You are an expert in your community on the topic of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs and the 2nd grade teacher in your local elementary school has invited you to speak on the topic with her students.
You walk into the classroom and you find 24 excited 2nd graders anxiously waiting for your arrival. They love to have guests in their classroom!
You begin to talk with the students about the consequences of smoking cigarettes and they are attentive and ready to learn from you. They see you as the expert and believe you know more than they do on the subject.
As you share your information you pause periodically and ask them questions. Almost all of the students’ hands go up to answer – some of them furiously waving their hand hoping you will notice and call on them. When you do call on a student they might not even have an answer to your question because all they wanted was for you to choose them. Their need for attention and approval from you is important to them.
There are other students who raise their hand, too, but not to answer your question. They have a story to tell you. Their stories are likely about someone they know who smokes. They will be honest, provide details and tell you much more than you need or want to know!
At some point during your presentation you share information about the risk of getting cancer if you smoke. Maybe the students don’t know exactly what cancer is, but enough of them have heard the word and know that it’s bad, you can get really sick and even die from it. Some students will get emotionally upset, maybe even cry, as they think about someone they love who smokes and who they believe will get or already has cancer. Their belief in the consequences of smoking (or of any substance use) is so strong at this age some students may even go home, find their parent’s or sibling’s cigarettes and throw them in the trash. They also believe the consequences of smoking are immediate – if you smoke one cigarette you can get cancer.
You ask all the students if they are going to smoke cigarettes someday and you will hear a resounding, “No!” or “Never!” You may even hear some say, “Never, never!” In fact, if you asked them about using any substances in their future you will likely hear a similar answer. Their commitment to not use alcohol, tobacco and other drugs is genuine and unwavering.
It won’t matter who the students are, which neighborhood they live in or whether their parents or older siblings smoke, drink or use other drugs. Almost all 24 of the 2nd graders will:
- Be excited and open to learning;
- See you as the expert;
- Want to engage with you;
- Seek your attention and approval;
- Believe everything you teach them; and
- Have a strong commitment to not use alcohol, tobacco and other drugs in their future.
Teaching information or facts about alcohol, tobacco and other drugs is an important prevention approach. But, the timing of the approach is important to its overall effectiveness. Informational approaches are most effective when done during the elementary years, compared to the middle or high school years, for all the reasons above.
If you are currently teaching age-appropriate alcohol, tobacco and other drug information each year of elementary school, keep doing it! If you aren’t, give serious consideration to what and how you can. You are missing out on a golden opportunity to give kids the knowledge they need to make the most informed decisions about alcohol, tobacco and other drug use in their future.