Addiction Prevention: Essential Lesson Plans for K-12 Educators
Addiction is a prevalent problem in our society. News stories about celebrities dying from heroin and other drug overdoses are common. Corey Monteith from the widely popular television series, Glee, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, a well-known star appearing in many prominent films, are just two of many Hollywood stars who have died recently – both allegedly from heroin overdoses, both who struggled with addiction for years.
Table of Contents
- Are we glorifying addiction?
- Gateway drugs pave the way to heroin use
- Prescription medication, designer and synthetic drugs are prevalent
- Education is key to addiction prevention
- The path to addiction prevention education
- Lesson Plans: Understanding Health, Addiction and Behaviors
Are we glorifying addiction?
The unintended possible consequence of these stories gaining such widespread media coverage is the possible glorification of drug use in the minds of kids and teens. Yes, these stories can help to raise awareness about the dangers of drug abuse, but what impact are they really having on each individual child? The answer depends on how these circumstances are addressed by educators and parents, and whether adults are crafting valuable conversations around these events.
It’s not just movie and television stars who abuse heroin. Unfortunately, heroin has become a widely abused drug even in small, rural communities across the U.S. “Fueled by a boom in supply and a decline in cost, heroin use is up around the nation and spreading to segments of the population once considered unlikely users,” according to a February 2014 article in Time magazine.
Gateway drugs pave the way to heroin use
There’s been a rise in the abuse of prescription opiates, which in many cases progresses to heroin use as the user becomes tolerant, requiring larger and larger doses in order to achieve the same effects. Prescription painkillers are more likely to be abused by kids in schools due to easy accessibility; many kids simply steal the pills from a parent’s or grandparent’s purse or medicine cabinet. Others buy them from other kids who have stolen them from a friend or relative.
Other users are prescribed opiate medications to manage pain symptoms resulting from a variety of conditions, and the individual starts to purchase the pills on the street after the prescription runs out. Regardless of the reason a person starts abusing prescription opiates, the possibility of eventually progressing to heroin use is very real.
Prescription medication, designer and synthetic drugs are prevalent
Opiates aren’t the only illicit drugs that can lead to addiction. Cocaine is still obtainable in most communities on the streets, and synthetic substitutes for cocaine and marijuana are cropping up everywhere. Other drugs with abuse and addiction potential include prescription anxiety medications, prescription medications for ADD/ADHD, such as amphetamine salts, manufactured drugs such as crystal meth, and designer drugs like Ecstasy and Molly.
Education is key to addiction prevention
Whose job is it to provide children and teens with addiction prevention education: the parent, or the teacher? The answer is both, along with help from the media, community groups and organizations, and law enforcement agencies. Preventing addiction in modern society is a multi-prong approach that empowers students with tools to avoid peer pressure, healthy alternative choices, and sound decision-making capabilities.
Educators play a key role in all of this, with the ability to impact students at an early and impressionable age and facilitate understanding of the abuse potential of drugs, identifying alternatives, using communication skills to navigate peer pressure, and other essential competencies.
The National Health Education Standards were created by the Joint Committee on National Health Education Standards, a collaborative effort among several leading health organizations, including:
- American Cancer Society
- American Association for Health Education
- American Public Health Association
- American School Health Association
- The Society of State Leaders of Health and Physical Education
While the NHES apply to health education as a whole, placing addiction prevention education within the context of these standards results in a clear educational path that fosters successful outcomes by building on and enhancing previously-learned, foundational concepts as students enter the upper grade levels.
The path to addiction prevention education
In grades K-3, students are just beginning to develop self-awareness, learn how to seek help and gain information by asking questions, and understanding how to evaluate the trustworthiness of people they encounter, according to Learning to Live Drug Free: A Curriculum Model for Prevention is an older resource for educators issued by the U.S. Department of Education.
In grades 4-6, the educational focus shifts to teaching students facts about drugs and fostering the development of interpersonal communication skills for interacting with peers. Students at this stage should also understand policies, regulations and laws related to drug abuse, such as school policies and criminal laws.
In grades 7-8, prior learning is reinforced with assessments of student knowledge of drug facts and students’ abilities to assess the credibility of information sources, people and organizations. Students at this stage should also demonstrate skills to resist peer pressure and an understanding of the consequences of drug use for self, families, communities and larger society.
These competencies are further strengthened in grades 9-12, and built upon with future goal-setting skills, healthy behavior choices and positive outcomes, and the development of skills for future employment, relationships and education.
Understanding Health, Addiction and Behaviors
The first step in addiction prevention education is facilitating an understanding of health, addiction and its causes and consequences, associated behaviors and how behaviors influence health outcomes, such as addiction or chronic disease. Students explore the various types and classes of drugs, learn to identify the difference between proper use and misuse of prescription medications, and develop an understanding of how different drugs affect the body and brain.
In the upper grade levels, students investigate the physiological processes involved in addiction and learn why addicted individuals continue to choose harmful behaviors despite negative consequences.
In grades K-4, instruction about addiction is challenging. Experts in the field of education generally agree that students should not be exposed to knowledge about certain drugs before reaching a certain age. Instruction at this level is basic, covering topics that students have likely already been exposed to outside the classroom, such as alcohol or tobacco.
Media Smarts, Canada’s Centre for Digital and Media Literacy, offers a multitude of lesson plans for students spanning all grade levels addressing various aspects of media influences on society. This lesson is geared to students in fourth grade. Students will identify the various groups that present messages to the public about alcohol and the influence these groups have on the attitudes and perceptions of young people. The lesson begins with a group brainstorming session, in which students brainstorm words associated with “beer” and create a mind map of people and organizations that deliver alcohol-related messaging to society. Source: Media Smarts
Brain Power! The NIDA Junior Scientists Program is a complete unit designed for students in grades 2-3. Students learn about the brain, why it’s important to protect your brain and how drugs like nicotine and inhalants can damage the brain. A series of six modules is accompanied by a teacher’s guide, parent’s guide and a video tape, this unit includes hands-on activities and a variety of instructional resources for an engaging learning experience. Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
A lesson that’s adaptable for students in different grade levels, “What Do Drugs Do to the Body?” teaches students about the effects of dangerous drugs on different areas of the body. For younger students, teachers can adapt the lesson by discussing dangerous drug effects over a period of days and weeks in the classroom, followed by a poster-creation activity in which students use teacher-supplied materials to create posters illustrating the negative effects of drug abuse. Source: EducationWorld
In grades 5-8, students have been exposed to more real-world scenarios outside the classroom and in the media, enabling teachers to address more-sensitive topics. Students at this stage investigate the effects of various drugs on the body and brain, the effects of both short- and long-term use, and the link between drug abuse and overall health.
This is a comprehensive unit that can be used with students in grades 5 through 9. A series of lessons designed to teach the effects of drug abuse on the body and the brain, each lesson provides an understanding of the effects of a specific drug. Students will learn how the brain responds to drugs like hallucinogens, opiates and even tobacco, causes and effects of short-term and long-term use, and how addiction happens. Source: NIDA for Teens (National Institute on Drug Abuse)
This unit is a similar unit to the Rx for Understanding unit listed below under grades 9-12, but with content and activities targeted to middle school students. The standards-based, cross-curricular lessons can be used in sequence as a larger unit, or used individually to supplement other curriculum. There are five lesson plans for grades 5-6 and five lesson plans covering the same topics for students in grades 7-8 to provide a more closely-targeted, grade-level approach to learning. Students will relate the issue of prescription drug safety to overall health, examine proper use, misuse and abuse, and conduct an application-based, culminating project. Source: National Education Association, Health Information Network
This simple lesson plan, which focuses on tobacco addiction and media influences and is targeted to students in grades 7 through 9, encompasses one class period followed by a homework assignment. Students gather basic facts about tobacco addiction, including ingredients in cigarettes, tobacco advertising, its impact on the body, and how to quit. Students demonstrate their understanding of these concepts by writing a letter to someone they love, persuading them to quit smoking. Additional resources and activity suggestions are provided for extending and enhancing the lesson. Source: PBS.org – In the Mix
Students in grades 9-12 reinforce prior learning with more advanced investigations into the body’s physiological responses to various drugs, the process of addiction, addiction treatment, ethics and community impacts.
The Brain: Understanding Neurobiology Through the Study of Addiction
This module ties addiction prevention education with science and biology with a series of in-depth lessons covering how the brain works, how drugs of abuse impact the brain’s normal functioning, short-term and long-term effects of drug use, and addiction. Students will understand the specific changes that occur in the brain of an addicted person. The module makes students aware of the importance of science in understanding and treating human disease, such as addiction, and encourages critical thinking about the relationship between knowledge, choice, behavior and human health. Source: National Institutes of Health – National Institute on Drug Abuse, NIH Office of Science Education/SEPA
This resource is a series of 10 sequenced lesson plans, structured to function as a project-based mini-unit. It’s flexible enough that it can be used in multiple subject areas as a primary education resource or as a supplement to a larger unit on substance abuse or health. The unit is focused on three central themes: proper use, misuse and abuse of prescription drugs, with inquiry-based lessons as well as project-based lessons in which students will develop communication and messaging techniques around the issue – aligned with students’ own research findings about the needs in the local community. Source: National Education Association, Health Information Network
Students will evaluate bioethical issues associated with addiction, such as addiction vaccines, medical and cultural use of illicit drugs, mental illness and drug addiction, and other issues that raise ethical considerations in society and the field of medicine. Students will use the Decision-Making Model in conjunction with the Bioethics Scenario: Addiction Vaccine or another ethical dilemma chosen by the student, teacher or class, and evaluate the associated ethical, legal and social implications. In the addiction vaccine example, the discovery of the brain’s reward pathway and genetic component in addiction leads to new treatment options, such as the vaccine, but these emerging treatments raise concerns. Source: Teach.Genetics
External Influences and Resisting Peer Pressure
Addiction prevention education also emphasizes the external influences that impact drug abuse, choices and health outcomes, and the influence of peers on youth decision-making. Students explore the various influencing people and entities in their lives, from the media to school and community education groups, family members, friends and society.
In grades K-4, students have already been exposed to television commercials and other forms of media in most cases. Students in this stage investigate the influence of media in our lives and the influential power of peers. It’s also appropriate to encourage the development of trust-evaluation skills, which empower students with the ability to discern between a trustworthy adult and a person they may or may not be able to trust, and the ability to make decisions armed with this assessment.
Alcohol and Advertising
This lesson plan is targeted to third-grade students and can be completed in one 50-minute class period. Students learn that alcohol is a drug, the short- and long-term effects of alcohol use and abuse, and laws related to underage drinking, purchasing alcohol and drinking and driving. Students then evaluate advertisements promoting alcoholic beverages and discuss the ways that advertisers make alcohol appear desirable, followed by a discussion of the negative impacts of advertising on society. Source: Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center – School of Public Health
People We Trust
Knowing the difference between safe medications and harmful drugs is one thing, but students in grades K-4 must also learn how to distinguish whether an individual is trustworthy or not – and which individuals are safe to take medication from. Students generate a list of people they know, such as doctors, nurses, teachers, friends, older relatives, store clerks, and other people a child may encounter, as a group, and identify whether each person is considered safe to take medication from. The discussion is followed by a worksheet activity. Source: Services to Overcome Drug Abuse Among Teenagers (SODAT) of New Jersey
Peer Pressure [PDF]
Part of the KidsHealth.org Personal Health Series for grades 3-5, this lesson helps students understand peers and role models and how they can influence behaviors and choices, and teaches students to distinguish between positive and negative peer pressure. Teachers may choose to focus exclusively on peer pressure related to drug and alcohol use, or use the lesson in a more general context. Understanding is reinforced through activities that allow students to respond to mock peer pressure scenarios and develop positive ways to resist negative peer influences. Source: KidsHealth.org
Students in grades 5-8 will learn refusal techniques for resisting peer pressure, explore the impacts of drug abuse on friends, family and society and strengthen their personal values and belief systems regarding drug abuse and other health-related choices.
Students in grades 6-8 will learn the negative short- and long-term drug abuse and develop effective refusal techniques to resist peer pressure. Following group discussion, facts and information about alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, the consequences of abuse and the positive impacts of making healthy choices, students will work in small groups of 5 or less to design and create a poster illustrating one of six assigned topics, including ways to resist peer pressure, effects on families, relationships and individuals associated with drugs, alcohol, or tobacco, or other topics of your choice. Source: PECentral.org
Developed for students in grades 6-8, but easily adaptable for students at any grade level, Deadly Highs facilitates an understanding of the different types and classifications of drugs. Students review statistics and fact sheets related to drugs, learn short- and long-term consequences of use, and develop personal approaches for substance abuse control and prevention. Source: Discovery Education
This lesson plan can be used with students in grades 7 through 12. It takes approximately two 50-minute class periods. Students are given a crossword puzzle with relevant terminology and a list of reliable drug abuse and addiction prevention websites. Students solve the crossword puzzle by using the provided resources to research the correct answers. The information students obtain during research is then used to create a brochure, which is then distributed school-wide to promote addiction prevention. Source: PBS.org – In the Mix
Students in grades 9-12 will transition their understanding of the effects of drugs and impacts of abuse and addiction, translating their knowledge to applications for community service and advocacy. Students at this stage are able to delve deeper into research and statistics, as well as engage in activities which strengthen knowledge by applying principles to the real-world in their local schools and communities.
This engaging lesson takes four to five 50-minute class periods to complete. Students participate in a mock talk show, in small-group teams, to research the different types of drugs, the addiction and recovery process, and the impacts of drug addiction on family, friends, work, school, and society. Students explore techniques for exerting positive peer pressure and resisting negative peer pressure. Source: PBS.org – In the Mix
This lesson plan addresses standards in multiple disciplines for students in grades 6-8 and grades 9-12, and it’s useful for students spanning the full 6-12 grade spectrum with minor modifications for comprehension. Students will evaluate research that connects movie-viewing restrictions among teenagers to their alcohol and drug use. Students will then conduct a similar study within their own schools by creating and distributing a survey to evaluate drug and alcohol use among teens, as well as movie-viewing habits. Source: The Learning Network – The New York Times
This teaching guide includes multiple posts from the Sara Bellum Blog, which was created in 2009 as a means for providing teens with the latest research and information on the ever-changing landscape of drug abuse and addiction. The resource can be used with teens in both middle and high school, as a supplement to existing curricula or as a framework for building your own lesson plans. The articles are accompanied by discussion guides, with suggestions for enhancing learning with activities such as writing blog posts to reflect on one of the questions presented or applying the information to students’ own lives, developing presentations, creating social media messages sharing the facts and information from articles, developing students’ own questions as a homework assignment, poster and multimedia projects. The articles and discussion guides focus on topics such as information about drugs of abuse, peer pressure, stress and stigma, and mental health as it relates to addiction. Source: National Institute on Drug Addiction (NIDA)
Developed by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Just Think Twice is a series of seven modules targeted to high school students and easily adaptable for students with varying abilities. The unit is designed for use in conjunction with the website, with each module focused on a specific section of the site. Students are encouraged to think critically about the messages they hear about drugs through the media and from peers and make healthy decisions. Ample resources, suggestions and extension activities are included. Source: Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)
Making Healthy Choices and Avoiding Risks
Understanding the dangerous effects of drug use and addiction and learning to resist peer pressure, societal and media influences are just part of the foundation for addiction prevention education. Students must also develop strategies for identifying and choosing healthy alternative behaviors, avoiding risks and coping with stress in positive ways. Students will form their own beliefs and attitudes about drug abuse and addiction by engaging in thoughtful discussions and learning activities that facilitate an understanding of how healthy choices and actions result in positive rewards.
It’s never too early to start instilling positive health habits in students. In grades K-4, students being to develop a sense of self and are able to identify with role models in their home lives, school environments and in the media. Students at this stage should learn how to distinguish between good and bad choices, and begin to formulate their own belief systems and attitudes.
This series of six 45-minute lessons can be used individually or as a unit. Originally designed to comply with the Alberta Education Program of Studies, 2002, the materials and information are applicable to U.S.-based educational standards with minimal to no modification required. Students will learn about the importance of knowing the facts, understanding yourself and your role models, develop refusal skills, and identify healthy alternatives to drug use. Source: Alberta Health Services
An easy-to-implement lesson plan that provides students with a healthy strategy for coping with stress, this is a great add-on lesson to supplement drug education programs in your school or a related lesson that addresses addiction. Students identify activities and experiences that can lead to stress, ways to deal with stress and reasons to act responsibly, and brainstorm healthy stress-reduction activities, such as taking a walk or listening to music, as a group. This lesson can be directly applied to addiction prevention by positioning the activity as identifying alternative coping skills for life challenges instead of turning to drug use. Source: Utah Education Network
In this lesson, designed for students in grades 2-3, students will identify the harmful effects of smoking cigarettes, improve their decision-making capabilities and clarify their personal values and attitudes about tobacco use. Students will participate in several class demonstrations and complete worksheet activities to reinforce concepts. Teachers can expand the lesson to include discussions of the effects of other drugs (in addition to nicotine) on the body and provide students with several options for creating related posters as a culminating activity. Source: TeacherVision
In grades 5-8, students apply knowledge of the consequences of drug abuse to real-world scenarios through role-playing in order to develop and strengthen sound, fact-based decision-making skills. Students will gain an understanding of the external and internal influences on behavior, and that behavior choices have outcomes that in turn impact other areas of their lives, gaining self-awareness and confidence to make his own decisions despite external pressures. Students will identify characteristics of addictive personalities and risk factors, distinguish influencing factors and be able to name alternative choices in response to role-playing and hypothetical scenarios.
Facts Into Action [PDF]
This lesson plan is an installment of Scholastic’s Heads Up series, which provides real news and relevant discussions for kids and tweens about drug use and its effects on the body. This particular lesson presents students with several scenarios in a role-playing format, providing students with important facts about drugs and facilitating smart, fact-based decision-making skills. Students will learn practical techniques for making smart decisions and build skills and confidence to resist peer pressure. Source: Scholastic Heads Up
The Science of Healthy Behaviors
Students in grades 7-8 investigate behavior and how it can be studied through a series of inquiry-based activities. Both influences on behaviors and health outcomes of behaviors are examined, providing students with an understanding that behaviors have both short- and long-term influences on health, and understand how science provides evidence that can be used to further understand and treat diseases affecting humans. This is an excellent supplemental lesson plan to addiction prevention education, enabling the logical connection between drug use (behavior) and health consequences, as well as the understanding that addiction is a disease and can be treated. Source: NIH Office of Science Education/SEPA
This lesson is targeted to students in grades 6 through 8, emphasizing the influence of families and peers on decision-making. Students will develop an understanding of the cycle of addiction through group discussion accompanied by handouts, after which students are presented with several scenarios and asked to think critically about a series of questions relating to the influencing factors and other impacts. Finally, students will create a list of characteristics of people likely to turn to drugs, as well as a list of characteristics of people who choose to cope in alternative, healthier ways. Source: Discovery Education
In grades 9-12, addiction prevention education continues to reinforce previously taught concepts as well as facilitate the development of positive self-esteem. Students will investigate societal pressures, peer pressure, and stigmas related to addiction, and evaluate current treatment programs and their effectiveness. Students will develop problem-solving skills and transition their knowledge to create community education resources promoting drug-free lifestyles.
Provided by the Youth Leadership Academy (YLA), Substance Abuse Prevention is a complete curriculum guide that can be adapted for students in different grade levels. Using a combination of instructional techniques, students will gain an understanding of the role of society in influencing drug use, learn to assess risks and consequences of drug and alcohol use, and develop problem-solving skills and self-esteem to adequately cope with pressures and remain drug-free. Source: UrbanTech.org, Youth Leadership Academy
This interactive lesson can be used with students in grades 6 through 12. Students form small groups and select a topic related to drug abuse/addiction prevention, such as drinking and driving, saying no to drugs, alternative healthy behaviors, resources for getting help, the specific impacts of drug abuse on family and work, or another focused topic. Students then create messaging based on 10 essential, researched facts and videotape their own public service announcements. The lesson takes up to five class periods to complete. All resources are provided, including printable student worksheets for fact research, a grading sheet with criteria, and a student script sheet. Source: PECentral.org
Students evaluate the effectiveness of current treatment programs in addressing teen substance abuse. Students will discuss their own perceptions about the prevalence of substance abuse among teens in their local community and on a broader scale, followed with reading an article with recent statistics on teen drug abuse and addiction. Students will then present ideas for better treatment programs for teenagers and will design their own publicity materials to advertise their proposed treatment programs to teenage drug users. This lesson ties in concepts from economics, mathematics, and media studies, with a multitude of options for enhancing and extending the lesson. Source: The New York Times Learning Network
Additional Addiction Prevention Lesson Plan Resources for Teachers
There are several non-profit advocacy and education groups that provide resources for classroom use, many of which are aligned with content standards in multiple disciplines and targeted to students in specific grade levels. Other resources provide up-to-date statistics and research findings related to drug abuse and treatment, enabling teachers to update older lessons with accurate, up-to-date information.
Addiction prevention education is tricky in grades K-3, and instructional resources are more difficult to find for this age group. This can be attributed to the generally accepted standard that marijuana and other drug-specific terms should not be introduced before students reach a certain age.
The PEERx Educators Guide is a comprehensive resource for teachers with tons of background information, resources for statistics and research on prescription drug abuse and addiction, classroom-based and school-wide activities, and example lesson plans for students in grades 5-9 or 6-9. Students can create their own “Choose Your Path” interactive videos depicting common scenarios, the two choices and subsequent consequences. There are also a variety of educational articles with accompanying discussion guides for teachers. It’s a plethora of drug education information for teachers. Source: PEERx, National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) for Teens
Preventing Substance Abuse: An Elementary School Guide [PDF]
This teacher’s guide outlines a comprehensive substance abuse education program for elementary students, designed to accompany Moyers on Addiction: Close to Home, a PBS series (videos can be ordered). From creating a classroom environment to intervention strategies, tips for engaging parents and multiple activities for students at different grade levels, this guide contains a wealth of valuable educational materials and frameworks for building a foundation for addiction prevention and healthy behaviors with elementary students. Source: Thirteen.org
Positive Action is an evidence-based program that can be implemented on a small or large scale, in an individual classroom context or as a school-wide addiction prevention program. Kits are available by grade level for $320 to $400, for elementary and secondary grade levels. Supplemental kits are available that address bullying, conflict resolution, and other topics, as well as resources for training educators, engaging parents and engaging the community. The Positive Action framework teaches students sound decision-making skills and instills the understanding that positive choices make you feel good about yourself. Results include increased academic achievement to reductions in problem behaviors. Source: Positive Action
National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs and Practices (NREPP)
A massive database of evidence-based programs, interventions, and curriculum models related to substance abuse, mental health and wellness, NREPP has several hundred resources designed for use in varied settings. Descriptions of research and outcomes are provided along with each resource, which has been independently reviewed and rated prior to inclusion. You can sort the options by setting, age, topic, and other criteria. Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System monitors risk behaviors among youth and adolescents on an ongoing basis, providing a reliable source of regularly updated statistics related to trends among children and teens. Six types of health-risk behaviors are monitored, including alcohol and other drug use, tobacco use and other behaviors. Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
The Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration has a robust resources section with information on 18 health- and prevention-related organizations and groups. Each of the organizations’ websites offer valuable information on substance abuse prevention, healthy decision-making and other pertinent topics, some with educational resources for classroom use. Source: Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)