Schools are often the centre of communities. What happens within a school often reflects the wider community that students come from. Schools can provide an environment where concerns in the community can emerge, be identified, and supported. If school students are found to be using substances, most of the time it does not mean that the school has a substance use problem, however, there are approaches that schools can take to effect positive changes in their community.

Every young person will make a decision at some point in their lives whether they will use alcohol and drugs or not. Many experiment either during adolescence, or into their adult lives. Some of these will experience short term problems to do with this, and a few will develop ongoing problems.

There are factors, called risk factors, in a young person’s life that mean they are more at risk of developing longer-term problems. There are also factors, called protective factors, that buffer against these risk factors, and help a young person to be less likely to experience longer-term problems.

The great news, is that schools can introduce many of the protective factors to a young person’s life! The longer we can keep young people engaged at school, the better their life outcomes! And even better – the protective factors work across many areas of a young person’s life, not just their substance use.

Here are some examples of risk and protective factors (from the Youth Development Strategy Aotearoa):

Risk Factors

Protective Factors

  • Low self esteem, poor social or coping skills
  • Chronic illness, mental health or behaviour or learning problems
  • Lack of social support from family, neighbourhood and wider community
  • Truancy, academic failure and dropping out of school
  • Heavy use of alcohol and other drugs, especially where this is self-medication
  • Parenting that is: overly harsh; sets insufficient boundaries; inflexible with regard to changing needs with age; overly permissive; abusive; violent; and neglectful
  • Chronic marital conflict, particularly where it is in front of the children, destructive and/or involves violence
  • Experiencing divorce while growing up
  • Low income in the family
  • Multiple problems or disadvantages in the family, including poor accommodation, mental health problems, unemployment, violence, addiction, crime and poverty
  • Sexual abuse as well as emotional, physical and verbal abuse, bullying or neglect
  • Transience, high mobility.
  • Large net of social support from wider family, teachers, school, workplace, church, youth organisations and leaders
  • Faith that life has meaning, optimism, aspirations, hopes and plans for the future
  • Parenting that combines warmth with clear limits and firm consequences
  • Safe, supportive neighbourhoods
  • Staying longer at school and achieving well
  • Involved in extracurricular activities and having many interests and hobbies
  • At least one close friend
  • Mainly law-abiding friends with positive interests
  • Thinking skills, including problem solving and seeing things from others’ perspectives
  • Positive social interactions with other people
  • Attachment to the community and one’s culture
  • Meaningful employment.

There is a lot that can be done! The good news is that many approaches that have been shown to work are often already being done. In a nutshell, keeping a young person engaged at school gives them better opportunities in the long run.

Here is one way to look at it:

The following is a model used by the World Health Organisation to outline the intersect between Health Promotion, Prevention, Treatment, and Maintenance strategies to promote well-being and quality of life.

Schools are great environments for mental health promotion. Creating environments that are supportive, and empower young people to build their competence and resilience has been shown to be a considerable protective factor for young people.

Schools can also be involved in approaches that are preventative for young people misusing substances. This model breaks preventative approaches into three different subareas: universal; selective; and indicated. These apply to different groups of students.

  • Universal preventative approaches are those that are designed to reach all students
  • Selective prevention approaches are those that are designed to reach students at risk of developing an issue
  • Indicated prevention approaches are those that are designed to reach students who are showing early signs of an issue developing, without yet meeting the criteria for clinical diagnosis.
  • Often partnering with a specialist youth service can help support these young people.

There are lots of things that a school can do independently, and in partnership with other services to ensure all their students needs are met.

Great question! Firstly, where possible, try to keep young people at school. This leads to better outcomes for that young person, and also for the local community.

As a Board of Trustees, it is good to regularly review your school’s policies on health and wellbeing, and substance use. Involving local communities and specialist services can be extremely beneficial to ensure that these are up-to-date with best practice.

Try to set clear and consistent boundaries, that are realistic for your community. For example, for a young person who is developing an addictive pattern of substance use, an expectation that they immediately stop using with no lapses might be unrealistic. Sometimes, if a young person has been using on a daily basis, and they decide that they can stop suddenly, it is important to ensure there is support for them to get through the first few challenging days as the substance leaves their body. Some schools have worked this into a tailored plan with the young person, where self-directed work is provided for them to complete; contact is arranged with a social worker, school counsellor, or dean; and support is provided to reintegrate into school if it was decided that they would benefit from some time away from school.

This can depend on each school. It generally is good to work closely with local alcohol and drug services, and youth networks. Having opportunities to regularly discuss trends can be very helpful to support the wider community to be proactive both within and outside of school. In addition, keeping the Ministry of Education in the loop with emerging trends can also be helpful.

A blend of these approaches often works best, and they do not need to just involve school staff. Specialist service providers can often provide valuable expertise and skills to support young people.


Drugs Testing

Most of the research says that there are limited evidence in favour of drug testing. If a young person does not have a strong connection to school, the threat of being withdrawn from school may not be a big enough motivator to overpower their compulsion to use substances.

Not recommended for most cases

Support for the young person to strengthen their protective factors (e.g. family, involvement in sport, involvement in their community)

These protective factors have been shown to help buffer the impact of risk factors in a young person’s life. In addition, they set up a young person with a strong foundation, from which they can take advantage of more opportunities. Have a look at what areas and connections a young person wants to strengthen in their life. This can be a good question to ask to the young person at their meeting.


Involving specialist support to reduce their connection to substances

This is where specialist services working in partnership with schools can be beneficial.


Providing opportunities to connect with positive peers

Some schools have great peer mentoring systems, where students look out for each other, and develop leadership skills. Often, young people who have made changes themselves make excellent student leaders!


Providing support for the young person to catch up at school

Often young people who have been using substances are behind in their school work, and need additional support to catch up. They may have shame around mentioning this, and often speak about feeling like it would be too hard for them to catch up to the rest of the class. Feeling academically competent is a powerful protective factor for young people, while feeling incompetent is a powerful risk factor.


The Ministry of Education’s strong message is to keep young people in school as long as possible.

This is a common question that we get asked.

A common rationale that Board of Trustees have is that stand-downs, suspensions, exclusions, and expulsions may send a message to the school community that substance use at school will not be tolerated.

Here are some common themes that emerge from discussions with Board of Trustees:
Possible positive effects:

  • This may deter some young people, who place importance on their education, and therefore may decide not to use substances.

Possible neutral effects:

  • Limited effects on the choice to use substances or not for young people in the school community who do not place importance on their education

Possible negative effects:

  • Substance use within the school community may become more hidden in the school community, while still remaining
  • Students who are using substances may be less likely to seek support, with the belief that they would then be more likely to get stood down
  • A student who has been stood down, suspended, excluded, or expelled from school, will then have more unstructured time, with fewer activities  to participate in. This often leads to an increase in substance use, and can lead to other young people in their peer group increasing their substance use too. Over time, this can lead to more substance use issues in the wider community, which in turn then becomes reflected within the school community.

Have a look at your school’s policies on how students should be supported when incidents occur. This could identify areas where additional support for can be sourced.

  • Health promoting schools - Click here to download
  • Supporting schools and communities to respond to students using alcohol and other students at school – Report produced by Auckland City Community Action Youth and Drugs for the Whole School Approach Working Group
  • When one door closes: Evidence based solutions to improve outcomes and open new doors for students excluded or expelled from school in New Zealand  - Nadia Freeman, Public Health Advisor for Community Action Youth and Drugs Click here to download
  • More than just a policy: Best practice for alcohol and other drug policy for youth organisations. Guidelines and Workbook – Health Action Trust Click here to download
  • Drug testing in schools: evidence, impacts, and alternatives – Australian National Council on Drugs Click here to download
  • Keeping them connected—reducing drug-related harm in Australian schools from a Catholic perspective – Peter Norden Click here to download
  • Ministry of Education – Guildelines for principals and boards of trustees for managing bejhaviour that may or not lead to stand-downs, suspensions, exclusions, and expulsions: