Teaching Kids the Scientific Impact of Alcohol on the Developing Brain

Contributed by Helen Gaynor

April is Alcohol Responsibility Month – our busiest and most exciting time of the year at Responsibility.org. As a small not-for-profit organization with a threefold mission, to prevent drunk driving, underage drinking, and to promote responsible consumption for those of age, education is one of our cornerstones.

Thinking back to my own middle school health education, the first two words that pop into my head are ‘boring’ and ‘dated’. We sat through Lifetime movies (seriously) and flipped through old text books featuring kids in clothes we didn’t recognize. The content was not relatable, and for that reason, it was hard for us kids to take it seriously.

It wasn’t made for us – it didn’t resonate.

Today, kids digest digital content faster than many of us can comprehend. Reaching them with fresh material, through the appropriate vehicle, is the first step in getting them to engage. Inventing a way to do that is imperative, considering some of the most valuable lessons are intended to be taught in health classes. Decision making, communication, and accessing appropriate resources are all crucial life skills that are set forth in a variety of regional and national health education standards. A robust health education is undeniably important. However, teaching these skills, as well as health-related content and character education, does not have to be confined to an actual health period.

Other teachers, counselors, school nurses, and community leaders can play a part in incorporating content that helps students make healthy decisions and avoid risky behaviors.April is Alcohol Responsibility Month

This is what led us to create new resources for our alcohol education program, Ask, Listen, Learn: Kids and Alcohol Don’t Mix. The free program, which was developed in 2003, is geared toward youth ages 9-12 and their parents and educators. We spent 2016 developing a suite of fresh material, focusing on teaching kids the scientific impact of alcohol on the developing brain. We set out to create a science focused curriculum that was relevant to kids today, congruent with the ways in which they digest content, and able to evolve with the ever-changing landscape of education.

We want to empower health teachers with quality content, while also creating the opportunity for others – especially science teachers and program leaders, to incorporate lessons in their programs that can prepare students for healthy decision making. Underage drinking is a community challenge, meaning we all have a role to play.

We’ve found that kids are most fascinated by how their brains and bodies work, which led us to believe that science lessons, as opposed to the traditional health class content, would be the best way to reach them.

In the new programming, a series of animations take kids on a journey through the brain and its different parts, detailing how each part works, what it does, what alcohol does to it, and what that can do to YOU. Each animation is part of a comprehensive lesson plan, which also includes teacher instruction, objectives, vocabulary cards, comprehension questions, activities, worksheets, and more. Program content regarding the effects of alcohol on the developing brain was reviewed by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and is consistent with currently available science.

The materials are intended for a middle school audience, and one of the first questions we are typically faced with is, “Doesn’t that seem a bit young to?” While rates of underage drinking are at an all-time low, the 2016 Monitoring the Future Study shows that lifetime alcohol consumption among 8th graders has decreased 50% from 2003 to 2016. While a positive a statistic, it indicates that there are 8th graders drinking alcohol, and that we need to continue to work in prevention.

Prevention – another reason we target the middle school age group. While there are more kids drinking underage in ask listen learn logohigh school than middle school, reaching kids with the scientific facts about alcohol, before alcohol becomes more prevalent, will prepare them to make educated choices.

As April comes to an end, let’s bear in mind the importance of helping kids make healthy decisions all year-round. Visit asklistenlearn.org to learn more about our science based curriculum.  

Helen Gaynor is the Educational Programs Lead at the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, where she works to develop alcohol education content for the organization’s longstanding program, Ask, Listen, Learn: Kids and Alcohol Don’t Mix. In addition, she manages the program’s partnerships and stakeholder outreach, researching ways to effectively reach parents, teachers and administrators. Before joining Responsibility.org, Helen worked as a high school health educator in Washington, DC, as well as in academic research. To learn more, visit Responsibility.org.