'R.E.A.L.' offers multicultural approaches to substance-abuse prevention among middle-schoolers

March 10, 2004

The program "Keepin' It R.E.A.L," developed jointly by Penn State and Arizona State University, has succeeded at teaching middle school students to say no to drugs by appealing to their traditional ethnic values, whether European-American, Hispanic or African-American.

"Among seventh and eighth graders, 'Keepin' It R.E.A.L.' works at preventing or delaying first-time use of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana," says Dr. Michael L. Hecht, professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State. "Instead of simply preaching the evils of substance abuse, this strategy seeks to capitalize on values for European-American (White) children; family solidarity and family values for Mexican-American children; and communal values for African-American children."

Students face the challenge of drugs with more confidence and assurance of success by marshaling techniques that reflect their cultural identity, adds Dr. Michelle Miller-Day, assistant professor of communication arts and sciences.

Hecht and Miller-Day presented their findings in the paper, "Culturally Grounded Substance Use Prevention: An Evaluation of the "Keepin' it R.E.A.L." Curriculum," in a recent issue of the journal, Prevention Science. Other co-authors are Flavio Francisco Marsiglia, associate professor, School of Social Work, Arizona State University; Dr. Elvira Elek, researcher at Penn State and data analyst; Dr. David A. Wagstaff, research associate with Penn State's Methodology Center; Dr. Stephen Kulis, professor of sociology, Arizona State; and Patricia Dustman, implementation director with the Drug Resistance Strategies Project at Arizona State.

The researchers based their conclusions on a two-year survey of 6,035 students in 10 Phoenix, Ariz., schools that used the "Keepin' it R.E.A.L." curriculum. The survey measured the success of three versions of the curriculum: one targeting Mexican-American culture; the second targeting a combination of African-American and European-American cultures; and the third, the multicultural version, combining the cultures of all three ethnic groups.

"With the European-American curriculum, the emphasis tends to be on individual strengths, goals and victories," says Hecht. "European-American culture places greater stock in having a purpose in life, getting ahead and setting priorities accordingly. The culture values directness in communication (which includes direct eye contact), assertiveness and being sure of oneself."

Mexican-Americans places greater stress on familial bonds (familismo) than on individualism, Miller-Day notes. In this culture, people are more likely to perceive family and extended family -- which may not be limited to blood relatives -- as the focus of social support and solidarity. The culture teaches people to show deference (respeto) to persons of status and avoid confrontation. It also places a high value on treating people on a personal level rather than on the basis of rules.

According to Hecht, African-American values center on interdependence and family, with the individual subordinating (or even sacrificing) one's own interests for the sake of the family or group. African-American culture stresses the belief in doing things for a reason, working hard to achieve a goal and persisting in the face of adversity, but at the same time respecting the accomplishments of others.

"Middle school counselors need to consider not only the age and developmental stage of adolescents, but also their previous drug history and ethnic culture," Hecht says. "Adolescents who have not yet started using drugs probably have not developed the positive expectations about what use will do or become part of a circle of drug-using friends. Non-users also are less likely to believe that many of their peers are using drugs. For these students, counselors can focus on reinforcing norms that are more conservative and moderating expectations about the positive experience from drugs. In these situations, the counselor can also concentrate on what adolescents can do to help others in need."

Adolescents who have experimented, however, are more difficult to counsel because they are likely to believe the drugs are beneficial and fun and that their friends and peers not only use drugs themselves but support others using drugs.

In either case, the counselor must also consider the adolescent's ethnic culture, Miller-Day notes. While in many situations, "youth culture," including rap and other music forms, is the most significant influence, for many adolescents, particularly Spanish-speaking and bilingual Latinos, their culture of origin is important too. The values discussed above should be weighed, as well as cultural styles of communication.

"Middle-schoolers often think that many of their peers use these substances and approve when others use them as well," Hecht notes. "They are also not very good at assessing risk and have trouble making sound decisions. Finally, they also may not communicate very well. In particular, they tend to conform to others, even when doing something risky like using drugs."

Miller-Day adds, "After participating in the 'Keepin' it R.E.A.L.' program, they did not see as many benefits from substance use, were less approving of substance use and viewed others, particularly their peers, as less approving. They understand risks in their lives, including drugs, and are better able to make prudent decisions. Finally, through the R.E.A.L. system, they are better able to refuse drug offers and communicate clearly about what they want."
The study was financed by a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Penn State

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