We like to think of grammar school as perhaps the last “pure” time, when children are free to be children without the pressures and responsibilities that force feed growing up. Unfortunately, the societal scourges such as drug addiction that we like to believe children are shielded from, are filtering down to ever lower grade levels.
While Middle School has traditionally been considered the venue exhibiting the greatest potential for sending pre-adolescent children down the wrong track, the mental and physical maturation processes that catalyze these risks have been occurring at earlier and earlier ages. Increasingly, children in the upper grades of elementary school are feeling the emotional pressures that can lead to substance abuse, and each successive study has estimated the percentage of 12- and 13-year olds who have tried drugs, alcohol, or tobacco at a higher level. In 2008, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (http://www.oas.samhsa.gov/nsduh/) pegged the number who had used drugs alone at 3.3%, a seemingly low but still alarming percentage.
The drugs surveyed covered the full range of psychoactive substances: illicit drugs, psychotherapeutic medication, hallucinogens, marijuana, and inhalants. And the survey charted a significant rise is use as the grade level increased.
Risk factors, increasing the odds for early substance use, have been identified by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/preventing-drug-abuse-among-children-adolescents). Recognizing that these most commonly come into play at times of transition (first entering school, transitioning to Middle School), the NIDA identifies exposure to drug abuse at home or by peers, coupled with ineffective parenting, lack of a nurturing home environment, and such outside factors as academic failure and poor social skills, as strongly correlated with the progression from drug use to abuse.
Cultural, environmental, gender, and socio-economic factors may also come into play.
The most effective programs for heading off abuse combine family, community, and school involvement. Home-based prevention involves creating a loving environment, encouraging dialogue about the dangers of substance use, and the implementation of a clear and consistently applied discipline system. A household where questions about substance use are not swept under the carpet is one where serious dialogue is possible and children don’t fear “off-limits” topics.
Community programs can be harder to establish because they must begin with buy-in that a problem exists, and then create goals with measureable yardsticks for gauging progress. A community that denies the problem, or lacks motivation to address it, is in little position to combat it. Community active programs that feature a combination of community forums, public education strategies, and program sponsorships have been shown to have a greater chance of effectively addressing the situation.
Finally, in-school education programs have the advantage of having a captive audience, and the outside “moral” authority possessed by the teaching community that is substantively different from that found at home. Drug abuse at the grade school level is a problem only identified as such relatively recently, but growing awareness of its reach into a small but highly vulnerable population is a significant step toward shrinking and eventually minimizing its scope.