Students dealing with addiction need understanding and flexibility from their students
Library, Tips for School & District Administrators

Helping Students Cope with Addiction: Tips for Teachers

By Brian Gatens

If you teach long enough, you’ll eventually be asked to work with a student who is battling drug and alcohol addiction — either personally or through their families.

Students dealing with addiction need understanding and flexibility from their studentsThe latest studies from the National Institutes of Health have noted a sharp drop-off in illicit alcohol, tobacco and drug use by America’s teens in the past several years, but the problem still persists. That’s why it’s so important to provide the right message, hold the proper perspective and work with the child through a difficult time.

Remember it’s a medical — not a moral — issue

Those affected by behavior of the addict instinctively blame the situation on the addict. Addiction is tricky because it’s a medical condition masquerading as personal choice, and while it appears that the addict is making poor decisions, in reality, they are victims to the whims and wants of their drug of choice.

There is no way a rational person, especially one surrounded by a caring and loving family, would willingly trade all that away because they wanted to. They’re in the clutches of a disease that’s calling the shots. As they say in recovery programs, “Hate the disease. Love the person.”

Look at the big picture

Student-addicts often need to attend outside counseling sessions or spend time at a residential treatment center to give their recovery a strong and intense focus. Obviously this will interrupt their education, so you have to be reasonable and look at the big picture on classwork, tests and homework.

Addiction treatment — and this is not an overstatement — is a life-and-death issue. Having the child get the necessary help outweighs all school-related matters. Extend deadlines, offer extra help and be giving of your time and patience.

Empathize, don’t sympathize

Nobody has an easy time addressing their addiction, and especially a child who is managing all the other adolescent emotions. Rather than tell them you feel sorry for them, a better tact is to let your student know that you’re happy that they’re OK and getting the help they need, and that you’re there for them as necessary.

Offering a “safe harbor” for the child, even if they never come to see you for help, sends a strong message about the caring nature of the school staff.

Talk to your supervisor

As with any student medical issue, be sure to speak with your school nurse, immediate supervisor and your school’s substance abuse counselor. They will give you specific advice and direction as you help the child re-enter the classroom.

Working off of their advice and guidance is the best way to proceed so you can be certain that you’re not overstepping boundaries and that you’re doing the best possible job on behalf of the child. This situation is where veteran colleagues can be strong sources of guidance and sage advice.

Keep confidentiality above all

As the child manages all the emotions of addiction — anger, shame, worry and fear among others — it is essential that the student’s private life remains exactly that. From time to time, we all work with colleagues who are gossips and seem to revel in the poor choices and difficult situations of our students.

Do not engage in this behavior and avoid those who do, or agree not to discuss a child’s challenges with them. The student has too much at stake to get caught up in the petty pursuits of unkind people.

What of relapses?

Not all addicts stay clean and sober — some students do slip back into the throes of addiction. Set clear boundaries with them, communicate with your school’s medical staff and emphasize that you like them, but not who they are when using drugs and alcohol.

All schools have strict policies regarding student drug and alcohol use and you must communicate your concerns to your school’s administration.

Working with students attempting to recover from their disease is often difficult and frustrating work. You can’t guarantee a child will get clean and sober and stay that way, but you can ensure your class and school help give them the best possible chance.

Never forget to be kind, patient and loving regardless of their addiction and their accompanying choices.

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