Preventive education to cope with the drug problems of Latin America


Training educators in preventive education:some difficulties and shortcomings
Course organization and planning
Course content
Course methodology
Suggestions for optimizing the training of educatorsin drug abuse prevention


Author: E. MASSUN
Pages: 49 to 55
Creation Date: 1990/01/01

Preventive education to cope with the drug problems of Latin America

E. MASSUN Consultant, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and Affiliate, United Nations Latin American Institute for the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, San Jos, Costa Rica


Insufficient ressources, services, staff, facilities and attention at the policy- making level are devoted to demand reduction measures, especially preventive education for young persons. Instead, emphasis is placed on and disproportionate resources are allocated to supply reduction measures and activities such as suppressing and/or limiting the availability of illicit drugs.

Prevention policy constitutes a viable approach to solving the problem of illicit drug trafficking and consumption. The crux of the problem is not the availability of illicit drugs, but the demand of consumers for the substances.

Preventive education for the young is an indispensable ingredient of effective prevention policy. The school environment can be instrumental in developing systematic and lasting preventive education. An essential condition, which, according to the author, is lacking in Latin America, is that educators should be provided with the training and training tools needed to enable them to perform properly as agents of prevention policy.

A number of recommendations to reduce illicit drug demand and consumption through prevention are made, including giving priority to a comprehensive and systematically applied prevention policy focusing on the young and involving an educational approach and tools that are progressive and highly specialized, as well as research that is intensified and of better quality.


There is growing awareness at the international level of the fact that prevention policy is a viable approach to solving the serious problems brought about by and associated with illicit drug trafficking and consumption.

Policy makers and practitioners in the field tend to consider prevention merely in terms of suppressing and/or limiting the availability of illicit drugs. Much of the resources and attention at the policy-making level that are devoted to supply reduction could be better spent on demand reduction among the youth population.

It is possible to limit, to some extent, the availability of Specific prohibited substances. But as long as individuals continue to indulge in and experiment with drugs and experience a need for the sensations they produce, there will be illicit demand and consumption. Thus, the solution to the problem lies with the consumer. How can influence be exerted to reduce consumer demand, if not through various forms of education and awareness?

Thus, educators have a pivotal role to play in the prevention of improper drug usage. This is especially true in many countries today, where rapid industrialization and economic imperatives have reduced the social control function formerly assumed by the family and other institutions.

Preventive education is an indispensable ingredient of effective prevention policy. It should be aimed at youth, the centre of the entire drug problem.

Schools can be instrumental in developing systematic and lasting preventive education. Educators are the corner-stone of policies and measures for the prevention of the abuse of drugs. To be effective, however, educators must be provided with the necessary training and training tools and be able to offer a wide variety of assistance possibilities.

Training educators in preventive education: some difficulties and shortcomings

One of the most urgent tasks for those responsible for the prevention of improper drug use among youth in Latin America is to make it possible for educators to perform effectively as agents of prevention through training. In this respect, the great majority of the courses and seminars that have been organized in different countries of the region have failed to produce tangible results thus far. After completing such courses, participants generally have relatively little understanding of what should be done in school to educate students with a view to protecting them against drugs.

Countries in regions with more extensive experience also have failed to solve their difficulties in this area. Although they have been able to identify and provide a foundation for some useful education for drug abuse prevention, there is still doubt about their real benefit and effectiveness.

Appropriate and truly successful preventive education has not been applied systematically on a national scale in any country of the region to date. Moreover, only partial and fragmented results are available for scientific inquiries into validity. Added to this is the difficulty of measuring with scientific precision such factors as attitude and behaviour modification with regard to drug use amoung youth and evaluation studies of programmes with weak methodology, are not useful.

Purely informational programmes are often confused with preventive education in the hope of achieving the kind of substantial behavioural changes that information alone cannot produce. Even the best-designed programmes may fail for lack of interest on the part of those called upon to implement them or because they have been implemented mechanically, without a sense of personal involvement.

Criticism of preventive education should not be isolated from the type and approaches of educational systems in general. Throughout the world, education is in a state of crisis. In most countries, the "banker's approach" to teaching continues to prevail. This means that educators limit themselves to depositing facts in the minds of passive, non-participating students (as mere objects of the educational effort) and offer very limited possibilities for analytical dialogue. The typical class-room situation is boring and students eagerly await the bell that ends the lecture. Without students' interest, dialogue and active participation, genuine preventive education is not possible.

All of this does not mean that there is no hope. But much work needs to be done before an environment conducive to the introduction of a new form of education can be created in the typical class-room.

Course organization and planning

Good planning of preventive education courses in Latin America is made difficult by the lack of relevant experience and the shortage of proper literature for guiding organizers. Literature dealing specifically with preventive education is limited.

In Latin America, as in other regions, extensive literature is available on drugs. The majority of these works, however, have been written for very different social, economic and cultural contexts, are not suited to the experience or level of preparation of Latin American readers and do not provide a realistic basis for action in the region. In some of these works, the terminology employed makes them almost inaccessible to persons who are not thoroughly familiar with the subject. Others reflect a lack of awareness of the difficult working situation of teachers in the region; consequently, too much is demanded of them, and requirements are laid down that are impossible to satisfy, resulting in discouragement rather than motivation. In still others, a great deal of information of marginal utility is- provided or impressive outlines for action are proposed without illustrating in concrete terms how they can be put into practice.

Disoriented, school officials turn to specialists-doctors, pharmacologists, judges, law enforcement authorities etc.-for help and invite them to give lectures at their schools. Often the decisive argument for organizing a drug prevention course for teachers is that something has to be done. Under the pressure of public opinion, the press and politicians, school authorities eventually come to the conclusion that they need to do something. It is at this point that a course is organized, usually consisting of a series of lectures for teachers that are of little relevance to the real problems with which they are faced. Typically the lectures are about drug abuse prevention in the broadest sense. On occasion, the speakers contradict one another because preliminary meetings to harmonize points of view are rarely held.

In order to ensure the necessary multi-disciplinary coverage of the drug question, organizers invite specialists in various fields, usually without previous knowledge of their position regarding the subject under discussion. Frequently, these specialists employ language that is too technical and the teachers are unable to understand the presentations made. Moreover, participants are not given supporting material to enable them to assimilate the subject-matter.

Participants often lack genuine motivation to attend such courses; they come because they are required to or in order to obtain one more certificate or out of curiosity and a desire to acquire new information about drugs and their effects. In addition, there is no continuity in the training, nor is it offered on an ongoing, systematic basis. The entire process ends with conferral of a certificate for course completion.

It is only rarely that, before setting up such a course, a preliminary study is made of the participants' requirements, interests and level of knowledge so that an agenda may be designed accordingly. Planning per se is difficult when there is not a thorough understanding of the drug abuse problem and the meaning of preventive education. The majority of teachers' training courses end without specific mention having been made of the preventive education effort.

Course content

The majority of training courses for educators merely provide abundant and detailed information on different types of illegal drugs and their effects and little or no emphasis is placed on user perception. This frequently happens because of a desire to arouse the interest of the participants or because it is easier to find literature and speakers on such overly general subjects. Teachers are curious about and intrigued by the subject of drugs. But instruction limited to satisfying this curiosity is inadequate.

Abuse symptoms and first-aid are much more discussed in the courses than the factors that can lead an adolescent to a drug abuse stage. Also, there is more discussion about addicted than about drug-free young persons and much more about treatment than about prevention.

The priority task of Latin American teachers, however, is prevention, not treatment. Teachers need to know what must be done in order to prevent the majority of young persons who are still drug-free from ever becoming addicted. But the training the teachers are receiving is not giving them the requisite skills.

There is no discussion in the training courses of the educational techniques that can be readily and effectively applied in preventive drug education. Value clarification, for example, has produced good results but is not presented in the training courses in the region.

Upon completion of training, participants often experience a sense of frustration in facing the problem. When they return to the class-room they still have no idea of how they should help young students to avoid drug addiction.

Course methodology

Another characteristic of Latin American training courses is methodo- logical rigidity. Again, there is the "banker's approach" to education. In line with the prevailing educational system, training courses are limited to a series of lectures unrelated to the reality experienced daily by the students. Even when there is a question-and-answer session at the end of a lecture, the audience has no idea what to ask.

Course time is always limited and there is little opportunity for joint work and reflection, exercises and practice sessions. There is a lack of group dynamics and of real participation. The teacher does not feel involved in the learning process and, consequently, leaves the course without sufficient motivation to undertake individual action. It is far easier to organize an academic-type course than one that invites those present to begin a dialogue and actively participate with a view to modifying their attitudes and achieving genuine motivation.

Suggestions for optimizing the training of educators in drug abuse prevention

Before beginning any training course, it is essential that the organizers be informed about the participants and have an understanding of - the local situation (the problems of the school and of the community in which the course is to be given). This information can be obtained through question- naires and/or interviews with key persons at the school and in the local neighbourhood. It is also necessary to know something about the speakers who are to be invited (by reviewing their publications, prior activities in the field of drug prevention, educational experience etc.), to let them know what type of training is desired and to be informed about their programme and its advantages.

The objective of the courses is to develop the teachers' awareness and, at the same time, to furnish them with the theoretical and practical knowledge they need to design and implement prevention programmes suited to their own academic and sociocultural conditions. In order to achieve this, as a general rule, the training must be designed to deal with problems and situations that exist at the local level. The course should be planned on the basis of data gathered through a small-scale pilot study.

One great advantage of organizing training courses at each school is that it is easier to tie in the training with real conditions and eventually have more effective programmes. One disadvantage to this approach, though, is that the opportunity for teachers from different schools to exchange beneficial information is lost. When the training has been completed, work should continue in smaller groups.

Compulsory attendance may adversely affect students' motivation-, how- ever, if attendance is optional, there is the risk that the lecture halls may be empty. Latin American teachers are generally overburdened with work and poorly remunerated. If they are to be encouraged to undertake additional efforts in a new field such as preventive drug education, it will be necessary to work on heightening awareness. One such initiative was successfully under- taken by the Venezuelan Comisi6n Nacional contra el Uso Ilicito de las Drogas (CONACUID) in the form of so-called motivation talks, organized in 1986 for the purpose of creating a demand for drug prevention training among teachers. These short but dynamic talks succeeded in convincing teachers that they had an important role to play in drug abuse prevention and that they required special training for this purpose.

Here, again, course content should be determined by a preliminary study of the data, together with the intended purpose of the course. What do teachers need to know? They must have a certain amount of basic knowledge if they are not to appear ignorant and are to be able to answer the drug-related questions of the students in their classes.

No one should expect teachers to be specialists on drugs. It is not essential for them to know all the drugs on the international market or to be familiar with all their scientific or colloquial names. They should, however, be sufficiently informed so that they will not be at a disadvantage vis--vis the students when called upon to discuss the subject in class. In order to ensure that the course is not overloaded with highly technical information, a practical approach is to make supplementary material available to participants. They should also be instructed in how to discuss the subject of drugs with their students in the most natural and informal way possible.

An understanding of the motivation that leads to illicit drug consumption is essential for teachers who are to be responsible for preventive education. Preventive education is based upon thorough understanding of the many avenues that can lead an individual to drugs.

Educators must also have a clear understanding of the socioeconomic and political determinants of drug trafficking and consumption in the Latin American context. As part of the general subject of primary prevention, it would not be superfluous, for example, to include a discussion of the suppression of sources, with an analysis of the serious problems impeding crop substitution, particularly in the Andean region.

At the same time, it is necessary to avoid portraying the problem as overly fatalistic so that educators faced with student drug problems do not feel powerless or discouraged. They need to realize that they can indeed accomplish something important and useful by intervening in a prevention capacity, even if by doing so they may affect only a few out of many students.

Practical or theoretical knowledge (or both) of primary prevention is of no use if educators have not mastered the techniques or have not developed requisite skills to enable them to perform a preventive role in their daily routine.

The school is a frequently visited place where drugs are encountered and, at the same time, an ideal place for conducting preventive education. Although it is of the utmost importance that there be a discussion of the school environment, this is one of the important subjects that are commonly neglected in training courses.

Common reflection on the prevailing concept of education is also essential because Latin American teachers are not accustomed to the student-teacher dialogue that preventive education requires. They must understand that preventive education is not limited merely to passing on general information about drugs and that they may have to change certain aspects of their professional routine. For example, they should ask themselves whether they are good listeners, whether they are sufficiently sensitive to the problems of those young persons in their charge, whether they are capable of evaluating both the personal growth and academic achievements of their students, whether they can be guides and facilitators in the learning process rather than simply dispensers of facts etc.

Training courses for preventive education should also involve an examination of the various ways of dealing with stress, pressure and other problems without recourse to drugs. Such courses should also emphasize how to involve students themselves in implementing alternatives to drugs.

Because there are no patent remedies for the prevention of drug abuse, formulating preventive education plans or programmes, especially for the first time, can be rather difficult. Rather than prescribe general ideas and principles, it is more effective to present concrete examples of those that have proved successful, that provide a good illustration of sound theoretical principles of preventive education and that may be applicable to a given school.

The training required in Latin America for genuine preventive drug education should be interesting, dynamic and creative. Teachers, together with those young persons entrusted to them, should invent and/or adapt successful educational methods that will best protect Latin American youth from drug addiction and related forms of delinquency.