FCD Educational Services 
Prevention Source e-Journal 

Making Prevention the Norm: 
Beginning a Social Norms Approach

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Why Social Norms?

The social norms approach to prevention is a simple concept with a profound implication: that sharing healthy realities can reduce student use of alcohol and other drugs.


Imagine in 2008, over 60% of your 9th-grade students had used alcohol at least once in their lifetime. Imagine now that by 2012, nearly 70% of your 9th graders had not. Finally, think about what it would mean to your school if this dramatic change occurred not through scare tactics or student expulsions, but through a health-based approach to keeping kids safe. Changes like these are increasingly taking place at FCD client schools using the social norms approach.


But what is the social norms approach, and how can school faculty and staff support this type of initiative as it ties into their community's comprehensive prevention plan?

The Social Norms Approach Made Clear  

FCD uses an evidence-based social norms approach to help promote healthy student behavior and attitudes, to correct false beliefs about alcohol and other drug use, and to decrease the number of students who use. While this strategy may be quite familiar to some school staff, there are probably others in your community who haven't heard of it. To keep things simple, this is what you can share about the social norms approach:


The social norms approach is a way to prevent unhealthy behavior. To challenge common myths about student substance use, schools collect data about students' actual behavior. The reality is that many students at most schools around the world do not regularly use alcohol or other substances. By sharing this truth with students, schools help them to hold healthier, more realistic beliefs and to feel less pressure to "fit in" by using substances. In schools that employ it, the social norms approach results in decreased student use of alcohol and other drugs, no matter what initial levels of use look like. 

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Who's On Board?

A social norms approach is a community-wide effort. This commitment to prevention must be supported by administrators, faculty, parents and students alike. FCD has learned that it is critically important to engage all members of the community in understanding the approach and in learning new ways to apply social norms data within their unique school roles.


Communication at school about a social norms approach occurs before schools collect any data. Designing and implementing a successful strategy means that all school members have a basic, shared understanding of what social norms are, so everyone is equipped to support the same prevention message. Schools may want to form committees for this purpose to ensure that the prevention planning process is not on the shoulders of one single person.

Where's the Data?

The social norms approach to prevention rests on two primary components: 1) gathering information about real social norms, and 2) correcting false normative beliefs. Once the whole school is committed, and you have the data to back it up, helping your community understand and apply the social norms approach can be a rich and rewarding experience. So how do you go about collecting data?


National or international studies are often starting places for a social norms approach. Reliable, valid and longstanding research about student substance use is available in many countries, from the Monitoring the Future study of United States' 8th through 12th graders, to the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs' review of 15-year-olds across European nations. Data from such studies is publicly available and offers many surprising pieces of information that can be used in social norms initiatives, such as the fact that, in the U.S., student "binge drinking" is currently at an all-time low. Schools in regions of the world without such research programs often have the option of reviewing World Health Organization reports or census data to challenge false perceptions about what other local teenagers are doing.


Even more ideal than using a large study for your social norms approach is the ability to collect individual school data from your very own students using a school-based tool like the FCD Student Attitudes and Behavior Survey. In this way, you can get to know your students intimately - including what differences in use there are between males and females, older and younger students, and kids who perform at varying academic levels - right in your own community.


The process of data collection is most effective when it is both formal and informal to support your social norms approach. Informal information gathering can be accomplished through student polls, clicker quizzes, and dynamic classroom discussions. Surveys of various types, both formal and informal, typically reveal students' overestimation of unhealthy behavior and attitudes and underestimation of the healthy choices made by their peers.

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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.


With Parents


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.

Let's Keep Going!

You can help keep a social norms approach going at your school. From FCD's perspective, after developing an infrastructure for social-norms-based prevention efforts and learning from student data, the next logical step is to institutionalize all elements of your comprehensive prevention plan. Too often, programs and initiatives are dependent on one or two individuals who are the only force at a school for developing new social norms programs. When these individuals leave the school, they take the prevention effort with them, including its history, its plan, and its organizational structure. The school is then left with the daunting process of starting over.


For this reason, institutionalizing programs, policies, and procedures based on the social norms approach within the culture of your school is essential, and it begins by being strategic about your social norms approach from the very beginning. Deciding what committees will be formed to sustain the approach and what their specific roles will be over time is crucial. Engaging parents and students by divisions or grade levels helps to ensure that replacements for committee representatives can be more easily found. Most importantly, working to integrate information about what social norms are and how they are used - into your school's faculty, parent and student communications, activities and educational opportunities - will help to keep the enthusiasm for and momentum of a social norms approach going. From the moment a family first steps on campus until graduation, the responsibility for keeping students healthy can fall equally on the shoulders of parents, faculty, administrators, and the students themselves.


There is no doubt a comprehensive social norms approach to student substance abuse prevention is the best researched and evidence-based tool we have at our disposal. By applying it, we have nothing to lose and the health of our students to gain. 

A 30-year FCD veteran, Renee Soulis has served in a variety of positions for the organization, including health educator, scheduling director, curriculum coordinator, education director, director of client relations, and her current positions as a Senior Prevention Specialist and Regional Officer. A graduate of George Williams College in Chicago, Renee earned a BA in humanities with a concentration in group dynamics. She has authored articles and papers on prevention education topics and has presented at conferences around the world.


Before joining FCD in 2009, Desirae Vasquez served as a consultant for the Behavioral Health Leadership Institute, advocating for Latino mental health parity within the Baltimore City Public Mental Health System and providing behavioral health education and training to a variety of Baltimore City nonprofits, including Healthy Start, Youth Opportunities, and the city's first homeless youth shelter. She has a dual BA in Psychological & Brain Sciences and Public Health from the Johns Hopkins University Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, and an MHS in Health Education and Behavioral Science from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.  

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