Approaching an Addicted Student: A Teacher’s Perspective

Signs of Addiction in Students, Approaching Addicted Student, student and counselor talking

By Cristina Utti MFA, MA

Getting to know my students and building a relationship of trust and respect is of utmost importance. For me, it would be difficult to teach them anything without building this teacher-student bond.

Teachers are often the people that a student will come to when they have problems. Every school has school counselors who are certified in counseling, yet students spend most of their time with teachers, even more time than with their own parents or guardians in some instances. Being a teacher is much more than simply teaching; it includes acting as a counselor, parent, and life guide.

As teachers get to know their students’ individual quirks and personalities, they can much easier catch when a student is “off.” When one or more students in the classroom are having an off day, this is the time to practice flexibility. For example, our school recently experienced a tragedy when a 7th grade student passed away in a house fire. It was announced at lunch. When the students returned to the classroom after lunch, they were distraught. This was not the time to continue on with the lesson plan of the day. This was the time to be a guidance counselor, the time to talk, share feelings, and just “be there” for the kids.

The day-to-day moments of our lives, and how we handle them, define us. So how does a teacher approach a student who is having an obvious addiction problem? First of all, if a relationship has not been built, a teacher may not even notice the student is suffering. Second, if a teacher has no background knowledge of addiction or alcoholism, they might recognize the signs. Third, all of the pep rallies and health classes in schools that rally against drugs and provide drug and alcohol education mean nothing if a student is already using. Saying “no” doesn’t work if they have already said “yes” and are caught up in that world.

When we see the signs of drug/alcohol abuse or addiction, such as slipping grades, behavior problems, sleeping in class, red eyes, weight loss, missing a lot of classes, etc., there are several ways we can help.

If it is early in the school year, or if a teacher-student relationship has not clicked, a teacher can notify the school counselor and call the parents. If the relationship with the student has had time to develop, and if the student knows the teacher cares about them, a conversation may be appropriate.

One approach to a conversation is to ask the student to see you after class. When approaching a student about their drug or alcohol use, do it in a safe environment. Do not call them out in front of their friends or the entire class. That will lead them to shut down and break the trust you’ve established.

Speak to the student privately. Let them know that you care about them. Tell them that you have seen a decline in their grades, behavior, social interaction, hygiene, etc., within the specific time period. Most students will not easily admit that they have an alcohol or drug problem, so do not be surprised if they deny that they have been using. Don’t argue with them. You want to build trust. If possible, share with them a story about someone you know who suffered from addiction. Tell them what happened. This lets them know that you are not ignorant as to the signs of drug abuse. Sharing a story with them may get them to open up. If they don’t open up the first time you talk with them, continue every day to ask them how they are, and keep an eye out for any changes in appearance, behavior, and school work. Let them know that you will be there if they ever need to talk, and give the times that you will be alone in your classroom (during prep periods, or after school). Make calls home and notify the guidance counselor for extra support.

You might also consider incorporating tools of recovery into the lessons. For example, when a student gets upset, have them breathe deeply, journal their feelings, walk it out, etc. There are many tools we can use in the classroom that are also used in recovery. If this is consistent in classroom management, the students with the addiction problems will not feel singled out.

Also, speak with the guidance counselor about the possibility of introducing a 12-step program in the school if drug and alcohol abuse are prevalent.

The most important thing to remember is that people with substance abuse problems are often in denial that they have a problem at all. A student may also be scared to share this with a teacher for fear of getting in trouble. We may not be able to form this special relationship with all of our students due to personality conflicts and such, but building as many as we can will give them a positive role model and someone that they may be able to turn to without fear.

The best we can give our students is ourselves. Listen to what they say, watch what they do, be there for them when they act out, and take appropriate steps to help them.

Are you or a loved one needing treatment? Contact the Ranch at Dove Tree today at 806.307.2003.