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Although the association between substance use and academic performance has been on the radar of researchers for quite some time, what is under-recognized by researchers and policy makers alike is the contribution of substance use to poor academic performance.

This distinction is important because it tells us that doing something about substance use is a viable option for improving academic performance. Because we know that almost one-quarter of students will eventually drop out of high school, we need to add drug prevention and intervention to the list of things we can do to solve the nation’s dropout crisis.

The consequences of dropping out are profound. High school dropouts are much more likely than high school graduates to have health problems, to earn less income over their lifetimes and to be incarcerated. Strangely, this connection between substance use and academic decline, failure and dropout is not mentioned on the numerous websites, including that of the U.S. Department of Education, that advise parents on how to help their teenage children achieve academic success.

The Institute for Behavior and Health, Inc. has released a new report, America’s Dropout Crisis: The Unrecognized Connection to Adolescent Substance Use, which includes the following key findings:

• Substance-using students, compared with non-users, are at increased risk for academic failure, including dropout, especially when the use is frequent and heavy.

• Marijuana use negatively impacts academic outcomes (lower GPA and higher rates of dropout) somewhat more than does alcohol. The authors speculate that this might be due to differences in the patterns of consumption between alcohol (typically consumed on weekends) and marijuana (consumed throughout the week) among adolescents. National studies show that in recent years, as perceived risk of harm from marijuana has declined, marijuana use among youth has increased.

• Sometimes substance use precedes academic failure; sometimes early academic failure precedes use. There are many pathways leading to different adverse outcomes from substance use during adolescence.

• Cessation of substance use following treatment is associated with improvement in academic performance. This evidence shows that doing something about substance use is an important way to promote and improve academic success.

• New neurobiological research tells us that there are short- and longer-term effects of drug use on students’ ability to learn. Certainly, learning is compromised if students come to class under the influence. Motivation to study and achieve declines as the use becomes more regular. Too often, students with alcohol or drug problems aren’t even making it to the classroom.

What Parents Need to Know

Dropout is the extreme result of a complex and interacting set of risk factors. Because of the critical role parents play both in preventing substance use and promoting academic success, they need to know what they can do to prevent use in the first place, and intervene if their child has a drug or alcohol problem. Once use occurs, an entire constellation of change agents may be needed to solve the problem.

Scientific evidence has made it clear that drinking and drug use during adolescence can be risky. Even a little alcohol use may lead to problems. Many research studies show that the earlier the exposure, the more problems later. We know that what parents say to their teenage children about substance use matters; parents need to be clear that they do not approve of substance use. A recent research study followed students from high school through their college years. It showed that parents who communicated to their college-bound children the message of zero tolerance for substance use were less likely to have children with drinking problems in college than were parents who were more permissive.

Given the evidence, parents need to be armed with skills and strategies to prevent substance use, to recognize problems early and to intervene when a problem occurs. With what we now know about the potential risks of adolescent substance use, including the negative impact on academic performance, it is critical that parents and school administrators intervene when substance use is detected. Students that show early signs of academic difficulties should be specifically screened for drug and alcohol use. Steps should be taken to ensure that at-risk students become and stay drug-and alcohol-free. Proper management must be comprehensive and may include assessments and interventions for behavioral problems and mental health disorders.

The authors of the report, which include leading researchers from the Institute for Behavior and Health, Inc., the Center on Young Adult Health and Development and Treatment Research Institute, are interested in learning more about dropout prevention programs that include the identification and intervention of substance use of at-risk students. Rather than develop strategies de novo, their goal is to identify, extend and improve existing intervention models.

The more research tells us about the negative effects of alcohol and drugs on adolescent health and intellectual development, the more important prevention becomes. There should be a shared understanding between families, school systems and the broader community that underage drinking and drug use is not consistent with the goals of maximizing student potential, promoting student health and preparing students for the future.

For more information for parents, visit:

Amelia M. Arria, PhD and Robert L. DuPont, MD

Amelia M. Arria, PhD is a Senior Scientist at Treatment Research Institute and the Scientific Director of the Parents Translational Research Center. She is also the Director of the Center on Young Adult Health and Development at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.

Robert L. DuPont, MD is the founding president of the Institute for Behavior and Health, Inc. He is recognized as a national leader in drug abuse prevention and treatment. Among his many contributions to the field is his leadership as the first Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and as the second White House Drug Chief.

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