October 4, 2023

The role of drug education in schools

High school students at memorial

Engaging students in alcohol and other drug (AOD) education can help shape their attitudes and behaviours toward AOD, now and in the future.

It can also help them develop strategies for risky situations, and empower them to make safer and healthier choices.1, 2

Creating an inclusive school culture and positive student experiences, along with having a comprehensive AOD policy in place, are crucial in promoting healthier AOD behaviours.3, 4

Taking a whole of school approach

A ‘whole of school’ approach recognises that student health and wellbeing can be influenced by many complex and overlapping factors.

For example, having good relationships with peers, teachers, coaches, school counsellors and nurses can impact a young person’s development.3, 5

Students who feel connected at school and have positive role models may also be less likely to experience harms from alcohol and other drugs.3, 5

A good school culture can have other positive benefits, such as reducing bullying and increasing physical activity.6

A ‘whole of school’ approach includes having policies in place for the management of any alcohol or other drug-related incidents. This is looked at in more detail below.

This type of approach also works well alongside evidence-based drug education programs.

What makes a good school drug education program?

Programs that have good evidence behind them typically:

  • use interactive approaches to engage students
  • deliver the program over multiple sessions that are well-structured and regular (usually around once a week)
  • provide booster sessions over multiple years
  • are delivered by teachers or other trained staff
  • give students the opportunity to learn and practice personal and social skills, including coping, decision-making and resistance
  • highlight that many teens don’t use AOD in Australia and there has been declining use overall in recent years.7

Here are some recommended programs in Australia:

Programs that are less effective often:

  • use non-interactive approaches, such as lecturing, as the main strategy
  • use scare tactics to discourage students from using AOD
  • use unstructured discussions
  • focus only on building self-esteem and emotional education
  • focus too much on ethical and moral decision-making or values
  • involve people who have previously used drugs to talk about their personal experiences. This can make AOD use seem more common than it is, which may lead to more students experimenting.7

It’s also important education programs avoid using language or images that stigmatise people who use drugs. You can read more about stigma here:

School alcohol and other drug policies

School policies should discourage drug use while also taking a non-punitive approach to any incidents of students or staff using AOD at school.7, 8

A good policy will usually have a number of these key elements:

  • doesn’t disrupt normal school functioning
  • involves all types of school community members (students, teachers, staff and parents) in developing the policy
  • clearly outlines the substances that are covered, and locations/occasions that the policy applies to (for example, not having alcohol at school events such as fundraisers, or being used as prizes/gifts)
  • applies to both legal/illegal psychoactive substances (tobacco/nicotine, vaping, alcohol, other drugs, prescription medications)
  • applies to everyone on school grounds (students, teachers, staff, visitors including parents)
  • provides clear ways to address incidents of AOD use by students, treating them as an opportunity for education and health-promotion, rather than punishment
  • is enforced consistently and quickly.


Vaping has become a concern for many schools. Educators may be interested in providing vaping information or education to their students, staff and parents.

Because the issue is relatively new, there’s a lack of school education programs that have been properly evaluated and show evidence of effectiveness.9

But some current evidence-based drug education programs may now offer vaping content as part of their modules. And some have created new modules for e-cigarettes and vaping.

OurFutures for example, is currently trialling a vaping module: OurFutures Vaping: Empower young people to improve their physical and mental health.

Other useful vaping resources designed for schools and educators include:

Further information

Learn more about what schools can do through Dovetail’s ‘Alcohol and other drugs in schools’ resource. It includes information on school connectivity, policy and incident response, and education in the classroom.

Find out about effective classroom drug education programs through the Positive Choices website, and what makes effective programs and policies through the WHO’s International Standards on Drug Use Prevention.

Visit our Drug Facts pages for more alcohol and other drug info.

  1. Teeson M, Newton NC, Barrett EL. Australian school-based prevention program for alcohol and other drugs; A systematic review 2012 [22.02.2023]; 31(6):[731-6 pp.].
  2. Foxcroft D, Tsertsvadze, A. Universal multi-component prevention programs for alcohol misuse in young people. 2011 [09.02.2023]; (9).
  3. Fletcher A, Bonell C, Hargreaves J. School Effects on Young People’s Drug Use: A Systematic Review of Intervention and Observational Studies. Journal of Adolescent Health [Internet]. 2008 [22.02.2023]; 42(3):[209-20 pp.].
  4. Rowland B, Benstead M, Ghayour-Minaie M, Renner H, Smith R, Toumbourou JW. A review of alcohol and drug education and early intervention programs in Australian government schools.Melbourne: Deakin University; 2019 [22.02.2023].
  5. Loxley W, Toumbourou JW, Stockwell T, Haines B, Scott K, Godfrey C, et al. The prevention of substance use, risk and harm in Australia: a review of the evidence 2004 [11.09.2023].
  6. Langford R, Bonell C, Jones H, Pouliou T, Murphy S, Waters E, et al. The World Health Organization’s health promoting schools framework: a Cochrane systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Public Health [Internet]. 2015 [11.09.2023]; 15(1):[130 p.].
  7. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. International Standards on Drug Use Prevention, Second updated edition. Vienna: UNODC and the World Health Organization; 2018 [11.09.2023].
  8. Victoria State Government - Education and Training. Engaging parents in drug education 2020 [28.09.2022].
  9. Gardner LA. Study protocol of the Our Futures Vaping Trial: a cluster randomised controlled trial of a school-based eHealth intervention to prevent e-cigarette use among adolescents. BMC Public Health [Internet]. 2023 [08.09.2023]; 23(1):[683 p.].

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