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Safe and Drug-Free Schools: Promising Prevention Practices

Selecting and Implementing Research-Based Prevention Programs for Your School

Years of extensive research has identified key elements of successful prevention curricula. Research has shown that these elements should be part of a comprehensive strategy in the school, the home, and the community so that young people receive a consistent prevention message. Experts also believe that a comprehensive approach has additional benefits since many of the elements important to drug prevention are also crucial in prevention of other high risk behaviors including violence, sexually transmitted disease, adolescent pregnancy and suicide. It is important to assess the extent to which curricula address these key areas and whether curriculum activities promote necessary skills.

Making the Grade: A Guide to School Drug Prevention Programs, identifies the following key elements of effective drug prevention curricula:

  • Helps students recognize internal pressures, like wanting to belong to the group, and external pressures, like peer attitudes and advertising that influence them to use alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs;

  • Facilitates development of personal, social and refusal skills to resist these pressures;

  • Teaches that using alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs is not the norm among teenagers, correcting the misconception that "everyone is doing it," and promoting positive norms through bonding to school and constructive role models;

  • Provides developmentally appropriate material and activities, including information about the short-term effects and long-term consequences of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs;

  • Uses interactive teaching techniques, such as role plays, discussions, brainstorming and cooperative learning;

  • Actively involves the family and the community, so that prevention strategies are reinforced across settings;

  • Includes teacher training and support, in order to assure that curricula are delivered as intended;

  • Contains material that is easy for teachers to implement and culturally relevant for students.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) offers the following checklist to assist in determining whether specific programs include research-based prevention principles:

Prevention Principles for School-Based Programs

  • Do the school-based programs reach children from kindergarten through high school? If not, do they at least reach children during the critical middle school or junior high years?

  • Do the programs contain multiple years of intervention? (all through the middle school or junior high years?)

  • Do the programs use a well-tested, standardized intervention with detailed lesson plans and student materials?

  • Do the programs use age-appropriate interactive teaching methods (modeling, role playing, discussion-group feedback; reinforcement, extended practice)?

  • Do the programs foster pro-social bonding to the school and community?

  • Do the programs have these components:

    • Teach social competence (communication, self-efficacy, assertiveness) and drug resistance skills that are culturally and developmentally appropriate;

    • Promote positive peer influence;

    • Promote anti-drug social norms;

    • Emphasize skills-training teaching methods; and

    • Include an adequate "dosage" (10 to 15 sessions in year 1 and another 10 to 15 booster sessions)?

  • To maximize benefits, do the programs retain core elements of the effective intervention design?

  • Is there periodic evaluation to determine whether the programs are effective?

The United States Department of Education identifies common elements of federal criteria for identifying research-based programs for your school. These include:

Quality of Program Design

  • Program goals and objectives are clear and appropriate for the target population.

  • Program content and methods address the needs of and effectively engage the target population.

  • The program's underlying rationale is well-articulated, and its content and methods are aligned with its goals.

  • The program is a complete intervention, rather than a single component (e.g., a video, an assembly, a book in the library).

Quality of Research Design

  • Program evaluation includes pre- and post-testing with a control or comparison group.

  • Program evaluation includes relevant, reliable, valid, and appropriately administered outcome measures.

  • Data analysis was technically adequate and appropriate.

  • Evaluation studies had low rates of participant attrition.

Evidence of Program Efficacy

  • The intervention produced positive change in scientifically established risk and protective factors.

  • The intervention reduced or delayed the onset, prevalence, and/or individual rates of risk behaviors.

  • Follow-up measurement provides evidence of sustained program impact.

Capacity for Replication and Dissemination

  • The program includes high-quality program materials (e.g., manuals), training, and technical assistance.

  • The program includes tools and procedures to monitor the fidelity of implementation and evaluate program outcomes.

  • The program has been replicated and produced similar positive results, and these replications have been documented.

  • Evaluation findings have been published or accepted for publication by a peer-reviewed journal.

When assessing the feasibility of implementing a prevention program in your school, The United States Department of Education offers the following feasibility checklist:


  • How much does it cost? 

  • Does it require staff training?

  • How much space will we need?

  • Can we access program materials?

  • What are the time requirements?

  • Do we have access to the target population?

  • Do we have the necessary equipment?

  • Does the program require any additional services (e.g., transportations)?

Target Population

  • Are the program materials appropriate for our target populations (e.g., age, gender, socioeconomic status)?

  • Are the program materials culturally relevant (e.g., language, customs, norms)?

  • Are members of the target population likely to accept the new program?

School Climate

  • Are school administrators and staff likely to accept the new program?

  • Does the new program fit with existing prevention efforts?

  • Do prevention programs have a favorable history in your school?

  • Will you be able to obtain the buy-in of school administrators?

  • Will you be able to obtain the buy-in of staff?

Community Climate

  • Are community members likely to accept the new program?

  • Does the new program fit with existing prevention efforts?

  • Do prevention programs have a favorable history in your community?

  • Will you be able to obtain the buy-in of key community leaders?

  • Will you have access to a referral network for program participants?


  • Is baseline data available?

  • Are financial resources available for evaluation?

  • Will you have access to participants over time?

  • Does the program design lend itself to straightforward evaluation (e.g., it does not include multiple components)?

  • Do you have access to appropriate evaluation skills?

Future Sustainability

  • Does the program require close collaboration between the school and community?

  • Will you have access to renewable financial support?

  • Does your initiative have a strong advocate(s) or spokesperson(s)?

  • Can you depend on strong, ongoing leadership?

  • Does the program have a positive image in your community?


National Institute on Drug Abuse (1999). Preventing drug use among children and adolescents: A research-based guide. Rockville, MD: National Institute of Health Drug Strategies (1999). Making the grade: A guide to school drug prevention programs. Washington, D.C.: Levine and Associates, Inc.


Issue 2: Strategies for recruiting and retaining participants in prevention programs (pdf)
This brief offers strategies based in research and practice for making a program attractive and worthwhile to youth and families, recruiting participants, and keeping them involved.

Issue 3: Guidelines for selecting an evidence-based program (March 2007) (pdf)
There are several important considerations when selecting an evidence-based program for implementation. With questions to ask yourself and a list of online program registries, this brief gives you the tools you need to assess whether a program is the right one to implement in your community.

Issue 4: Program fidelity and adaptation (April 2007) (pdf)
In this brief, we review the types of changes that are often made to programs when they are implemented, and the effects these changes can have. We also suggest strategies for maintaining program effectiveness while ensuring that the program is appealing to participants and meets local needs.

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