The Results Are In - Now What?
FCD's experience with schools has shown that effective social norms prevention planning requires an ongoing, community- wide effort to see significant reductions in student alcohol and other drug use. Supporting and reinforcing the majority of students by highlighting the fact that most of them are making healthy decisions is always a part of the plan. The following are a few examples of how you can integrate the social norms approach within your school community:
With Student Leaders
The first goal of a social norms approach is to support students already making healthy choices. Many students choose not to use, yet students that make this decision can often feel alone in their choice. Sometimes, healthy students have bought into false perceptions that they are the only ones who don't drink or use other drugs. A first step in building a healthy school climate based on social norms is to ask yourself:
- Does the culture of our school ever compel students to hide their healthiness?
- Does our school have a culture that actively rewards and encourages healthy students?
- Do adults in our school openly and often tell non-using students that their choice is valued and respected?
- Do adults in our school ever inadvertently reinforce the false perception that most students use substances or chose otherwise unhealthy behavior?
In a social norms approach, schools support and encourage students who are making the healthy choice to live substance free. To do so, peer leadership groups can be developed for these students at your school. For instance, the FCD SALSA (Students Advocating Life without Substance Abuse) model trains teens who don't drink alcohol or use other drugs to openly commit to non-use and to speak to younger students as healthy, happy and productive teenagers who have chosen not to use alcohol, tobacco or other drugs. Social norms research demonstrates that younger students dramatically overestimate alcohol and other drug use by their classmates and older students, which can lead to higher levels of use. Non-use peer leadership groups like SALSA present younger students with role models making healthy decisions. These groups, just by being visible in middle and upper school communities, can strengthen all non-using students' resolve to remain free from alcohol and other drugs. SALSA, as a vibrant and active student non-use group, powerfully debunks the myth that "everybody" in high school uses substances.
Other healthy students with the capacity to lead are also often untapped prevention resources who can embolden and inform a school's social norms approach. Just as all adults at a school must understand what social norms are and how this approach can reduce student use, young people must understand the approach too, and they can contribute to the conversation about it. Thoughtfully asking capable students to sit on a student focus group, prevention committee, or to work with adults in developing school-wide social norms campaigns can greatly enhance the effectiveness of your prevention plan over time.
With Students in the Classroom
Simply stated, the majority of students are making healthy decisions when it comes to not using alcohol or other drugs, but they think they are in the minority. Conversely, those that drink the most think their behavior is the norm, when in fact, research has shown that they are part of a very small minority. Teaching all students about social norms breaks down these myths.
The social norms model addresses student misperceptions about their peers' alcohol and other drug use by utilizing exciting data demonstrating healthy norms collected from student surveys. This information, presented through discussion, games, debates and other engaging formats, is the basis for normative feedback interventions with students in classroom groups.
So often, students are eager to share what they know, or what they think they know, about alcohol and other drugs when given the opportunity to speak up in class. Popular news and entertainment media expose teens to so many stories about substances and the scores of young people who are allegedly using this drug or that. Capitalizing on student enthusiasm while having survey numbers in your back pocket allows you, as the educator, to challenge false perceptions and share healthy realities in the classroom. Whenever possible, FCD prevention specialists integrate survey data into their intensive student education seminars as well. Through role plays, student polls, and student brainstorming about how false normative beliefs take hold in a school community, this work in the classroom leads to students' reflection, critical thinking, and the opportunity to reconsider unhealthy perceptions about substance use.
With Students at Higher Risk
While it's true that most students are not abusing substances, a social norms approach to prevention can help schools identify and intervene upon the minority of students who are. From this perspective, many schools have developed early intervention systems to help students' before their risky use becomes a disciplinary or health issue. These programs are particularly important within a social norms approach, because ignoring student warning signs of use creates the false perception in schools that use is higher than it is, which can actually increase use.
Based on social norms, a school's early intervention system can help students of concern, and it can also work to identify the unique characteristics of that specific school's "higher-risk drinkers." School-based survey data can help you learn about the specific characteristics of your own community's higher-risk drinkers, including how these students tend to act and think differently than "lower-risk drinkers" and non-using students. By utilizing an in-house early intervention system to address these higher-risk behaviors with students, you can help teens start to realize that the majority of their peers are actually making healthy decisions. Through this process, higher-risk drinkers, maybe for the first time, start to realize that their use of alcohol or other drugs is far outside the norm. Remember: the kids that drink the most actually think their use is the norm. In some cases, their belief is so strong that this small group of students manages to normalize higher-risk drinking within the entire community.
When a school's early intervention team leads discussions with students on the social norms approach, they reinforce the healthy choices most students make and identify higher-risk behavior. This results in both changed attitudes and more referrals from students who now know what is normal and healthy and what is not. Sometimes, students actually believe that the majority of their peers are getting drunk, getting sick, and getting into trouble because of alcohol and other drugs. In reality, this type of higher-risk use, paired with severe consequences, is definitely not the norm. When teens realize a friend's behavior is, in fact, problem substance use, they are more apt to stay healthy themselves, get healthy, or seek help for that friend.
Research shows that parent involvement is the most important part of prevention. For instance, the Partnership at Drugfree.org estimates that a child's choice to use substances is 50% less likely when his or her parent communicates the risks of alcohol and other drugs.
Unfortunately, many parents hold the misperception that use is an inevitable adolescent rite. By normalizing teen use, parents can unintentionally increase the likelihood that their children will drink alcohol at an earlier age and that they will use other drugs. A social norms approach to prevention is a powerful antidote to this problem and an effective parent education tool for protecting and strengthening the health of students.
From over 150 FCD Student Attitudes and Behavior Survey administrations, we know that students consistently report that their parents' opinions are more influential to them in deciding whether or not to use substances than are the opinions of teachers, coaches or peers. Indeed, parents are the adults who can most reinforce a natural desire on the part of young people to make healthy choices.
Another piece of information that consistently appears in FCD survey data is that, of students who drink regularly, most do so in private homes, often with inadequate adult supervision. The overwhelming majority of student alcohol use occurs off campus. Parents have a responsibility for monitoring their own homes and clarifying their expectations for behavior on the part of their children. By correcting misperceptions of teenage use, encouraging delayed use of alcohol, and supporting school rules and expectations for healthy behavior, parents become prevention partners with the school.
Developing a social norms-based parent infrastructure is essential. Parents need assistance from the school to feel comfortable networking with one another and to learn how to engage in family conversations that reinforce healthy student behavior with both accurate information and emotional support.
The foundation of your social norms approach with parents can begin with the sharing of this basic information - that parents have great influence on their teens' choices, and that voiced disapproval of use, conversations about risk, and adequate supervision all decrease student use. Most especially, parents need to hear, using your own students' data, that most young people at your school do not abuse alcohol and other drugs.