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07 Aug, Sunday
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Montreal Families

Drug program targets preteens

 It is the first week of high school and your 12-year-old is trying to find her place in her new school. She is pleased when a group of kids invite her to walk to the bus stop with them. But along the way, someone lights up a joint and offers it around. What is your daughter going to do? Can she find a discreet way to leave or a comfortable way to say ‘no’? Or will she feel compelled to smoke up in order to fit in?

As much as parents wish it weren’t so, situations like this one happen all the time. In fact, researchers estimate that 30 per cent of Canadian students 13 years and older have already tried marijuana. Now, thanks to a new program being piloted by the English Montreal School Board (EMSB), students in Grades 5 and 6 can develop the skills and knowledge needed to make healthy decisions about drug use.

The Kids Can! Program was developed in Montreal by Agence Ometz, a non-profit social service agency, and is funded by Health Canada. Barbara Victor, Clinical Director of Ometz, says the program ensures that children, parents and teachers work together to address drug use.

Students attend six sessions, led by a facilitator from Concordia University’s Applied Human Sciences Department, in which they learn about the effects of two commonly-used substances marijuana and Ritalin (a drug used to treat ADHD, but which some young people take to get a feeling of euphoria, wakefulness and focus). They discuss ways to withstand peer pressure and how to help friends who may be taking drugs.

Parents receive a workbook with information about how to talk to their kids. When creating the program, the developers sought input from parents about their drug concerns. Families were also asked for feedback on the workbook, which includes a comprehensive list of health and social services (such as the free, 24-hour Kids Help Phone web and telephone counselling service) where young people can ask questions or receive help. Teachers also receive a booklet with information and resources.

Victor says the program is one of the first to target elementary school students, which she feels is critically important. “What the research shows is that we need to get this information to children before they smoke that first cigarette or take that first ‘risk’ (other drugs),” Victor says.

The program focuses on the short- and long-term effects of marijuana and Ritalin. But apart from factual information, the program’s literature tries to help kids develop the so-called ‘soft skills’ needed to say ‘no’ when offered drugs. Kids learn about IDEA, a four-step process for handling difficult situations.

They are asked to “Identify the problem,” “Describe solutions,” “Evaluate the positives and negatives” and then “Act and learn.” The workbook offers various scenarios in which children can role play how they might use this process in a tough situation (like when being offered drugs).

The program has started in six schools: Dante, Pierre de Coubertin, Parkdale, Nesbitt, Coronation and Westmount Park. Dora Cesta, assistant director of Student Services at the EMSB, says about 30 more schools will participate over the next two years.

Cesta says that the program addresses a key issue for schools: how to prepare students for the move from the more sheltered world of elementary school into high school, where there are many more opportunities for engaging in risky behaviours. “We need to give them the skills to make good choices.”

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