The word is out on D.A.R.E.’s new substance abuse prevention curriculum for seventh graders, and the buzz is good.
So good, in fact, that The University of Akron researchers who developed the curriculum and are now testing it in six states will soon see the program in widespread use — years ahead of schedule.
It was only two years ago this month that The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation awarded a $13.7 million grant — the largest in University history — to researchers in the Institute for Health and Social Policy to fund a five-year study to test the intervention program they had developed for D.A.R.E., the nation’s oldest and largest drug abuse resistance education program.
The UA-developed curriculum targets seventh and ninth graders because national surveys show that the use of tobacco, alcohol, inhalants and illicit drugs jumps 150 to 200 percent between grades eight and 10.
“We thought if we target kids when they are transitioning from middle school to high school, that the new curriculum will hopefully have an impact on the initiation of substance use,” says Zili Sloboda, the study’s principal investigator.
D.A.R.E. officers introduced the new curriculum during the 2001-02 school year to more than 16,000 seventh grade students in Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, N.J., New Orleans and St. Louis. The curriculum was previously tested through a pilot program conducted by local D.A.R.E. officers in middle schools in Canton, Canfield and Cuyahoga Falls.
The study is set up with school clusters that are composed of one high school in a district and all of its feeder middle schools, explains Sloboda, who also is an adjunct professor of sociology.
“We have 88 school clusters — 88 high schools and 137 middle schools and more than 32,000 students involved in the project,” says Sloboda. “We’ll continue to track this group as it moves from middle school through high school.”
In each of the designated cities, researchers selected a cluster from the inner city and then chose the remaining clusters from within a 50-mile radius of the core. As a result, districts ranging from urban to rural are involved in the project.
The study has required a serious commitment from the schools.
Superintendents and principals in each of the clusters signed agreements guaranteeing participation for the entire study as well as their willingness to be randomly assigned — either to the new curriculum or to continue their current programs as part of the control group. Students and parents also had to sign letters of agreement to participate in student surveys — more than 70 percent of the parents agreed to having their children take part in the study.
The students’ participation began with a baseline survey so researchers could see what their perceptions and experiences were prior to intervention education. Afterward, they completed a post-intervention survey. Over the course of the five-year study, they will be surveyed several more times.
But it’s already clear from the first-year of the D.A.R.E. study that the program is having positive results.
“The new curriculum showed an improvement in the skills and beliefs that make students more resistant to substance abuse,” notes Sloboda. “Even more exciting is the fact that the new curriculum is a first step in preparing children for the at-risk years.”
What makes this new D.A.R.E. curriculum so different from what police officers taught in the past?
Educational research shows that adolescents learn best when they are actively involved in the process, says Sloboda. So the new D.A.R.E. curriculum was designed to stimulate discussion and the sharing of ideas, often in small groups — which is a format many of the officers wanted as well.
“Really good D.A.R.E. officers like kids and they like talking to kids,” says Sloboda. “Officers in focus groups told us the old D.A.R.E. middle school program was very rigid. When things happened in the community, say the star football player got arrested for DUI, the kids would want to talk about it, but there was no room for the D.A.R.E. officer to do that.
“We structured the lessons so they can incorporate real situations to get the kids engaged in something that is very relevant to them,” adds Sloboda.” I think a lot of the officers really like the new curriculum for that reason — we hear that a lot from them.”
The 10 lessons in the seventh grade curriculum have very specific goals — to dispel misconceptions about the prevalence of substance use among adolescents, reinforce negative consequences of substance use for adolescents and help the students develop good decision-making and communication skills.
“Adolescents at this age think substance abuse is something that almost everybody is doing,” says Sloboda. “But they also think it’s not a nice thing to do — they don’t like the smells and they’ve seen people get sick.
“That’s why this is a good age group to work with, because we want to reinforce those highly negative perceptions that they already have about substance abuse,” she adds. “We also want to change their perceptions so they see that the norm is that most kids aren’t using. Especially now when rates are going down — they see that they can be part of the majority.”
Science also is helping the cause with some powerful visuals. Through imaging technology, it’s possible to see not only how the brain functions, but how different substances impair functions.
“Students can see, for example, how marijuana affects the executive function of the brain, which controls decision making,” says Sloboda. “They can visualize it and come up with that conclusion on their own.”
Through role-playing, students polish their communication skills so when they do say no to their peers, they’ll be taken seriously. The scenarios used by the students were drawn from focus groups with kids their own age, to make them authentic.
The ninth grade curriculum, which includes seven lessons, is being pilot-tested right now.
It was developed by Richard Hawthorne, a curriculum specialist and senior research associate with the institute who also developed the seventh grade curriculum. While preparing the ninth grade curriculum, Hawthorne sought input from high school officials, D.A.R.E. officers and other curriculum experts.
The goal is to reinforce what the students learned in the seventh grade program while keeping the material relevant. At this age, abuse of club drugs and prescription drugs becomes a concern.
“We talk to them as adults because they’re at a point where they have to make decisions about their future,” says Sloboda. “We ask them what they have a strong passion about and what their goals are. And, ultimately, to what extent would getting involved in alcohol or drugs affect these goals?”
Developing an effective curriculum for D.A.R.E. is the main focus for Sloboda and her team, but not the only one.
“This has become a study of every question I ever wanted to ask,” says Sloboda, who was director of the Division of Epidemiology and Prevention Research of the National Institute on Drug Abuse before joining UA in 1999.
To provide the answers, several smaller studies are under way, often with the use of focus groups.
For example, schools can offer intervention education, but what happens when students go home? What are their lives like outside of school? What do they like best about their community? Where do they hang out with their friends?
Key leaders also are being asked about their perceptions of substance abuse in their communities. How supportive do they think they are of prevention programs, and how supportive are they of D.A.R.E.?”
The work by Sloboda and her team has not gone unnoticed. The D.A.R.E. study has garnered attention from talk shows and many publications, including Newsweek, The New York Times, Chicago Tribune and The Wall Street Journal.
“As a researcher, you sit there with your data — but to see it come alive,” says Sloboda. “These are human beings and you can see how what you’re doing touches people’s lives — it’s very exciting.”
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation thinks so, too.
Based on the evidence to date, and the enthusiastic response of many D.A.R.E. officers, the foundation wants the seventh grade curriculum in wide use as soon as possible — even as the study continues.
Sloboda thinks that could happen by fall, once the eighth grade surveys are reviewed and some revisions are made to the curriculum before the training of more D.A.R.E. officers begins.
Even with these promising new programs, Sloboda knows more could be done.
“The prevention field feels there should be something from kindergarten through 12th grade so that every year the message is being reinforced. Communities, particularly now, don’t have the money to support that.
“We’re running into a period where resources are so tight, a lot of communities are doing away with prevention programs completely, which I think is sad because, down the road, if kids start using substances again, we’re going to be back in the hole,” notes Sloboda. “It’s not cost-effective in terms of dollars and cents. It’s not cost-effective in terms of these kids’ lives.”