Please assign a menu to the primary menu location under menu


How do school counselors help students with addictions?

Students in the US have every chance to thrive under the guidance of a patient, caring, and observant school counselor. Although many children and young adults enjoy their time in education, sometimes they experience pressure and stress that they struggle to manage alone. That’s when they turn to a school counselor for help getting through their formative years and achieving the best academic results possible. With advice and therapy from an expert, young people can navigate problems at home, within a peer group, and with addictions.

Recognizing the signs of addiction is essential

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), addiction is a chronic disease that impacts almost every area of a sufferer’s life. Whether a student uses alcohol or drugs, these substances and others affect their motivation and memory. Moreover, because they have cravings for the substance, an addicted student will often neglect or ignore other areas of their life, such as socializing, family time, education, and work.

Recognizing the early signs that a young person has an addiction problem often requires specialist knowledge. Although parents and teachers often believe they would be able to spot changes early, it can be not easy when the person in question is someone they know. That’s because, in the initial stages of an addiction, the sufferer may hide the more subtle signs. Moreover, when it comes to teens in particular, a certain amount of moodiness may be attributed to adolescence and overlooked until the behavioral changes become more marked.

Once a problem has taken hold, young people often hide it from those around them and try to kick the habit alone. Unfortunately, that’s rarely a successful strategy, which is why schools, parents, and the children themselves benefit from the expertise of a counselor. In addition to knowing the general risk factors and assessing young people for signs of substance abuse, counselors are adults whom many children will see as their best option when looking for help. Motivating children to overcome addiction can be a challenge, but it’s just one of the many ways in which school counselors ensure every child can reach their full potential.

Helping young people can be a rewarding career

The chance to change children’s lives for the better makes counseling advantageous, but it is one for which a great deal of training is necessary. In the past, this was provided exclusively by brick-and-mortar universities and was often out of reach for people already working. However, universities like St. Bonaventure have developed remote learning courses tailored to the requirements of students with full-time jobs.

Bachelor’s degree graduates who are just starting in school counseling and those already employed in the field can enroll in the online Master’s School Counseling program at St. Bonaventure University and qualify at their own pace. Instruction is provided through coursework focusing on multicultural counseling, as well as internships, and a practicum, leaving students confident and ready to pass their licensed professional counselor exam. Once they enter their first role, new school counselors can offer support and ensure that each student could reach their potential.

In what ways can school counselors tackle addiction?

Most students will go through periods when they test out boundaries or engage in unhealthy or negative behaviors. Once they face the consequences of these behaviors or have a chance to reflect on their actions, most of them will understand that their actions were potentially dangerous or harmful and change their behavior. For those who are in the grip of an addiction, however, things are different. They often feel unable to stop taking the substance and ignore warning signs. They will also attempt to continue the behavior by either concealing it or finding ways to justify it.

Counselors are trained to recognize the emotional, physical, and academic signs of changes in their students and step in to provide treatment or a referral if necessary. They will act as soon as they suspect a problem because early intervention makes a student less vulnerable to the long-term effects of addiction.

Although the changes in a person are relatively mild at the start of a period of substance abuse, the middle and later stages bring more significant consequences. If the counselor does not identify these, the sufferer is likely to ignore them and prioritize their habits. From contracting a disease through shared needles to broken relationships with family or friends and dropping out of school, once the problem grows, its impact is harder to manage.

There are many ways a school counselor can help students who are in the early stages of addiction and ensure they stop for good. An effective counselor will consider the student holistically. For example, young people who come from a stable, supportive home and have good self-esteem tend to have a lower risk of addiction. The counselor will also think about the friendship circle of the student, as those with a drug-free cohort group are often more protected. They may experience difficulties, but they have enough support without needing to lean on a substance.

Should a counselor determine that a student does not have this positive network and life experiences, they will aim to deliver intentional, targeted support. This works to mitigate some of the risk factors that may impact young people and help them avoid the pitfalls of addiction.

Giving students aspirations and discussing goals

Goals can give a young person focus at a difficult time. Therefore, as part of their therapeutic offerings, counselors will discuss the student’s academic and career aspirations. The counselor can set objectives that the student agrees with and make it easier to understand how these goals can be achieved. They will also talk about the availability of recreational activities near the student’s home or access to transportation in their community. Doing something positive, such as joining a sports team or volunteering for a non-profit, can reduce the stress a young person feels and help them avoid situations where drugs or alcohol might be available.

If a student feels that they need extra support to reach their goals, the counselor can work as a liaison to find ways of tackling these concerns. This could involve finding medical assistance to keep them in great physical health, educational support for learning struggles, or working with the student’s family to build healthier relationships at home.

Ensuring the student feels supported by trusted adults

In many cases, parents can play a key role in the success of students, but they will often benefit from the guidance of a school counselor. Parents might be asked to come into the school to work on a prevention plan with their child and the counselor. Parents can also receive training in supporting their children more effectively through difficult times.

Moreover, the counselor will use their skills to nurture a relationship with the student and establish a climate of trust. This makes the young person more comfortable approaching the counselor should they need to and gives them an extra layer of protection when it comes to combating addiction.

Encouraging a student to take responsibility for their actions

Students who have an addiction have lost control over their use of their habit or behavior. They are also not thinking clearly about the repercussions of what they are doing. To enhance a student’s ability to understand, make better choices, and say “no” when facing the temptation to reuse, counselors will consider a range of cognitive and behavioral therapies. Assertiveness training can help students to stand up for what is best for them and be confident in avoiding problematic acquaintances.

To keep students on track, counselors will use techniques that encourage the young person to feel accountable and to be aware of the progress they have made. One of the most effective ways of doing this is by modeling supportive behavior. Expressing concern and care, keeping promises, and praising hard work encourages students to feel secure and honest. Accountability is not a skill that can be learned overnight, and it can feel very uncomfortable, especially for a student who has put effort into concealing their addiction.

Nevertheless, school counselors foster a sense of accountability in their students because it involves being honest and taking responsibility for choices. As a result, it can help students to remain addiction-free in the long term.

Which skills enable identification of early signs of substance abuse?

School counselors know that when left unchecked, addictions can have an extremely detrimental effect on the lives of young people. Along with highly distressing symptoms of substance abuse such as poor physical health, students can experience problems with their schoolwork and relationships. That’s why counselors are trained to understand what the signs of addiction can be.

This is no easy task, however, because these signs can vary greatly between young people and will depend on the form of addiction they are experiencing. Moreover, a counselor needs to understand the difference between a phase and an addiction, especially when it comes to social behaviors that many people take part in, such as drinking or smoking.

Nevertheless, when they are in the earliest stages, even before they are suffering from a full-blown addiction, the clues are there. For example, a young person who has been involved in binge drinking will often have feelings of remorse afterward, especially if they feel ill the next day or did something that was out of character. In people who are heading for an addiction problem, the counselor will see less remorse and a tendency to look for situations where the same experience can be repeated.

There are also other factors that can signal to a trained counselor that a student may have an addiction. These include personality changes that worsen over time, along with poor academic performance or attendance issues at school. Even in the early days of an addiction, there may be changes in a student’s appearance and health, along with a worsening of any mental health problems they have been managing.

If a counselor has concerns, they can move on to looking at a student’s risk factors for addiction and using screening tools to understand more about the situation.

How can screening tools help school counselors support their students?

When counselors suspect that a student has a problem with substance abuse, they can use a range of screening tools that are designed with young people in mind. Most screenings take the form of a questionnaire, and they will indicate how the subject’s drug use is currently impacting their life. The counselor will use the results of these tests to decide whether additional assessments or referrals to other professionals are needed. They can gain insight into the type of addiction a student has and the extent to which it has become a part of their life. These tests also look at the other factors that can influence how a student might respond to different types of treatment. For example, tests include questions about traumatic experiences, mental disorders, and social problems.

Car, Relax, Alone, Forget, Friends, Trouble (CRAFFT)

The CRAFFT test has been designed specifically for teens and is therefore a good option for school counselors who work with high school students. It includes a range of yes-and-no questions that relate to both alcohol and drug use. The subjects are asked about the times they take drugs or drink alcohol, whether they are alone, in a group, or in a more dangerous situation, such as being driven in a vehicle by someone who is under the influence.

There are also questions about the repercussions of the students’ habits, such as whether they have been told to cut down on by friends and family or if they have ever gotten into trouble because of their drinking or drug taking. In general, if a student answers “yes” to two or more questions, the counselor may consider them at risk of developing an addiction.

Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT)

To decide on the best course of action in terms of counseling strategies and educational approaches to challenge a student’s drug use, counselors often use SBIRT alongside another form of screening. These results enable them to understand more clearly what level of support and professional assistance a student may need. This is an evidence-based approach that is designed to improve the outcomes of young people who are struggling to manage an addiction. It can help students kick their habit, reduce their use of alcohol or drugs, or discourage them from ever starting.

It’s based on the idea that early interventions are often the most successful when it comes to tackling addictions. That’s why SBIRT is often carried out on everyone in a school, as the results allow counselors to spot and address the needs of children who may require a higher level of care to help with their addiction.

What type of risk factors do school counselors look for in their students? 

School counselors see students every day and are available to offer advice when needed. This puts them in an ideal position to learn more about the children at their school on a personal level and to identify those who may be more at risk of developing an addiction. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a student’s home life plays a huge part in their susceptibility to addiction.

Those who have a parent with a history of drug abuse and those whose parents condone this behavior are at higher risk. Similarly, children who are not well monitored by their parents and subsequently spend more time outside can end up associating with peers who partake in substance abuse. Students who lack parental guidance are more vulnerable to peer pressure and want to conform. Sometimes children are at a higher risk of drug abuse because they have mental health issues. These may be caused by childhood abuse or family rejection of some type.

If a counselor observes the warning signs of early addiction, coupled with significant risk factors, they can immediately intervene and facilitate the appropriate support.

The important role school counselors play in tackling addiction

Substance abuse affects school-aged children, and the counselors who work with young people must address the needs of those who are impacted. As a trusted adult with professional training who is not part of the teaching team, school counselors are in an ideal position when it comes to identifying at-risk students. Their specialist training allows them to stage interventions that prevent addictions from worsening or manage more serious addictions. To do this, the counselor will use a range of resources and collaborations with occupational therapists, mental health counselors, and school nurses. They will also act as a point of contact between parents, teachers, and students, ensuring that each student feels supported by the adults around them.