How America’s Popular D.A.R.E. Program Poses Threats to Adolescent Freedom and Ignores Universal Core Values – Lisa Kelly
The D.A.R.E., or Drug Abuse Resistance Education, program is a well-established anti-drug campaign instituted in schools across America. Since its inception in the early 1980’s, it has received praise from many political persona’s and government programs as well as notoriety among educators and parents (5). The program consists of police officer led lectures to students, ranging from elementary grades through high school, and teaches the “skills needed to recognize and resist the subtle and overt pressures that causes kids to experiment with drugs” (5). Its core aim is to communicate the dangers of drugs to students, with the ultimate goal of steering kids away from drug use (5). While D.A.R.E’s popularity and longevity suggest that the program works, however its belief that simply informing kids of the dangers of drugs to curb substance use is not enough to cause behavioral change. To combat the social pressures, enticement, and excitement of experimenting with and using drugs, the D.A.R.E. program needs to gear their curriculum towards the alternative options teens can pursue.
Unfortunately, fundamental flaws lie in D.A.R.E.’s traditional officer-led approach, core values, and lecture format. Psychology and Social Sciences theories including the Psychological Reactance Theory and Marketing Theory expose these flaws in D.A.R.E.’s design and reflect the need for the inclusion of these theories in anti-drug interventions or programs. Thus, D.A.R.E.’s program is currently flawed because it aims to change adolescent attitudes and behaviors using authority figures to spread the dangers of drugs via dry, boring lecture formats. This approach has the counter effect on students because it creates high levels of reactance and does not appeal to their core values.
Are D.A.R.E. Officers Leading Kids to Drugs?
D.A.R.E. takes deep pride in the training processes their officers undergo in order to provide the best drug information and awareness to students across the nation. In fact, the D.A.R.E. program is specifically designed around the officer as the teacher (5). Officers receive over 80 hours of training in subjects ranging from “classroom management, teaching strategies, communication skills, adolescent development, drug information, and curriculum instruction” (6). After this preparation, it is believed that D.A.R.E. officers are ready to handle the tough questions adolescents have about drugs and criminal activity. (5). Furthermore, these officers are now declared experts by the D.A.R.E. program in teaching the skills needed to recognize and resist pressure to use drugs, along with promoting self-esteem and self-confidence (6). Yet, despite D.A.R.E.’s encompassing and rigorous program to educate and prepare their officers for the classroom setting, the very use of a police officer as the expert, authority, and teacher is a major shortcoming in the program. As highlighted by the Psychological Reactance Theory, the officers pose a threat to adolescent’s freedom of choice and are likely to push kids to experiment with drugs rather than keep kids away from them (18 ).
Psychological Reactance Theory was first introduced by Jack Brehm in the 1960s around the idea that humans have an innate desire for freedom of choice because it “fulfills our satisfaction of needs” (2-3,18). Every person is born with the task of fulfilling certain basic needs via any one of many behavioral possibilities (4). Brehm saw the freedom to choose which of these possibilities to pursue as crucial to human survival because without choice, people become overly aroused and are unsatisfied (2). People want to decide their own fates and maintain control (4). Along with this idea, Brehm believed some personal needs are seen as more important than others, depending on the individual. Therefore, because people are born with self-determination and the desire for freedom of choice to fulfill daily needs, any threat to their behavioral freedoms causes people to become highly aggravated and angered (2). This emotional response, called reactance, is targeted toward the specific threat to one’s freedom and is correlated with the importance given to the need which one wants to fulfill (2). Basically, people don’t want to be told what to do, and when they are, they get angry and will react. Unfortunately, their reaction often results in the enactment of the very behavior that someone told them not to do. In fact, when threatened, people will try to ensure that they maintain their freedom by whatever means possible, even if this means partaking in an activity that is deleterious to one’s health (2,4,9). This dilemma works out quite clearly in the D.A.R.E. program.
Using police officers to teach students to not do drugs in the D.A.R.E. programs is most likely going to create high reactance among adolescents because their authority status poses a threat. Because adolescence is a particular time where independence and individuality is important, having an adult figure telling one not to do something is often not received well (4). This is a time of life where most kids don’t want to listen to their parents, none the less an individual in uniform with whom they have no personal relationship with. When it comes to drugs and experimentation, adolescents have a strong belief that they can choose one path or the other. This is their time in life to challenge social norms and experiment if they so choose (15). So, the very nature of the police officer coming in to a classroom to tell kids to “just say no” sets up a dynamic in which the adolescent student feels pressured to make a certain choice. Having a figure who is given legal power to enforce rules and take away freedoms is the person most likely to create reactance, according to Brehm’s theory. The more dominant the authority of a message is, the more it will increase reactance (13). Yet, the police officer is the face of D.A.R.E. and is the person sent into schools across the nation to spread the program’s message and reduce drug use. Undoubtedly, with reactance increasing due to D.A.R.E.’s police officers, adolescents will react by trying to take back their freedom of choice by deliberately trying drugs. This counter effect, often called a “boomerang effect”, is the exact opposite of D.A.R.E.’s agenda and shows their program is clearly flawed (4, 9).
Why Selling Health Fails
Another major flaw with D.A.R.E.’s current design is the fact that its main message is to spread the importance of healthy choices for adolescents, while in reality this message is far from a priority on many teen minds. D.A.R.E.’s core design follows the Health Belief Model, which states that in order for someone to adopt a health behavior in and avoid disease, or in this case addition to drugs, one would need to believe that they are susceptible to drug use and addiction, that the drug use would have some severity on his one’s life, and that avoiding drugs would be beneficial (11). If a person is simply made aware of their susceptibility to a disease or unhealthy behavior, and its degree of severity, than that knowledge should motivate them to take action to prevent a negative outcome. For D.A.R.E. this model explains why they place so much value in the education and awareness about the dangers of drugs and the susceptibility of teens to social pressures (6.) The program believes that exposing the harmful effects of drug use while selling the promise of a healthy lifestyle is enough to persuade teens not to use. However, is the idea of health really alluring to teens in the face of the exciting enticement of drugs offer?
According to Marketing Theory, telling kids to “just say no” on the basis of health is not a powerful enough message to counteract the freedom, control, acceptance, and rebellion that drugs may offer. The premise of marketing theory states that when one is developing and promoting a product, one needs to consider consumer needs and desires first (8,10,16). The consumer should be “the backbone” of the product because it needs to fulfill his or her needs and wants if he or she is going to buy it (8). In comparison, traditional public health approaches are seen as having a sales or product orientation, where the health behavior itself is the product, or the center of the message (10). Then, public health officials are left working to sell health to the public, assuming that health alone is a consumer desire and want. However, universal consumer desires or needs, often called core values, usually override health. Core values like love, freedom, control, acceptance, family, rebellion, self-esteem, and more are true motivators for humans to act and change (12). These are the values that should be the forefront of health campaigns or any product according to marketing theory because they are natural human desires. Promoting these values is more likely to result in successful adoption of a health behavior or change than by selling health alone.
D.A.R.E. is essentially competing with drugs and social pressures to win over teens and is inappropriately using health as their persuasion. According to marketing theory, drugs offer freedom, control, acceptance by peers, and rebellion to teens. All of these core values would lead one to see that drug use could have multiple benefits and fulfill our most basic desires. Therefore, D.A.R.E. faces a large challenge in trying to be more appealing than drugs on the basis of health alone. Not only is it not a core value, but also health is something that people often don’t think about until later in life. For teens, the benefits of drugs, i.e. freedom, control, acceptance, come immediately. Teens in particular have a feeling of invincibility about them and worry very little about health in the long run (15). Since no teen is going to want to buy into health alone, it is time for D.A.R.E. to go beyond teaching kids to just say no.
D.A.R.E.’s Curriculum: Keeping Students Out of the Discussion
A third and final flaw in the original D.A.R.E. design lies in its lecture based structure, which takes place over several weeks and keeps students very much removed from the conversation. D.A.R.E.’s “core curriculum” consists of 17 weeks of hour long lectures for teens “emphasizing the teaching of information and skills designed to increase resistance to pro-drug social influences and the correction of inaccurate/exaggerated normative beliefs” (1). As one student described the program, “They taught me different ways of saying no to people” (7). While there is some group discussion and role playing, most of the sessions are traditional lectures relying “heavily on the officer as expert”, with only a short question and answer section at the end (6). Also, the role playing exercises are part of a national curriculum that is used in schools across the country (6). These exercises along with the audiovisual material are generic and not tailored to any region of the country or population. Thus, D.A.R.E.’s curriculum is designed to be taught by police officers, with heavy emphasis on the instruction and little emphasis on interaction.
Both psychological reactance theory and marketing theory expose why D.A.R.E.’s dry lectures are both boring and ineffective for students in the classroom. Besides the fact that policeman threaten students’ freedom of choice because of their authority, the lectures themselves can create reactance because they don’t include student involvement or ask for opinions. The rigidity of the program makes the D.A.R.E. experience like sitting through another boring classroom instead of an interactive experience that will get teens talking to one another honestly about drugs and social pressures. Students sit through enough lectures every day in their other classes, and will not benefit from sitting through 17 weeks of lecture with people rattling off facts about drug use or describing social influences. Students will most likely develop reactance because they are being told what to do without any consideration of their thoughts or views about drugs. Their freedom to partake in the conversation is limited and this lack of consideration for their opinions is another threat on top of the authority of the police officers themselves. Also, when dealing with teen populations it is important to remember that they particularly value expression, and will see barriers to this ability as severe threats. However, just based on human nature according to the psychological reactance theory, the fact that “people do not appreciate being told how they should behave” is enough motivation for D.A.R.E. to reevaluate their format (4).
From a marketing theory perspective, D.A.R.E.’s lecture structure doesn’t adhere to teen core values. Marketing theory promotes the idea that “understanding target groups [should be] a key program strategy” (16). If teens value freedom, control, and rebellion, they need to be able to express those values in a program that encourages such expression. Giving teens the power to control the format of the lectures or the platform to speak their minds, would be a way to infuse their core values with the program. Unfortunately, D.A.R.E. does the opposite of this, and creates their curriculum from an adult standpoint, that is mostly factual and ultimately very boring.
Many studies and evaluations have been done on the D.A.R.E. programs that use the traditional curriculum and have proven them to be ineffective (17). Furthermore, one Indiana study found that “D.A.R.E. graduates were actually more likely to have recently smoked marijuana than those who hadn’t taken the course” (7). Regardless of similar findings, in looking at the underlying theories and beliefs that the D.A.R.E. curriculum is based on, it is very clear that the program is likely to be highly ineffective. Using authority figures to connect with teens, having health as their selling point, and formatting the program around a non-interactive lecture setting is not the way to connect with teens. These techniques will result in creating high levels of reactance and may even have a “boomerang effect”, or counter effect, and push kids to actually try drugs (9). Fortunately, using the same theories described in this paper to expose D.A.R.E.’s core flaws can also shed light on the possibilities for change in the program and offer better design solutions.
Teen to Teen: A New Face for D.A.R.E
Since police officers are a threatening communicator to adolescents in the discussion of drug use and pose a major threat to their freedom, D.A.R.E. should adopt a radical style of teaching by using teens as both role models and the new and improved face of D.A.R.E. To limit the levels of reactance among the students who attend D.A.R.E. programs, the teachers of its curriculum should be the least threatening as possible. In fact, having a high level of similarity between the communicator and the listeners is a great way to prevent high levels of reactance (13). If the person talking about drugs is a teen, they are automatically more relatable to the students. They will be less of an authority or threat, and students are more likely to approach D.A.R.E. educational programs as a discussion, not a demanding set of rules. Additionally, beyond the fact that teens are less threatening in comparison to police officers, they can be seen as fellow peers of the students, which could have a very positive impact on the students’ experience. Peers are so important to adolescents and it is seen that when peers are seen as the source of information, there is much less reactance (4). Adolescents formulate so much of their beliefs and attitudes based on their peers that having someone on their level speak to them honestly about drugs is likely to be received better by D.A.R.E. audiences.
Ideally, the way that teens could lead the D.A.R.E. sessions would be to have students, possibly a year or two older than the students themselves, say they have “been there before” and understand the pressures they may be feeling while entering junior high or high school. The students used to be program leaders could even be former drug users, so that they could explain why they initially tried drugs, and how it affected their lives. Their stories should be truthful and detailed, but still show what it is like to experiment with drugs and ultimately realize that is not the lifestyle that teens should live. Students want to hear from people just like them who they feel understand what it is like for them in the current culture to be pressured to use. Teen leaders could acknowledge the real world pressures and create a greater connection between them and the students, which the officers could not do, simply because they are in the same age cohort .
These teens are not likely to limit student’s freedom because they themselves exercised their own freedom to try drugs. However, their message of course would be one that promotes a life with out drug use. Also, while the police officers in the classroom seemed like an invasion, the teens’ presence is not threatening because they are in the natural environment that students see their peers in every day. The use of teens as legitimate, honest, and relatable messengers is the best communicator for D.A.R.E. to avoid high levels of reactance and hopefully make a greater impact on students (3).
Selling Students What They Really Want
When it comes to the subject and topics of the D.A.R.E. sessions, the program should steer away from promoting health and focus on how adolescents can obtain core values like freedom and control through a drug free lifestyle. As emphasized by marketing theory, people are most likely to buy into a product that promotes universal core values. Unfortunately, health is not on of those values, while acceptance and rebellion are far more powerful influences on human behavior. Therefore, D.A.R.E. should change its curriculum to focus on how saying no to drugs is related to the core values of its student audiences. For example, choosing not to do drugs is a way to exercise the core value of control over ones life and over the social pressures that all teens face. By saying no to drug use, students will have the freedom (another core value) to live active lifestyles and spend time with friends doing things they would not be able to do if they were drunk or high. Overall, the curriculum needs to turn away from the negative aspects of drug experimentation to the positive benefits of a life without drugs. By emphasizing the opportunities that a drug free lifestyle offers, they are making the idea of saying no to drugs more appealing.
While it may seem challenging to reframe a curriculum around something beyond health, successful public health campaigns have done it before. “The 84” is an anti-tobacco group in Massachusetts that consists of students who agree to be part of the 84% of non-smoking youth in the state (14). As the website says, their mission is to “raise awareness of the tobacco industry’s deceptive marketing tactics and promote this message to peers” (14). This program centers on the core value of rebellion, one that is particularly strong among adolescents, since it centers on standing up against tobacco companies through not smoking. By not acknowledging health as their ultimate selling point, this program successfully displays how marketing theory can be used in public health campaigns. D.A.R.E. is fully capable of a similar strategy. D.A.R.E. could also use the core value of rebellion like “The 84” did, by getting students to join together against the marketing strategies of tobacco and alcohol companies though not using drugs . There are many different options for D.A.R.E. to redesign the subject of their curriculum around any one of these core values.
Bringing Students into the Discussion
Finally, D.A.R.E. should make student interaction the foundation of their curriculum by allowing teens to be a part of the conversation and to format the group sessions. The current lecture format is anything but stimulating and very likely to keep students disengaged. Because the information is given out in a lecture style, it is also prone to stimulate reactance among teens. Instead, D.A.R.E. should re-format their curriculum around small group discussions and student participation. The goal of the new curriculum should be to talk about the dangers of drugs among the students themselves, not just from teacher to student. Small groups will allow students to talk about these issues with people their same age, so if someone offers strong opinions they can be received as less of a threat than if those opinions were given by an authority. Also, if students are talking about drug related topics amongst their peers they are more likely to have honest communication and feel comfortable participating. Instead of students “tuning out” due to boredom as they usually do in traditional lectures, students will be active members of the D.A.R.E. experience (1). Hopefully, this will result in a more fulfilling experience for all involved.
Additionally, D.A.R.E. should look to get students involved beyond small group discussions and into the planning and format of the very curriculum itself. Since the program takes place over the course of 17 weeks, D.A.R.E. could easily infuse greater flexibility into the lessons and allow the students to have a say in the content of their meetings. Whether it be allowing students to pick between watching a movie or doing role playing or simply running an open Q&A session where the students decide where the conversation should go, allowing students to have control of the curriculum will keep them interested. Control, a key core value for adolescents, is a high motivator for behavior and participation in a program like D.A.R.E. (12). Structure and oversight by D.A.R.E. coordinators would still be crucial to ensure that the lessons ran smoothly and stayed relevant. However, by appealing a central core value of adolescents, D.A.R.E. could show they value teen opinions and arouse greater interest among their listeners.
Clearly, D.A.R.E.’s future is bright and has many possibilities for change and growth. Despite recent small changes toward more interactive curriculums in some locations, the traditional curriculum and teaching styles still remain overall (5). A dramatic overhaul of the program is necessary to address its current flaws and to prevent high levels of psychological reactance and greater experimentation with drugs. If D.A.R.E. focuses on the core values of their audience and places teens in the forefront of their campaign, than D.A.R.E. can have greater results and deeper impacts among their audiences.
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