Opioid education for kindergartners? Yep, that’s a thing

(Emma Lee/WHYY)

(Emma Lee/WHYY)

In his Tuesday State of the State address, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie proposed creating a “new, specific curriculum in every school on opioids.”

Christie said this new curriculum should cover all grades, even kindergarten.

But what does drug education look like for the youngest learners? The answer: a good bit different than the “just say no” approach you may remember from your school days.

“When we start with kindergarten students, we certainly don’t want to say that drugs are bad,” said Bettyann Creighton, executive director of health, safety and physical education for the School District of Philadelphia. “That’s way over the top for them.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

By that Creighton means you don’t want to stigmatize medication for students who may use an inhaler or need insulin. And generally it’s tough for 5- and 6-year-olds to distinguish between legal and illegal medicines, so simply telling them about the evils of narcotics probably won’t help.

Instead, the goal with kindergartners is to give them a healthy and safe attitude toward drugs.

Since 1998, Philadelphia has maintained health education guidelines for all grades, including kindergarten, said Creighton. The guidelines are aimed at classroom teachers so that they can give students age-appropriate instruction.

By the end of their kindergarten year, for instance, Philly students are supposed to know the difference between medicine and food; realize that alcohol and tobacco aren’t good for you; and understand that medicine should only be taken if administered by a doctor or caregiver.

The ultimate goal is to foster an early appreciation for medicine so students don’t abuse it later in life.

Realizing that school nurses could effectively relay this message, the National Association of School Nurses launched an opioid-abuse prevention program in 2009. It later introduced a curriculum for K-5 students in 2014.

Dubbed “Start Smart,” the association’s program encourages nurses and classroom teachers to talk with their students about medication — when it should be taken, who should administer it, and how it should be used.

One of the most important things kindergartners need to understand, said association executive director Beth Mattey, is that the solution to every ache and pain doesn’t lie in a medicine cabinet.

“The other thing we want them to know is you don’t always need to take medication for something,” she said. “There’s not always a pill that’s going to work.”

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal