The drug crisis is affecting thousands of families each year. Experts say early education may be the answer.

Drug overdoses are a leading cause of injury-related deaths in the United States having claimed the lives of more than 770,000 Americans since 1999. The crisis, fueled in large part by an opioid epidemic that killed 47,600 in 2017, has school officials wondering how early kids should be taught about drugs.

"Drugs are a topic in the news that prompts people to think, 'How can we intervene earlier so the next generation of kids doesn't have the same issues?'" says Barb Shepard, a licensed mental health counselor with a private therapy practice in Fayetteville, New York, who specializes in treating teens and families.

Kindergarten students sitting listening to teacher
Credit: kali9/Getty Images

In Ohio, where more than 4,300 people died of an opioid overdose in 2016 (second highest rate in the country after West Virginia), some schools have started drug abuse education as early as kindergarten. The Health and Opioid Abuse Prevention Education (HOPE) curriculum started in 2018 at Ohio's Belpre Elementary School, where a first-grader brought a heroin needle to school about five years ago, focuses on emotions and safety, rather than scare tactics and "just say no" lectures.

"It's more intense and personal," says Shepard. "In some ways, that's really important."

Schools must walk a delicate tightrope between trying to keep children healthy and safe while not scaring or confusing them. It's a complicated task because children in the same class may be at different places emotionally. But experts say teaching kids about drugs as early as kindergarten can make a difference in preventing future substance abuse, as long as conversations are age appropriate and focus on safety and emotional identification.

What Are Age Appropriate Conversations About Drugs?

Younger children likely won't understand the difference between heroin and cocaine, but kindergarteners can grasp basic safety. "A 5-year-old is not going to understand what it means to put something in your body that hurts you," says Shepard. "It's more, 'Never take medicine from any other kids. Just take medicine from your parents or doctor.'"

In areas with high rates of drug use, schools may need to adjust their approaches. But Haley Neidich, LCSW, a counselor and therapist in both Florida and Connecticut, says identifying emotions is always an important skill to learn at this age. "If a kid seems upset by something, try, 'You're really upset right now. I wonder if it's about this,'" says Neidich. "Take those opportunities to teach them that all feelings are OK."

Though learning about emotions isn't specifically about drug awareness, it can help curb substance abuse later. "A lot of people get into drugs and alcohol because they get uncomfortable with feeling something," says Neidich. "As kids grow, they are consistently learning to express how they feel, good or bad, and kids or teens are less likely to search for a substance to make them feel better."

Around middle school, children can start learning more about peer pressure, addiction, and the dangers of drugs and alcohol. But teachers should still read the room and meet students where they are by making lessons conversational. "It used to be, 'Here's this drug. Here's what it does. Here's how to avoid it. You could die,'" says Neidich. "There's so much more to be explored. Addiction is a mental illness. Let's give kids the tools and resources. Share why people continue to use and that often it's completely out of their hands."

In high school, when many students will have more consistent exposure to substances and parties, it's important to double-down on safety while keeping conversations open. "No one is going to just say no," explains Neidich. "Discuss strategies for unsafe situations, such as texting Mom, 'blueberry,' and she knows no questions asked to go pick up her daughter. And that is the sort of trust we hope will be built in that relationship."

Allow Drug Conversations in the Home

Both Shepard and Neidich agree that parents should have similar conversations with their children to reinforce the messages they are learning in school. And if someone in the family is struggling with addiction, those discussions may need to happen a bit sooner—but words still matter.

"What I would want the child to understand is they should be wary of this individual without scaring them or telling them they can't see them because they are bad," says Neidich. "Plant the seeds that addiction is an illness: 'So and so is sick. They have a disease called addiction, and if you have questions, I am here for you.'"

And schools should loop parents in about lesson plans that way they can discuss them further.

"The parents should know what is being covered so parents can go to the child, 'I know this week you guys were talking about heroin. What do you think about that?'" says Neidich. "A parent's job in this situation is to be open and not say, 'Glad you're learning about heroin because it's bad and you shouldn't do it.'"