Principles of Substance Abuse Prevention for Early Childhood A Research-Based Guide (In Brief)

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  • Principle 1 (Overarching Principle): Intervening early in childhood can alter the life course trajectory in a positive direction.1, 2 Substance abuse and other problem behaviors that are seen in the teen years have their roots in developmental changes that occur earlier — as far back as before birth. While prevention can be effective at any age, it can have particularly strong effects when applied early in a child’s life.

The following specific principles collectively provide support for Principle 1.

  • Principle 2: Intervening early in childhood can both increase protective factors and reduce risk factors.3, 4 Risk factors are qualities of children and their environments that place them at greater risk of behavioral problems and substance abuse. Protective factors are qualities that help young people cope and adapt to reduce risks. All children have a mix of both. Interventions focus on building protective factors.
  • Principle 3: Intervening early in childhood can have positive long-term effects.5, 6 Early childhood interventions help set the stage for positive self-regulation and other protective factors that ultimately reduce the risk of drug use.
  • Principle 4: Intervening in early childhood can have effects on a wide array of behaviors.7–12 Risk factors for substance use may also put a child at risk for other problems such as mental illness or trouble at school. This is why intervening to prevent one undesirable outcome may have a broad effect, improving the child’s life trajectory in multiple ways.
  • Principle 5: Early childhood interventions can positively affect children’s biological functioning.13, 14 Research has shown that interventions in childhood can improve physical health as well as behavioral and psychological outcomes.
  • Principle 6: Early childhood prevention interventions should target the proximal environments of the child.15,  16 The family environment is the most influential environment in early child development, so parents and primary caregivers are a major focus of many early childhood interventions.17, 18 But as a child grows older, he or she typically spends more and more time out of the home, perhaps attending day care, then attending preschool followed by elementary school.7, 9, 10, 19, 20 Interventions targeting different age groups and different types of problems should focus on the most relevant context(s) — the home, school, day care, or a combination.
  • Principle 7: Positively affecting a child’s behavior through early intervention can elicit positive behaviors in adult caregivers and in other children, improving the overall social environment.21, 22 Behavioral changes in children and the adults who interact with them can influence each other. Improving the child’s family or school environment can, over time, cause the child’s social behavior to become more positive and healthy (or pro-social). This, in turn, can lead to more positive interactions with others and improve the social environment as a result.