help 4th and 5th Grade Students Get Along With One Another

The late elementary years are a time of great personal and social growth. At this age, children become more interested in friends and social activities. They begin to form stronger and more complex friendships that are based on more than just common interests. They understand that emotions play a major role in relationships. They learn how to identify what others are feeling based on their facial expressions and body language and to understand and evaluate social situations better. They are also learning how to communicate their needs and feelings verbally with others while respecting and identifying other people’s opinions and behaviors.

Understanding how to get along with others is vital for 4th and 5th graders. Creating an environment in your classroom or group setting that has clear expectations of behavior, encourages team work and communication and promotes respect and responsibility among classmates is important.

Empowering late elementary students to create their own standards for getting along and holding them accountable to them is just as crucial as it is with middle and high school students. However, the process needs to look somewhat different because of the developmental characteristics of 4th and 5th graders.

This week’s “How to Create Standards for Getting Along with 4th and 5th Graders video introduces you to a proven and fun activity you can easily facilitate with late elementary age students that results in them establishing their own standards for getting along. The video also offers you tips on how to effectively use them in your classroom or group.

The activity not only creates a list “getting along” behaviors, but also a list of “not getting along” behaviors. Kids at this age are still concrete thinkers. They see what happens in their world as being either right or wrong or good and bad. Knowing what is acceptable and unacceptable when it comes to getting along with others is important for late elementary age students.

I have trained many classroom teachers and group leaders all over the world in this activity. It’s always fun to see how similar the standards are no matter where the students live. The photo below shows the list of “getting along” and “not getting along” behaviors a classroom of students in Belfast, Northern Ireland, created. It’s not much different than what a classroom in inner city Chicago, the most rural school in Iowa or even in your own school and community would create!

So, take a quick moment and watch this short “how to” video as it walks you through step-by-step how to facilitate this activity with your students. And, if you don’t work directly with 4th or 5th graders, forward the video on to someone who does!

And, one more thought, if your school or organization promotes positive character with elementary students, you will also want to be sure to watch the video. I share ideas on how your getting along standards can also reinforce your character education program.

I will be anxious to hear about the high standards your kids will be setting for themselves in the coming days and weeks! They deserve the best and we need to hold them accountable to being the best! So, go forth!

P.S. If you didn’t watch last week’s “how to” video on Setting Standards with Middle and High School Students, it’s still available online! Watch it now!

How to Develop Standards for Getting Along With Your Students

My blog this past month has focused on how to increase positive behavior with your students while decreasing the negative. We discussed a number of proven strategies to help you achieve this, including:

  • Modeling the behavior you want from your students
  • Focusing more on positive behaviors than the negative
  • Establishing “standards” vs. setting rules
  • Having the students create their own standards for getting along
  • Encouraging students to have standards for getting along that are the best, the worst and just ok
  • Empowering them to hold each other accountable to their own standards

This week I want to introduce you to an easy activity you can facilitate with your students that encompasses all of these strategies. The activity is developmentally appropriate for middle and high school students and has over 20 years of proven success when done effectively.

Telling you in writing how to effectively facilitate this activity is almost impossible. Instead, I created a “how to” video to introduce you to this activity. The “Setting Standards for Getting Along” video walks you through the steps of how to facilitate a classroom or group of middle and high school students through a process that results in them establishing their own standards for getting along. The video also gives you tips on how to reinforce the standards and empower the students to hold each other accountable to them.

You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain by taking a moment to watch the video. Having standards the students take ownership of and live up to allows you to teach what you need to teach and for students to learn what they need to learn.

If you are someone who doesn’t work directly with middle or high school students, forward the video on to someone who does and who could benefit from it. You may be someone I have already trained in this activity. Watching the video will be a great refresher and reminder of how to do the activity with your students.

If you are someone who works with late elementary age students, be patient. In next week’s blog, I will introduce you to an activity you can do with 4th and/or 5th graders that accomplishes the same outcome.

Don’t wait. Go ahead and watch the training video now! And, be sure you download the slide deck that comes with it!

Happy watching!


The Best, the Worst and the Ok

In my last blog I wrote about the importance of setting “standards” of behavior with student input as a more effective way of increasing positive student behavior than having “rules” established by you.

Establishing standards for getting along with students can be done with late elementary through high school age. Consideration needs to be given to the age of the students when determining the process you will use for establishing the standards.

For example, elementary age students are concrete thinkers. They see their world as being black or white. A behavior is either good or bad, right or wrong and acceptable or unacceptable. Having them come up with two lists of standards for getting along – the things we should do and the things we shouldn’t do – would be age-appropriate.

As students move into the middle school years they begin to transition from concrete to abstract thinking. The black and white world as they once saw it in elementary school begins to look different. Behaviors they believed were either right or wrong don’t seem to be as clean cut. A gray area or middle ground appears and some behaviors they believed were good or bad now might be seen as being, “ok.”

When establishing standards for getting along with middle and high school students it’s important to ask them to create three lists of behaviors – the best, the worst and the ok. When you give older students the opportunity to create these three lists it won’t be difficult for them to still think of the best and the worst behaviors when it comes to getting along. These two lists will be the longest of all three.

What are common behaviors middle and high school students see as being the best? Here are a few examples:

  • Give compliments
  • Share or participate
  • Have a positive or good attitude
  • Express your own opinion
  • Be open to other’s ideas
  • Respectfully disagree
  • Have one person talk at a time
  • Listen to others when they are talking
  • Keep each other on task

Here are common behaviors middle and high school students see as being the worst when it comes to getting along:

  • Making rude comments about someone or something they said
  • Giving “put downs” through your actions (e.g. rolling your eyes)
  • Never sharing or not participating
  • Talking too much
  • Talking about other people than yourself
  • Having a bad attitude
  • Everyone talking at one time
  • Not listening
  • Goofing off or not paying attention

When it comes to creating a list of getting along behaviors that are “ok” it will be challenging for middle and high school students to do. They will eventually come up with ideas, but the list will be the shortest of all three.

Common “ok” getting along behaviors for middle and high school students include:

  • Agree to disagree
  • “Pass” on sharing once in a while
  • If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all

There are good reasons to ask middle and high school students to think of what is “ok”, as much as what is “good” and “bad”, when it comes to getting along with one another. It impresses the point that most of our behaviors are going to land in one of two categories – the “good” or the “bad.” This point is proven even more by how long their lists of behaviors will be for these two categories. The “ok” list also gives kids permission to land in the middle once in awhile, but not often, given how short the list of behaviors will be.

In next week’s blog I will introduce you to an activity you can facilitate with elementary age students and another one for middle and high school students that are age-appropriate and encourages them to create their own lists of standards for getting along.