By Naomi Carr

Last updated: 11 June 2024 & medically reviewed by Dr. David Miles

Educators have an important role in developing and nurturing young people’s minds and academic achievements. They are often also seen as role models for healthy and positive behaviors and attitudes relating to matters beyond academia, including mental health and substance use. This can include providing information, support, guidance, and resources.

Drug and Alcohol Resources for Educators

The importance of educator substance abuse awareness

Young people spend a large portion of their time in school, where they are influenced significantly by their peers and educators. Educators can act as role models, informing and guiding young people, helping them make healthy and informed decisions and behaviors around substance use, and teaching them how to manage difficult or risky situations.

Educators can provide resources to help prevent or treat substance use issues, including teaching problem-solving skills, coping strategies, communication skills, and self-control. They may also be able to recognize changes in behavior or other signs of substance use in their students, helping implement early intervention strategies.

By establishing strong and trusting relationships with their students, educators can provide a safe environment to discuss mental health and substance use issues without stigma or judgment, in ways that may not be possible at home. They may also have access to educational resources and professional services where young people can be referred for additional intervention. 

One role of the educator is to provide information and early intervention around substance use, as this is important in preventing harmful outcomes. Reports show:

  • Young people consume alcohol less frequently than adults but in larger quantities per sitting [1]

  • 4% of young people aged 12-17 meet the criteria for a substance use disorder [2]

  • Using drugs and alcohol can have a significantly detrimental impact on academic performance [3][4]

Recognizing the signs of substance abuse

Educators may be in a unique position to recognize signs of substance abuse in young people as they spend regular time with them, building relationships and an understanding of their behaviors and demeanor. Being able to recognize signs of substance abuse in young people can provide an opportunity to implement early intervention strategies and prevention or treatment plans.[5]

Signs of substance abuse may include:[6][7][8]

  • A decline in grades or class engagement

  • Regularly arriving to school late or attending class less often

  • Changes in mood and behavior, such as becoming withdrawn and quiet, appearing very tired or falling asleep in class, tearfulness, aggression or violence, misbehaving or acting out, or agitation

  • Increasing number of detentions or other disciplinary procedures at school or involvement of law enforcement

  • Decrease in cognitive abilities, such as poor memory or concentration

  • Changes in speech, such as slurring words, change of tone, or unusual topic of conversation

  • Bloodshot eyes, very large or small pupils

  • Sudden change in friends

Being aware of any of the above changes can help provide necessary intervention. However, it is important to note that these signs may occur in an individual who is not engaging in substance use. The individual may be experiencing other mental health, social, or personal issues that require support and intervention. [6]

How to manage when a young person shows signs of substance abuse

Educators might encounter a situation in which they identify signs of substance abuse in a student. In this circumstance, it may be appropriate and necessary to help this young person by intervening or referring them to supportive services. This can be a delicate situation to navigate, as it is best to avoid making assumptions about the young person and to ensure that their autonomy and privacy are not negatively affected. [8]

An educator who has already developed a trusting relationship with the young person could attempt to begin a conversation with them about their concerns. This will depend on the individual and their relationship with the educator and could involve discussing issues within their personal or social life, academic performance, or within the home.

At this point, the educator can make appropriate suggestions to the young person about how they might manage their difficulties. This could include school-based or external counseling, referrals to substance use or mental health services, or other supportive services provided by the school. [9][10]

Some schools provide programs such as Student Assistance Programs (SAPs), which can involve supportive services for students around their academic, emotional, and behavioral functioning. This can include identifying risk factors and providing evidence-based interventions for mental health and substance use issues.

SAPs are integrated into the school’s framework and can address issues faced by young people that impact their academic performance. This will involve school staff, such as counselors and educators, along with external specialist service providers, all of whom can work with the young person and their family to manage issues and provide interventions. [11]

Talking about substance use with young people

Discussing substance use with young people can be a challenge, as it is important to consider the audience and adjust conversation content to meet the needs and focus areas appropriate to the group. [12]

How an educator communicates about substance use can influence how comfortable young people feel about discussing their own experiences with this adult. As such, it is important to try and create a safe space for young people to feel able to discuss their substance-related experiences without fear of judgment or reprimand. [13]

When talking about substance use with young people, it can be helpful to: [8][12][13][14]

  • Be available to listen: Building a trusting relationship with students can help them feel comfortable with beginning discussions around substance use. Being available and making time to talk with individuals when they are struggling with mental health or substance-related issues can help to build strong and supportive relationships.

  • Share personal experiences: While maintaining boundaries and privacy, sharing personal or first-hand substance-related stories can be helpful, as real-life situations may be more relatable to young people than facts and figures. This might include occasions of turning down an offer of drugs, negative experiences with alcohol, or witnessing an occurrence of drug-related harm.

  • Be informative: Providing information about drugs and alcohol will include sharing the potential harm that each substance can cause. The risks of drug use should be made clear without using scaremongering or exaggeration, including their effects on brain development when used at a young age. 

  • Avoid romanticizing or glamorizing drug use: It is important to be honest and open with young people about substance use, without making it seem appealing or exciting. This can include discussing the reasons why people might use drugs, risk factors, and the difference between recreational use and addictive behaviors.

  • Explain harm reduction: Statistically, there is a likelihood that many young people will use various substances at some point, regardless of the potential harm they can cause. Rather than trying to scare them into not using drugs, it can be helpful to explain hard reduction and safer drug use techniques. This shouldn’t condone the use of drugs but should provide a clear understanding of how to prevent various dangers and resources that can be used to seek additional information or support.

  • Teach boundary setting: Many young people experience pressure to use drugs and alcohol from their peers. It can be helpful to teach them how to decline or walk away from uncomfortable situations and that it is acceptable or encouraged to do so.

Lesson planning

When planning lessons around substance use education, it can be beneficial to: [2][12][14][15]

  • Ensure lessons are engaging and interesting: Rather than simply lecturing students on the harms of drug use, try to include interactive exercises and engage in structured discussions.

  • Plan for multiple sessions over a prolonged period: This can prevent overloading young people with information while helping to reinforce and retain information about drug safety.

  • Practice skills: When teaching young people about substance use and the associated risk factors, include lessons about coping strategies, problem-solving, and social skills. These techniques can help reduce the risk of substance abuse and can be important skills for young people to learn and practice.

  • Be honest and realistic: Avoid using language or techniques that could be considered scaremongering, exaggerating, normalizing, or stigmatizing. Promote healthy attitudes and behaviors around substance use by being authentic and believable. 

  • Cover various substances: Provide information about different types of substances and specific drugs, including their effects, how they are usually administered, how commonly they are used, and their potential dangers on physical and mental well-being. This should include illicit drugs, prescription medications, alcohol, tobacco, and medicinal marijuana

Nurturing mental health in young people

Numerous studies show that mental health has a significant impact on the risk of substance use issues. As such, nurturing and maintaining the mental health of young people can be an important aspect of substance use prevention and improve overall well-being. [16][17]

This can involve encouraging young people to engage in activities that promote healthy behaviors, positive coping strategies, impulse control, and reduced stress and anxiety, such as: [18][19]

Utilizing these activities and techniques can build resilience to difficult emotions and stressful situations, which can help prevent feeling overwhelmed or turning to harmful behaviors to cope. [9]

Educators can teach these strategies to their students, explain their benefits, and practice skills within the classroom.

Teaching young people how to recognize reliable information

With the internet and social media, a wide range of reliable and unreliable information is readily accessible to everyone. As such, it can be difficult to ascertain what can be believed. Teaching young people how to recognize or discover reliable information can help them make informed decisions about substance use, seeking support, and preventing harm.

Understanding how to analyze and interpret information can help young people determine whether substance-related topics are from reputable sources. Some important things for young people to consider when reading information found online include:

  • Who wrote this information or where did it come from?

  • What is the purpose or motive behind this?

  • Is there other information that can clarify this?

  • Is there other information that disagrees with this?

  • When was this written?

Recognizing legitimate sources of information can be challenging. In general, the type of website can inform readers whether the content can be trusted or reliable. For example, the ending of a URL, or website address, can give an idea if the source is reputable, such as: [20]

  • .org indicates that an organization owns and runs the website. This is usually a charity or nonprofit organization. Typically, information from a .org website will be sourced legitimately, although it may include some bias to match the organization’s message.

  • .gov indicates that a governmental department or organization runs the website. Often, information on these websites will be legitimately gathered through surveys or scientific studies.

  • .edu indicates a website owned by an educational institution such as a university. Typically, this information can be considered reputable.

  • .com indicates a commercial website owned by a company intending to make a profit. Information gathered on these websites may be unreliable.

When seeking reliable sources of information about substance use and associated mental health issues, scientific studies and health-related governmental websites can be considered the most appropriate. Young people should be taught that the best way to find reliable information is to analyze several sources of information.

Resources for educators and schools

Many resources are available to help plan and implement substance use awareness, prevention, and management in schools and educational facilities. 


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), High-Risk Substance Use Among Youth

National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), Research Reports

NIDA, Monitoring the Future: National Survey Results on Drug Use, 1975-2022: Secondary School Students

Identifying, preventing, and supporting

Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, Educators Guide

Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Emoji Drug Code Decoded

NIDA, Teachers: Classroom Resources on Drug Effects

Office of National Drug Control Policy, Substance Use Prevention: A Resource Guide for School Staff

Operation Prevention, School Resources: Opioid and Prescription Drugs

Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports (PBIS), Opioid Crisis and Substance Misuse

Positive Choices, Drug and Alcohol Information and Resources

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), School & Educator Resources

SAMHSA, Student Assistance: A Guide For School Administrators

SAMHSA, Substance Misuse Prevention for Young Adults

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, School-Based Education for Drug Abuse Prevention, Substance Abuse Prevention, Evidence-Based Programs

Lesson planning

NIDA, Is This Legit? Accessing Valid and Reliable Health Information

NIDA, Lesson Plans and Activities

Positive Choices, Drugs A to Z Recommended Programs


NIDA, Start A Conversation: 10 Questions Teens Ask About Drugs and Health

SAMHSA, What Educators Can Do To Help Prevent Underage Drinking and Other Drug Use

Mental health

National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments, Mental Health

NIDA, Nurturing My Mental & Emotional Health

PBIS, Mental Health/Social-Emotional-Behavioral Well-Being