In 2007, 2 percent of Nova Scotia students surveyed indicated that they needed help with an alcohol-use problem, while 3 percent expressed a need for help with a drug other than alcohol. These students would benefit from early intervention, and schools are in a good position to provide that support.

The role of the teacher
The classroom teacher is often in the best position to notice subtle changes in a student, such as increasing absenteeism, different moods, or declining performance at school. The teacher may otherwise be aware that a student has a known risk factor for substance-use problems (e.g., being socially excluded, having a low attachment to school, or experiencing mental health issues). These changes and factors may lead a teacher to suspect that a student is experiencing a substance-use problem (their own or that of a family member). These could, on the other hand, indicate that the student is experiencing another issue that would benefit from early intervention; so it is important not to “diagnose” or make assumptions. While the teacher’s role in these situations is limited, it could be crucial. The role can be summarized as follows:

  • Consult school policy: If your school is like many in the province and has a school or board policy for intervening with student substance-use problems, consult the policy. If not, check with your student services department or school principal. In a similar vein, a teacher may learn of a student’s possession of alcohol or another substance on school premises, so it is important to be acquainted with school or board policy on these matters also.

  • Try talking: By raising the issue in a respectful, non-judgmental way, you may be able to learn of the nature of the issue and whether the student would consider accessing help (e.g., I’ve noticed that your grades are slipping and heard you quit the soccer team; is anything wrong?). The aim of this conversation should be to move the student toward accepting a referral if appropriate.

  • Refer: While you as the teacher may learn about the problem through this conversation, it is not the role of the teacher to assess the nature of the problem. This is the role of a guidance counsellor, nurse, or outside agency. If this is, for some reason, not possible, it will be important for a teacher to be aware of what early intervention help is available to students and their families in their community.

By holding a conversation and encouraging a referral, a teacher has played an important role on behalf of a student.

Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission. What if my student has a problem? Accessed April 2005.

New Zealand. Ministry of Youth Development (2004). Strengthening drug education in school communities: Best practice handbook for design, delivery, and evaluation, years 7–13. Wellington, NZ: Ministry of Youth Development.