Further Reading

How can you recognize a good prevention program?

I am a secondary school counselor in [...]. Our school is in the process of reviewing substance intervention programs and approaches that are applicable to school settings. However, we are unable to find any data listing possible options for us and the effectiveness of each. We are especially interested in a program called IMPACT by Compcare (?). Any advice or direction that you might be offered would be greatly appreciated.

Dear [...]:

Let me summarize what I think is true of the prevention field:

  1. The research on drug/alcohol prevention programs shows far more often than not that prevention programs produce little real, useful change. This is most true of scare, "educational" programs which throw negative information at children. Although the futility of scare tactics is frequently acknowledged, such tactics creep into most popular programs. DARE in particular has been found in a number of studies to be of dubious value. I believe this is because the police are not particularly well-trained to bring about behavior and attitude change, and they often descend to scare tactics as a matter of habit.
  2. It is most difficult to reach the highest risk children -- those for whom substance use is likely to escalate, rather than to disappear with age -- because they have the most deprived and disrupted lives, and education programs are unlikely to do anything substantial enough to change these factors.
  3. Programs succeed better when real resources can be devoted to help people, when children can be given real skills (including social skills, one example of which is "peer group resistance"), and when the program entails a coordinated effort by many elements in the community. This means drawing in social service, enforcement, educational, and recreational agencies. In other words, prevention programs are not something you can buy in one piece and import into your school with little effort.
  4. A first step might therefore be to try to coordinate key elements and leaders in your school and the community as part of a process that (a) lays the framework for change by gaining broad participation, and (b) which benefits from the knowledge, inputs, and efforts of many segments of the community.
  5. Make feedback gathering an integral part of your program (employ a sympathetic but tough-minded researcher, touch base with all students affected by the program rather than just those who seem eager to be involved, don't become so invested in elements of the program that you are unprepared to be objective about assessing their value), and modify and change things based on what you continue to learn. Remember, you must give the intended objects of your program -- the kids -- the respect embodied by asking them what they really think and feel.

I'm sorry there's no simple -- "why don't you buy this program" -- answer to your question. But the urge to find prefabricated solutions to the prevention of substance abuse problems has caused more harm than good. Do take a look at my on-line library in the "Adolescent Drug Use, Prevention, and Treatment" section.

Best wishes, Stanton