A qualitative study of Irish teachers' perspective of student substance use.
Drugs and youth
(Care and treatment)
Drugs and youth (Prevention)
Drugs and youth (Research)
Children (Educational aspects)
Van Hout, Marie Claire
|Publication:||Name: Journal of Alcohol & Drug Education Publisher: American Alcohol & Drug Information Foundation Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health; Psychology and mental health; Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2008 American Alcohol & Drug Information Foundation ISSN: 0090-1482|
|Issue:||Date: April, 2008 Source Volume: 52 Source Issue: 1|
|Topic:||Event Code: 310 Science & research; 280 Personnel administration; 360 Services information|
|Product:||Product Code: E121920 Children|
|Geographic:||Geographic Scope: Ireland Geographic Code: 4EUIR Ireland|
This research aimed to provide an anecdotal perception of student substance use according to the teachers 'personal experience in the Irish secondary level educational setting.
Interviews were conducted with teachers (n=95) at 10 randomly selected schools in County Carlow in the South East of Ireland, as part of a doctoral research programme assessing youth substance use in the South Eastern Region. The school type included vocational, secondary in disadvantaged area, secondary in non- disadvantaged area, youth training centre, private school and both mixed/single sex schools. A letter from the researcher and a follow up phone call to each research site initiated contact with the school principal and explained briefly the nature and purpose of the research. Teachers from all grades were randomly sampled at each school after informed consent was gained.
The research emphasis was to access the views, perspectives and concerns of teachers and their experience of substance use and its impact in the classroom. Ethical approval of the interview basis was granted by the Ethics and Research Sub Group of Waterford Institute of Technology. The interview schema was piloted on a small sample of teachers in another region not partaking in this study. The interview contained questions regarding experience of substance abuse within the school setting, knowledge and recognition of substance use in students, awareness of school drug and alcohol policy, attitude toward substance misuse and drug education, awareness of drug availability in the area and knowledge of drug related services in their area. All interviews were coded to ensure confidentiality and participants gave permission for audio recording. The interviews took place in open plan areas and in the presence of an independent colleague. All interviews were transcribed. The themes analysis of interviews reported on the issues surrounding student substance use that arose for teachers, but also aimed to identify areas of similar and contrasting opinions. As such themes arose, the interviewee was encouraged to expand in a: "lengthy conversation piece" (Simons, 1982, p. 37).
Zemke and Kramlinger's (1985) thematic analysis procedures were adopted and consisted of generating "a list of key ideas, words, phrases, and verbatim quotes; using ideas to formulate categories and placing ideas and quotes in appropriate categories; and examining the contents of each category for subtopics and selecting the most frequent and most useful illustrations for the various categories" (Anderson, 2003).
It was reported that the drug education in schools was "haphazard, dissimilar and rather hit and miss" with not every class receiving drug education, others as part of religious education and Social Personal Health Education and the remainder being visited by the local drug education officer, a former addict or juvenile liaison officer. Teachers highlighted the need for information and teacher specific training in order to recognize the warning signs of adolescent problematic substance use, as many felt this social problem was impacting on their classroom and the academic performance of some students. Some teachers also reported not feeling comfortable with the delivery of drug educational material within their class time due to lack of appropriate training and lack of available time in their curriculum, in addition to feeling that this was not compatible with their role as educator.
BACKGROUND TO RESEARCH
Drug use prevalence in Ireland has risen in the last decade (EMCDDA, 2007, NACD, 2005b) and has become increasingly commonplace in terms of the social demographic of users, age, location, drugs of choice, poly substance using, and availability of a wide range of drugs (Moran et al., 2001). In relation to young people, research suggests "a substantial social transformation is" pertaining to the normalization of adolescent substance use" in respect of experimental drug use (Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Weekly, 2004, p8). Within the context of the school environment, the "deterioration in academic performance, increased absenteeism and truancy, fighting, verbal abuse, defiance, or withdrawal are visible indicators of substance abuse" (Fisher & Harrison, 2000, p90).
Schools vary according to the collective presence of drug using adolescents, type of drug and alcohol policy, drug availability in the area, stress levels experienced by students, student disposable income levels and indeed the mode of delivery of drug educational material within the school curriculum (Jenkins, 2006). This collective grouping of youths will stimulate the development of pro or anti drug using peer groups, and individuals will typify similar behaviors, attitudes and social backgrounds (Headley, 2005).
School drug educational interventions have mixed success rates in reducing or indeed dealing with adolescent drug use (Jenkins, 2006). According to Tobler (2000, p331), "Interactive interventions such as structured group discussions that encourage peer interaction, learning, and the development of life and interpersonal skills are more effective than non interactive interventions such as didactic knowledge-based teaching". Hansen and Graham (1991, p416) found "that a normative education program designed to correct erroneous perceptions about prevalence and acceptability of substance abuse among students in their school was effective in preventing alcoholism, cannabis, and tobacco use". However, research also suggests that life-skills intervention such as Social Personal Health Education (S.P.H.E.) may have an inverse effect on collections of particularly at risk young people, due to the dissemination of drug related knowledge, the potential strength of pro drug attitudes and peer pressures within the class (Lister Sharp et al., 1999). In light of this, it is seen to be most effective to integrate such life skills interventions with community prevention initiatives, the targeting of at risk families and estates, the presence of the juvenile liaison officer and early identification of at risk young people experiencing problems (Jenkins, 2006).
Interviews were conducted with teachers (n=95) at 10 randomly selected schools in County Carlow in the South East of Ireland, as part of a doctoral research programme assessing youth substance use in the South Eastern Region. The school type included vocational, secondary in disadvantaged area, secondary in non- disadvantaged area, youth training centre, private school and youth group, and both mixed/single sex schools. A letter from the researcher and a follow up phone call to each research site initiated contact with the school principal and explained briefly the nature and purpose of the research. Teachers from all grades were randomly sampled at each school after informed consent was gained.
The research emphasis was to access the views, perspectives and concerns of teachers and their experience of substance use and its impact in the classroom. Ethical approval of the interview basis was granted by the Ethics and Research Sub Group of Waterford Institute of Technology. The interview schema was piloted on a small sample of teachers in another region not partaking in this study. The interview contained questions regarding experience of substance abuse within the school setting, knowledge and recognition of substance use in students, awareness of school drug and alcohol policy, attitude toward substance misuse and drug education, awareness of drug availability in the area and knowledge of drug related services in their area. The following themes were explored within this research phase:
1. What client group does your school work with?
2. Does your school facilitate drugs awareness training?
3. Are you aware of drugs programmes/courses run in your area?
4. Does your school have drugs information leaflets available?
5. Does your school have a drugs policy in place?
6. Have staff/leaders had in-service training?
7. Do you have a structure in place in the event of a drugs incident arising?
8. Does your school have a referral system in place in the event of an incident arising?
9. Has your school had an experience with drugs misuse over the last two years?
10. Would your school support an adolescent addiction counselling service in your area?
11. Is there a gap in services for young people and their parents in your area?
All interviews were coded to ensure confidentiality and participants gave permission for audio recording. The interviews took place in open plan areas and in the presence of an independent colleague. All interviews were transcribed. The use of themes to aid the data analysis, reported on the issues surrounding drug use that arose for teachers, trainers and other educational staff, but also aimed to identify areas of similar and contrasting opinions. As themes arose, the interviewee was encouraged to expand in a: "lengthy conversation piece" (Simons, 1982, p. 37).
In relation to the qualitative data, Zemke and Kramlinger's (1985) thematic analysis procedures were adopted. This consisted of generating "a list of key ideas, words, phrases, and verbatim quotes; using ideas to formulate categories and placing ideas and quotes in appropriate categories; and examining the contents of each category for subtopics and selecting the most frequent and most useful illustrations for the various categories" (Anderson, 2003).
DISCUSSION OF RESULTS
The anecdotal and qualitative nature of this research aims to illustrate a "picture of the teachers perceptions of student substance use" and is not accompanied by any direct observation of student substance use or qualitative methods of assessing prevalence in the school. The analyses presented in this study indicates that substance use among Irish students is increasingly common, a regular occurrence for teachers to deal with and is having an impact on academic performance, causing class disruption and draining educational services. The majority of teachers responded that substance use for adolescents appeared to be on the increase, was typified by increasing behavioural problems, student withdrawal, truancy, reduced ability to concentrate, parental concern and absenteeism. This visible increase in substance use symptomatology is supported by recent school and youth surveys in Ireland indicating an increased trend of substance use among the student population (NACD, 2006, EMCDDA, 2007). In general, the interviewees felt that this was due to increased access to a wider variety of substances, that substances were more socially acceptable (i.e. alcohol, cannabis), that youth today have more disposable income (pocket money, part time employment) and that the prices of substances were reducing (i.e. ecstasy, cocaine). Those interviewed observed that the following substances were most prevalent among school going young people;
1. Alcohol and Tobacco
All of those interviewed commented on the prevalence of alcohol abuse at a young age and the common social acceptability of drinking in the Irish culture. They voiced concern that the experimentation and use of drugs most often occurred when the young person was drinking. Interestingly, the use of alcohol as gateway substance was generally observed to begin in the home (both with and without the presence of parental supervision) and occurred most often around the time of religious or family gatherings. Those teaching young people identified as at risk also reported concern for prescription drug abuse (i.e. valium, beta blockers, sleeping tablets) and solvent abuse (i.e. hairspray, glue, aerosols and petrol) among younger adolescents. In their opinion, the general age of initiation for substance experimentation for the young person was between the ages of ten and twelve years, with males exhibiting earlier than females. A typical comment from a teacher interviewed was; "at age 10-12 years experimentation with alcohol, solvents and cigarettes begins, at ages 14-18 years the young person mixes substances such as alcohol, hash, ecstasy and cocaine in an opportunistic manner and around the ages of 18-20 years they would generally settle for one substance of preference".
Other teachers commented on the apparent modelling of behaviour based on parental, peer and sibling influences; "By the age of 15-16 years, they are collectively enjoying drug use, even if the first time is a negative experience typified by getting sick, and feeling unwell. The presence of the peer group is dominant in stimulating continued drug use, whether planned or spontaneous, providing the context and setting for drug use and the securing of drug resources". The social setting for youth substance use observed is most often inside the home, during leisure time in fields or on streets and also during school break times and most commonly within the peer setting. The following remarks were made;
"The experimentation with drugs and alcohol provides the young person with a sense of belonging to the group of friends, and becomes almost a normal rite of passage into adulthood".
"Drug taking is financially viable due to youths' disposable income and is a cheaper night out than drinking pints. An ecstasy tablet costs 5 [euro] and provides hours of the buzz, compared to the cost of a pint......"
It was observed by some teachers that, particularly within disadvantaged areas, the local youth club was not open at night or in the weekends, when these activities are most needed, in order to divert attention away from illicit pursuits such as drug taking, binge drinking and vandalism. It was notable that one Home School Liaison Officer remarked that the school no longer hosted its yearly Debutante Ball, as, because of the Irish smoking ban, they could no longer control what went on outside the doors of its function room. Some commented that initial and planned substance use may often also take place in a friend's house, with the parents satisfied that "at least he isn't on the streets". A teacher remarked that "substance use starts as spontaneous activity and becomes planned and regular" whilst others observed that "first time drug use is actually subconsciously organised". All stated that they had students presenting with both daily use to experimental weekend use. Some teachers remarked that, within those communities or families presenting chaotic peer and home life, adolescent substance use was typified as coping mechanism for crisis or indeed a form of sibling modelling. Most teachers had situations where parents were concerned about their child and did not know where to access information.
In relation to drug education, the majority were of the opinion that the delivery of drug educational programmes in schools must improve at teacher level, and teachers must receive adequate and regular training themselves. It was remarked that teachers were often not aware of drug use during lunch breaks, were not educated enough to recognise the signs within their classrooms and were often too busy delivering the curriculum. Some teachers emphasised concern for the effect of mind altering substances used during the young person's developmental stage, the impact on their academic performance and implications for future mental and physical health. Some teachers noted behavioural issues such as an inability to concentrate after school break times, mood swings, aggressiveness, agitation, perhaps indicating some drug use.
"Sure we know they are at it ... they are restless on Thursday and Friday and absolutely passive following the weekend". We have had some students caught smoking hash during breaktimes.. now we have to supervise break times and we have a rota for each member of staff has to go outside"
Some of the teachers felt that if the students were "dozy" after lunch, then it was not their concern, as they had to cover the curriculum. The following comments were made;
"I can't tell the difference between a tired student and one under the influence ... it's not really my job. I am just here to deliver the course and get them through to leaving certificate. I don't really care ... I am not a social worker ".
"I would like to know more about drug use and its symptoms as I feel that we as teachers need to in order to support our students".
It was reported that drug education in most schools was "haphazard, dissimilar and rather hit and miss" with not every class receiving drug education, others as part of religious education and Social Personal Health Education (SPHE) and the remainder being visited by the local drug education officer and in some cases a former addict. Several teachers also felt that it was not in their job description to give drug education and felt it was better left to a suitably trained outside speaker, as indicated by the following remarks;
"I don't feel the need.. It's not my job. I think a professionally trained drug educator would be better and this wouldn't disrupt the timetable as much".
One teacher commented that;" We are just focused on teaching the curriculum, with today's points race we just haven't the time to speculate if Jonny is using drugs. Its easier to get someone in to talk to the class and even this only occurs if you organize it yourself and it fits into the timetable. I wouldn't feel competent to deliver anything to do with drugs and alcohol; it's not what I trained for."
Most schools had a Drug and Alcohol Policy and had experienced students caught with drugs and dealing on school grounds. Most of the teachers interviewed were not aware of drugs programs run in the local area and only half had experienced in service training regarding the implementation of drug educational material. In addition, some schools had experienced a fatality due to substance overdose and the teachers felt that this had had a significant effect on their students' attitude to drug taking and experimentation.
The school setting may play an important role in guiding the adolescent on many levels, as classes may present with pro or anti drug norms and may exhibit varied levels of drug activity within the school (Headley, 2005). The teachers reported that drug education in schools was not implemented in a uniform manner, with not all students receiving similar material due to timetabling constraints and absenteeism. It was highlighted that teachers needed timely information and teacher specific training in order to recognize the warning signs of adolescent problematic substance use, as many felt this social problem was impacting on their classroom and the academic performance of some students. Teachers also reported not feeling comfortable with the delivery of drug educational material within their class time due to lack of appropriate training, timetabling constraints, role ambiguity and lack of available time.
According to Elliot (2005), it is vital for community, drug education, public health and educational settings to work together and disseminate similar messages in order to create uniform drug awareness and reduced drug activity in young people. In order to reach a greater target audience and improve success rates, drug prevention programs must include a multitude of initiatives ranging from school events or community forums that focus on drugs or wider health issues, drama in drug education programs, drug education via sports and other activities, therapeutic recreation and national and local harm prevention campaigns. Interventions may be required to target those thought to be vulnerable and also to prevent these at risk individuals from missing school-based drug education. Involving parents may offer some support to the parent experiencing drug abuse in their child; however, this can only be successful if the parents adopt a supportive and not hostile role (Stanton & Shadish, 1997). However, the potential of parent led and youth led drug education cannot be under estimated in its potent capacity to disseminate information and support those experiencing substance abuse in the school and home settings.
This study was part of doctoral research undertaken in the South Eastern Region of Ireland investigating recreational drug and alcohol use among young people.
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Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to: Marie Claire Van Hout, M.Sc., BA, Glenaskough, Nine Mile House, Carrick on Suir, Co. Tipperary, Ireland; phone: (00) 353-87-2375979; email: email@example.com.
Marie Claire Van Hout, M.Sc., BA
Sean Connor, Ph.D., MA, BA
Waterford Institute of Technology
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