Substance Abuse

In recent years, teachers in Head Start programs have reported an increasing number of children who display challenging behaviors and learning problems. These behaviors include:

  • Short attention span
  • Extreme distractibility
  • Difficulty coping with changes
  • Speech and language delays and disorders, including poor articulation, limited vocabulary, and limited expressive language skills
  • Aggressive and disruptive behavior
  • Lack of social competence
  • Difficulty forming healthy relationships with peers and teachers

Many teachers and other component staff wonder whether prenatal exposure to alcohol and other drugs may cause or contribute to these problems, and what the effects may be of living in at-risk families and communities.

What Does the Research Say?
While there is still a good deal we do not know, current research offers new in sights into the biological, family, and community factors that contribute to these problems. The research makes clear that after children are born, complex family and community factors affect their development.

Children who live in families that abuse alcohol and other drugs may be exposed to inadequate caregiving – even to the point of neglect – as well as abuse. Children in communities affected by drug trafficking may be exposed regularly to violence in their hallways and their streets, even if they never experience violence in their families.

Teachers probably will not know which children in their classrooms may have been exposed prenatally to alcohol or other drugs. A history of prenatal exposure alone says very little that is conclusive about a child’s long-term development. Children who were prenatally exposed to drugs present a wide range of behaviors, dispositions, and learning styles.

However, research does identify specific strategies that can assist the development of children who need extra support. As education teams plan for meeting the needs of all Head Start children, they can benefit from training in the adaptation and use of these classroom practices:

  • Creating a nurturing classroom environment
  • Encouraging cooperative play
  • Minimizing distractions and facilitating transitions
  • Helping children manage their behavior
  • Conducting ongoing classroom assessment
  • Building strong links with families
These are not new practices. They are the practices that are proving to be most effective for children at risk. The power of these practices rests on two main assumptions: (1) that teachers are committed to developmentally appropriate practice – that is, creating a classroom environment and curriculum based on children’s developmental levels and individual needs; and (2) that a nurturing classroom provides the essential backdrop for every practice. Only by developing positive, respectful relationships – child to child, teacher to parent, and teacher to child – can early childhood educators build¬†strategies that tap into the strengths of individual children.