Sunday, 5 July 2015

Ice education in schools: If we do it, what do we say, when do we say it and who delivers it?

Ice continues to dominate the media - hardly a day goes by without at least one ice-related story hitting the headlines. Without doubt this is a highly problematic drug that is wreaking havoc in communities across the country but as I've said many times before these stories need to be put into a context. Yes, there's a lot of this drug around but most Australians choose not to use it. Although ice use has doubled amongst amphetamine users, available data suggests that prevalence rates are steady across the general population.

As always, we are trying to identify simple solutions for complex problems. Last night I was watching the TV news and there were interviews with two different people who, in response to the latest ice story, were calling for ice education to be introduced into schools, with one of them suggesting that this should be delivered in primary school! Now don't get me wrong, I'm all for more drug education - it's my 'bread and butter' - but I don't think many people really understand what 'drug education' actually is, what is currently being done in schools and what research suggests is most likely to be effective.

Firstly 'drug education' and 'drug information provision' are two different things. Certainly providing information about drugs should be part of drug education, but it's not necessarily the most important part of the process. In addition to improving knowledge, school drug education programs should also work hard to build skills and confidence - providing opportunities for students to develop refusal strategies when offered substances, learn what to do should something go wrong in an alcohol or other drug emergency and so much more. These sort of lessons are already being provided in schools across the country, sometimes with students not even realizing that they are being provided drug education (so many parents have told me that their child has told them that they learned nothing about drugs in schools). I can't imagine how frustrated (and insulted to some extent) teachers feel when they constantly hear that drug education needs to be introduced in schools - they're already doing it and so many do a great job!

But what about ice - should we be introducing 'ice specific' drug education? From the comments I've been hearing, what people are after is more information (the scarier the better!) being provided at an earlier age. My response to this is what more can you say about the dangers of this drug that you're not already seeing almost daily on the TV news? What could a teacher, particularly a primary school teacher, actually add to that? We've also got to remember that the vast majority of young people have absolutely no contact with this drug - it simply isn't a part of their lives and never will be - showing children pictures of people affected by this drug, talking about the psychological problems and violence associated with its use is likely to traumatize many and have no positive effect whatsoever. Conducting lessons that teach refusal skills and cope with peer pressure, without necessarily making them drug-specific, is likely to be far more effective - but that's already being done and being done well in many cases, even in primary schools.

I started teaching over 30 years ago and I loved it! I would hate to be a teacher today - the pressure on these amazing people to do more and more and deal with a growing number of social issues (many of which should really be the parents' responsibility) is intense. This week it was announced that schools will now be asked to play a greater role in dealing with the domestic violence issue. This is such an important issue, but how, in an already crowded curriculum, are teachers expected to do this effectively? In the last couple of days I've been hearing that teachers will be given professional development to help them in this area - but will a 2-hour seminar delivered during a staff meeting or a compulsory on-line course really equip teachers to deal with this very complex issue? If delivery of ice-specific education is recommended by the Federal Government's Ice Taskforce (as I predict it will be), I'm sure that teachers will once again be asked to take responsibility for its provision? I specialize in the area of drug education, I know the research in the area and I would find it difficult to know what to say to students about ice that is likely to be effective - how is a teacher expected to do it?

Certainly in communities that have been devastated by this drug, particularly those in regional areas, targeted education is most probably going to be important. Cannabis-specific education is usually provided in Australian high schools, however, there are a couple of regional areas across the country where cannabis rates are much higher and primary school programs have been developed to be delivered to children in these areas who are much more likely to be exposed to the drug through family members and the like. It is important to note though that this education is not all about trying to scare these children, its about giving them skills and a better understanding of what is going on around them and hopefully building their resistance to these influences.

We can't keep saying that schools (and most particularly teachers) can 'fix' these problems - they have a limited amount of time with your children and increasing pressure (pressure that simply didn't exist when I was teaching) to get academic results. When I'm asked what I think we should do as far as ice education is concerned I fire it back to the parents. It's about quality family conversations, using all of the media stories on the issue to air your concerns, try to find out what your child thinks about the drug and make clear your values and expectations on the topic. Never push the issue - if they don't want to talk about it, don't make a big deal about it - but if a story comes up on the TV news about a police seizure of the drug or the arrest of an ice user, make a simple comment like "This seems like a really nasty little drug - what have they said about it at school?" Make sure you don't give them the opportunity to just give a 'yes' or 'no' answer but finding out a little about what they know about the drug is a good start ...

As I said earlier, we are always looking for simple answers to complex problems - of course, education is important, but you only have to look at tobacco to see that information alone does not necessarily stop people using a drug. One in two smokers will die from smoking - it's most probably the most scary statistic there is in the drug area - but people continue to smoke cigarettes. Simply telling young people that ice is a nasty drug is not going to solve the problem. When appropriate, teachers should of course take advantage of any opportunities to include ice in existing drug education programs, but should they be asked to deliver ice-specific information sessions in an already crowded curriculum? Absolutely not!

No comments:

Post a Comment