Publish at June 10 2022 Updated June 10 2022

Spotting Drug and Alcohol Use Among Students: A Guide for Teachers

How are teachers supposed to identify if their students are using drugs?

Educators have significant responsibility, which often involves safeguarding children and teens from drugs and alcohol.

Yet, how are teachers supposed to identify if their students are using drugs?

With the right resources, this process is not as hard as it may seem. Some behaviors are easy to spot, while others are trickier to identify.

Finally, how are teachers supposed to intervene and provide help? While this may seem like a difficult hurdle to overcome, there are practical approaches.

An Educators Responsibility

Generally, problems related to student drug use are incorporated with student safety and accident prevention. It is the responsibility of all staff at a school to keep the students secure and look out for their well-being.

Most jurisdictions have laws to ensure schools and learning environments remain drug-free. Teachers are also responsible for reporting any drug use or addiction in the school. Additionally, there could be mandatory reporting laws.

These laws are often applied to cases of child neglect or abuse. Still, they may apply to a situation where parents expose children to illicit substances.

Finally, it is the responsibility of educators to incorporate drug and alcohol prevention programs and encourage students to participate in these programs. For example, keeping youth safe from drugs online, as social media and the internet are part of everyday lives.

Universal Symptoms of Drug Use

General symptoms apply to the use of virtually any illicit substance. Some drugs, such as hallucinogens, have noticeable signs of usage in a person that are unique to that drug.

Overall, common symptoms are as follows:

  • Uncharacteristic Poor Hygiene—Such as dirty clothes, strong body odor from not bathing, poor oral hygiene or health, and a general unkemptness. Note that this is uncharacteristic of the student. Meaning they are usually very well kept and drastically made a change.

  • Sudden and Drastic Weight Changes—This may include a loss or gain of weight due to a by-product of drug-induced appetite changes.

  • Skin, Eyes, Nose, and Mouth—This includes unexplained bruising or marks on the skin or flushed skin. Bloodshot eyes, changes in pupil size, nosebleeds, nasal irritation, excessive coughing, dry mouth or throat, and irritation of the mouth or throat.

  • Withdrawal Symptoms—They may complain of headaches, runny nose, profuse sweating, nausea, vomiting, excessive fatigue, and sleeplessness—which are all part of drug withdrawal. Note that illness can often be associated with some of these symptoms. However, if these symptoms frequently occur, such as every few days or once a week, it should raise some red flags.

  • Other Behaviors—The student may experience shakes, trembles, tics, or evidence of picking at the skin on their face or arms. Note, it is crucial to focus on what is out of the ordinary or uncharacteristic of their usual behavior.

Behavioral Signs are the Most Telling

Individuals who use drugs or alcohol will likely try to hide it because of shame, guilt, or denial. Behavioral indicators are the most telling and may include:

  • Changes in interpersonal relationships—Whom they associate with, sudden changes in friend groups, or complete isolation.

  • Overprotective of their personal space or things—They may become completely irrational or upset if someone looks in their desk, locker, or backpack.

  • Drastic mood swings—These are sudden, inappropriate, and entirely uncharacteristic for the situation.

  • Schoolwork issues—This includes poor academic performance or late or missing assignments and attendance issues. Note that it would be uncharacteristic or worse if the student had previously struggled with it.
    Loss of interest in extracurricular activities—This is especially important if they were actively involved in school activities and suddenly began dropping all interest and expressing no reasons for doing so.

Memory problems—These are visible problems related to schoolwork, where they would not typically have any issue prior.

Understanding that most substance use cases involve multiple symptoms with some degree of frequency rather than a one-time occurrence is crucial. There are legitimate non-drug-related explanations for many of these signs.

Educators or teachers notice everything, yet frequent occurrences of the symptoms mentioned above, such as daily, weekly, or monthly, should raise a red flag.

What Steps Can Teachers Take to Help

It would be difficult to know how to approach a situation if a teacher suspects a student is using drugs or alcohol outside the classroom.
Some are afraid of making false accusations, which is understandable given today's social climate. In addition, underlying illness or prescribed medication may cause similar effects. Overall, actions should be taken carefully and quickly but not be rushed. Here are some tips:

  • First, determine what made you think the student is using drugs or alcohol.
  • Document what you observed, when it occurred, the students involved, etc.
  • Look for drastic changes in their behavior, which occur frequently—absences or a decline in academic performance.

Once it has been determined that a student is likely abusing drugs or alcohol, the teacher should notify the school administration, parents, or guardian. Yet, the goal should be to provide help. 

If it is blatantly evident a student is using drugs or alcohol at school, immediate action should be taken. Every school has internal policies to manage such a situation.

What Happens if a Student Approaches a Teacher About Their Drug Use?

Should a student abusing drug or alcohol approach a teacher, they are likely asking for help—which means they have approached you because they trust you. Consider the following tips:

  • Be supportive and understanding.
  • Please encourage them to speak with their parents or guardian.
  • Do not cast judgment, place blame, or become angry.
  • Consult with school administration.
  • Be prepared to offer help and listen to what they have to say. 

A teacher can be a source of support at school and act as a moderator with the students and their parents about their substance use. In addition, they can coordinate with parents to access counseling and drug rehab resources.

The Importance of a Positive Environment

Young people spend more waking hours in the school environment around teachers than at home with their parents.

The school environment is a crucial factor influencing the development of young people. A positive relationship with school creates a greater sense of community, attachment, and performance, which is associated with reduced potential for drug use.

As a teacher, you can help a student have a positive relationship with their school by doing the following:

  • Set clear rules and boundaries that are reasonable and consistently enforced in a measured manner.
  • Always keep an open mind and encourage students to express their opinions.
  • Give praise and reward for students' good behavior, accomplishments, and achievements.
  • Project a sense of optimism and a positive view of learning.
  • Encourage their constructive use of time and participation in other activities.
  • Always encourage reading outside of school hours.
  • Be a good listener.
  • Support alcohol-free events where children are present.

Children have common misperceptions about alcohol and other drugs, such as it is normal to use drugs. However, the vast majority of young people have never tried an illegal drug. Teachers are essential to lead by example and create a positive learning environment.

Drug Use Among Youth—Facts and Statistics

The following information is from the National Center for Drug Abuse and Statistics (USA). These stats help paint a picture of the importance of drug prevention and education and staying involved in the lives of every child:

  • 2.08 million or 8.33% of 12- to 17-year-olds nationwide report using drugs in the last month.
  • Among them, 83.88% report using marijuana in the last month.
  • 591,000 teenagers aged 12- to 17-years-old used an illicit drug other than marijuana in the last month.
  • 8.7% of 8th graders have used illicit drugs in the last month.
  • 21.3% of 8th graders have tried illicit drugs at least once.
  • By the time they're in 12th grade, 46.6% of teens have tried illicit drugs.
  • 11.89 million 18- to 25-year-olds used drugs in the last month.
  • 4,777 Americans aged 15 to 24 years old died of an overdose of illicit drugs in one year.
  • 11.2% of overdose deaths are aged 15 to 24 years.

Drug Prevention and Education is the Key

A research article exploring teaching competency of teachers for curbing drug and substance abuse stated the following:

"to increase the effectiveness of drug prevention in educational institutions, especially for teachers. Schools must create positive motivation for instructors to include drug misuse prevention aspects into their classrooms. Second, schools provide high quality professional development with an emphasis on effective preventative strategies that teachers may apply."

The early use of drugs increases a person's chances of becoming addicted. The risk of drug use also increases significantly during times of transition. For a teen or young child, difficult times include moving, family divorce, or changing schools.

These are all circumstances that educators come across. Prevention and education programs are the keys to curbing early drug and alcohol use.



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