One of the strongest elements of alcohol use is psychological. While genes have a role in alcoholism, whether or not someone starts drinking in the first place is driven by other factors. For example, higher stress, depression and availability have roles. Now, a study from Psychology of Addictive Behaviors shows that these factors reach back as early as the sixth grade and can be influenced by teacher behavior.

Middle school teachers represent one of only a few adults middle school children can access outside of the family. At this “tween” period, unless they have strong family relationships, they generally rely on peers and information they can access online for advice and to share their struggles. The study, called, “Emotional Health Predictors of Substance Use Initiation During Middle School” looked at the relationships these young people have with their teachers and matched that to emotional problems and the likelihood a child would have tried alcohol.

The study shows that emotional support from teachers makes a real difference. When this support is in place, students delayed the first use of alcohol or other substances, including those who were otherwise stressed. Importantly, the target group – anxious or depressed children – was impacted the most by healthy interactions and support from teachers.

This research tells us something most teachers already recognize, their role is much more than just one of education. Teaching involves establishing and nurturing self-esteem, give structure and purpose, and can provide counseling when appropriate. At a time when the cost of education is being reexamined and the teacher to student ratios are being reduced, this “peripheral” function might boost the case for keeping interactions alive. Tangentially, it also points up a valid criticism of online or computer-based learning – the lack of face to face interaction and social/supportive elements. In our push to do more with less in education, it’s important to recognize benefits other than those measured on standardized tests.

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