Opioid Prevention Education: What Works?

Opioid prevention education is essential for addressing the opioid crisis. Here’s what works.

There seems to be no end in sight for the American opioid epidemic that’s responsible for more than 90 deaths every day, but educators and lawmakers hope that by bolstering opioid prevention education in schools, fewer young people will experiment with heroin and prescription painkillers–as well as other drugs–in the future.

The War on Drugs, Just Say No, and DARE: A Short History on Prevention Education

In 1971, President Richard Nixon declared war on drugs. He increased the size and reach of federal drug control agencies and pushed through measures like no-knock warrants and mandatory sentencing. In the 1980s and 1990s, drug hysteria took hold, and President Ronald Reagan dramatically expanded the War on Drugs, which led to huge increases in nonviolent incarcerations, which increased from 50,000 in 1980 to 400,000 by 1997, but did little to stem the tide of drug abuse.

In 1981, Nancy Reagan launched her highly publicized anti-drug campaign whose slogan “Just Say No” permeates popular culture to this day. The underlying theory of Just Say No was that teaching kids to simply say no to drugs would prevent them from experimenting with psychoactive substances. A couple of years later, in 1983, Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates founded the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, known as DARE, which was adopted in schools nationwide despite any evidence of effectiveness. DARE’s sole goal was to teach specific peer resistance and refusal skills in hopes that doing so would reduce drug abuse among young people.

What we now know is that both of these campaigns were largely ineffective, according to a number of studies, including a 2003 study by the Government Accountability Office. Drug abuse and addiction are complex issues, and preventing them requires a comprehensive, whole-person approach.

A New Era of Opioid Prevention Education: A Comprehensive Approach

So, what kind of prevention education works? According to Brian Griffith, curriculum supervisor for health and physical education in the Frederick County public school district in Maryland, a comprehensive approach to drug education is vital for curbing drug abuse among youth. A comprehensive approach to opioid education in schools focuses less on saying no to drugs and more on helping young people develop the decision-making, goal-setting, self-esteem, and self-management skills that result in healthy life choices and intrinsic motivation to remain drug-free. Of the Just Say No campaign and DARE, Griffith says, “We can’t teach one thing and think it’s going to solve everything.”

States are now asking public schools to go beyond Just Say No and DARE and begin offering a curriculum that starts in kindergarten and helps to imbue students in all grades with the life skills they need to make healthy decisions as they mature. Age-appropriate drug and life skills education from an early age is essential for stemming the opioid crisis, according to many experts.

Some Programs Making the Cut

New programs are currently being developed and deployed by a number of organizations to make opioid prevention education more effective and to shore up the curricula of opioid prevention programs in the community.

Brain Power!, a K-9 curriculum developed by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, focuses on helping children understand how drug abuse affects the brain and body. The Mendez Foundation’s “Too Good for Drugs” curriculum teaches healthy social, emotional, and communication skills through interactive activities and songs. The National Association of School Nurses partnered with Jansen Pharmaceutical to develop “Smart Moves, Smart Choices,” a curriculum for middle school and high school students to combat prescription drug abuse. In 2014, they developed “Start Smart,” a similar prevention curriculum for K-5 students. Both of these programs include family homework assignments, online tools, and educator and parent resources.

While it’s too soon to tell whether these and other new, research-based programs are working, anecdotal evidence shows that they may just be. Teachers report that they’re seeing an increase in knowledge and understanding of prescription drug safety among children, and students report that they’re using the skills and strategies they learn.

Opioid education in schools is a front-line defense against the opioid epidemic, and as more states adopt comprehensive opioid prevention programs for their schools, educators, parents, and government officials alike are hoping that these will help to end the opioid crisis in the years to come.




If you or a loved one needs help with abuse and/or treatment, please call the WhiteSands Treatment at (877) 855-3470. Our addiction specialists can assess your recovery needs and help you get the addiction treatment that provides the best chance for your long-term recovery.

About the Author

is a proud alumni member of WhiteSands Treatment. After living a life of chaos, destruction and constant let downs, Mark was able to make a complete turnaround that sparked a new way of life. He is serious about his recovery along with helping others. At WhiteSands Treatment, we offer support to you in your homes or when you are out living in your daily lives.