Substance Abuse The Educational Implications

By: Colleen Meade

The developmental and environmental issues involving children exposed to substances in utero has a direct affect on the field of education. Children from substance-abusing backgrounds are considered "At Risk". The term "At Risk" indicates that these children have the potential to be referred for special services due to some type of learning impairment. The risk associated with these children relates to possible cognitive damage, possible developmental delays from damage incurred in utero or incurred due to the home environment. The need for special services is applicable to students who have been left with severe cognitive impairments as a result of exposure to drugs in the womb. Additionally, physical adaptations might be necessary in classrooms and buildings for students left with severe physical disabilities as a result of exposure to drugs. Emotional and educational programs must be implemented to support children suffering from these ailments and to possibly lessen the future occurrence of these issues through education. Additionally, recent brain-based research has shed light on the way people learn. By utilizing strategies advocated through this research, students, whether they have been exposed to drugs in utero or not, will benefit from the strategies employed.

For children inflicted with ailments as a result of exposure to drugs in utero, early intervention is a necessity. In the case of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, early intervention assists in preventing many of the secondary disabilities, as discussed previously. Some benefits of early intervention include: "better preparation for learning in elementary school, decreased special education placement, and a decrease in the number of children failing to progress to the next grade level" (Hess, 1998). Marie Kanne Poulsen states that "developmental services for at-risk children should start in the neonatal period" in order to be the most effective (1994). A holistic approach in early intervention has also proven to be quite effective because it "considers the entire family unit's social, emotional, spiritual, physical, and mental health" (Hess, 1998). Working with an entire family unit strives to prevent disturbances in the environmental influences on the child thus avoiding the issues described previously.

Recent brain-based research points to many important issues about the ways in which humans learn. In relation to cognitive impairment incurred due to exposure to drugs prior to birth, brain based research has confirmed the notion that nerves continue to grow after birth. This is especially beneficial for children who were exposed to serious drugs prior to birth because it suggests that they are able to grow more, unexposed nerves throughout life. Additionally, "brain research also suggests that the brain learns best when confronted with a balance between stress and comfort: high challenge and low threat" (Available: /BrainBasedLearn98.htm). This relates to the environmental issues that are believed to impact the development of children exposed to drugs prior to birth. Children who suffer from stress at home are more likely to display stress in the classroom. Brain research suggests that this will impede a student from learning because of the added stress. "The brain needs some challenge, or environmental press that generates activate emotions and learning" however "too much and anxiety shuts down opportunities for learning" (available: Research/BrainBasedLearn98.htm). "Practically speaking, this means that designers and educators need to create places that are not only safe to learn, but also spark some emotional interest through celebrations and rituals" (available: BasedLearn98.htm). With the knowledge of recent brain-based research, educators will be able to build functionally appropriate learning environments that will enhance students' ability to build on prior knowledge and expand their own learning abilities.

Curricular programs that promote education on contemporary issues are a necessity to prevent poor decisions relating to drugs and pregnancy in the future. Many children who have been exposed to drugs in the womb receive special education services. Research has suggested that "students with disabilities appear to be more susceptible to the risks associated with a wide range of contemporary issues in our society today...such as substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, suicide, delinquency, and child abuse" (Lamorey, 1996). A curriculum that includes programs aimed at teaching students how to deal with various contemporary issues could aid in preventing these students to make poor choices when faced with decisions regarding substance abuse and pregnancy.


The epidemic of substance abuse during pregnancy has led to a host of social, political, and educational issues. While much research surrounding the specific affects of substance abuse during pregnancy remains inconclusive, most researchers believe the children are impacted by the presence of drugs ingested by the mother. Children inflicted with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome serve as examples of the potential risks involved with substance abuse during pregnancy. The use of drugs is compounded with the environmental factors that affect children from typical households of substance-abusing mothers. Early intervention and educational programs may help to prevent children faced with issues revolving around substance abuse from suffering with secondary disabilities. The educational community must recognize the need for curricular modifications that address the specific needs associated with substance abuse. Additionally, the application of programs designed through brain-based research will further maximize the efforts to educate children in an appropriate fashion.