The school’s role in fighting alcohol abuse

Early prevention efforts must begin in grade school
By: | Issue: November/December, 2019
October 7, 2019

C. Kevin Synnott is a professor in the Department of Business Administration at Eastern Connecticut State University.

Many parents are rightly concerned about the possibility that their children may one day abuse alcohol. A parent can be proactive by getting involved in alcohol abuse prevention efforts at their child’s school.

One of the goals of these prevention programs is to reduce the negative effects of alcohol abuse. I want to address two areas in which parents can make a difference. Parents can clarify their children’s misperceptions regarding classmates’ alcohol consumption, and they can teach their children decision-making skills regarding alcohol consumption by setting a good example with their own drinking behaviors.

Clarifying misperceptions

It is well known that fear does not dissuade young people from engaging in harmful behaviors. The lure to be “cool” is an extremely powerful motivator. Education, however, has proven to be effective in this effort because it allows young people to remain in control and make decisions on alcohol consumption, for example, based on relevant information.

Students often believe that their peers drink more alcohol than they actually do. This false perception of the social norm in our schools may lead students to drink more to fit in. They already fit in, but they may not know it. Clarifying students’ misperceptions results in better decision-making.

Perceptions survey

The school administrators charged with alcohol abuse education can take leadership roles in this prevention effort. They can join forces with the PTA, for instance, to conduct a simple survey of students in grades 5 through 12. The purpose: to determine students’ perceptions regarding their classmates’ alcohol consumption.

Students often believe that their peers drink more alcohol than they actually do.

Here is an example of a student perception survey. Respondents do not write their names on the questionnaires to ensure anonymity. Survey administration takes about 10 to 15 minutes, so it can take place at large gatherings or in classrooms.

Survey facilitators first define a drink as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or one shot of liquor.
Students then answer the two survey questions:

  1. On average, I usually have___drinks containing alcohol per week.
  2. On average, my classmates usually have___drinks containing alcohol per week.

Facilitators score the survey for all responses by averaging the answers for both questions. The results should be clear: The number of drinks consumed by individuals will be considerably less than the number of drinks they perceive their classmates to consume.

These are misperceptions because all students responded to the same questions. This information forms the foundation for the intervention program that follows. PTA officials can mail the intervention program along with the results of the schoolwide survey to parents.

Parents’ role

Parents can clarify their children’s misperceptions regarding classmates’ alcohol consumption in three steps:

  1. Define a drink as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or one shot of liquor.
  2. Ask: “On average, how many drinks containing alcohol do you think your classmates consume per week?”
  3. Explain the recent research from the PTA, and discuss their children’s responses.
    The goal is to encourage discourse. Parents can revisit this issue during the year.

Setting a good example

Parents know they shape their children more by what they do than by what they say. Research shows that when individuals convey messages in person, the words carry 7% of the intended meaning and the nonverbal actions transmit 93% of the intended meaning. In other words, behavior is more powerful than words.

Many parents serve alcohol with meals to enhance the flavor of the food. They may also have toasts before celebrations and holidays. The message to their children is that serving alcohol adds to special occasions.

Other parents unknowingly send mixed messages to their children. For example, after a hard day at work, a parent may come home and say, “I need a drink.” The message to the child is that alcohol is a coping mechanism to deal with difficult or unpleasant events.

Also, when entertaining friends, they may spend time reliving their younger days by sharing stories related to drinking escapades. This message paints a picture of the drinking life the child may try to emulate.

But the parent who says after a difficult day at work: “I am going to work out before supper” or “I am going to relax and read the newspaper before supper,” sends the message that stress can be managed by engaging in positive activities.

When children enter college, it is a very exciting time. It is also a stressful time adjusting to a new environment. Away from parental supervision, they must make decisions on their own, including ones related to consuming alcohol.

Students who learn to use alcohol to deal with stress, and copy their parents’ drinking activities, are predisposed to making decisions in drinking situations that may result in more serious problems.

On the other hand, students who learn to cope with stress by engaging in positive activities are likely to make decisions about drinking that do not result in problems.

Potential Outcomes

A successful alcohol abuse prevention program offers several benefits. First, students make decisions in drinking situations that do not have negative consequences. Second, with continuing reinforcement from their parents, PTA members and school officials, their convictions grow stronger and help prepare them for college. Third, pluralistic ignorance is reduced. Administrators, teachers, staff, PTA members and students may come to more fully support prevention efforts and help strengthen school goals. Finally, the surrounding community benefits from reduced problems associated with alcohol abuse.

C. Kevin Synnott is a professor in the Department of Business Administration at Eastern Connecticut State University. He has long studied the impact of substance abuse in teens and adults.