Canadian collaboration to develop national standards for substance use education and intervention in schools

Five youth standing in front of a school barbed wire fence and talking to each other
A historic collaboration between a new National Centre for Innovation and education professionals is transforming substance use education and intervention in schools. (Photo by Eliott Reyna on Unsplash)
This article originally appeared on

Substance use and related harms have been a key concern for many Canadians over the last seven years, but there remain troubling gaps in school-based approaches to substance use education and intervention. This leaves children and youth without critical information and supports for their wellbeing now and throughout their lives.

Across Canada, teachers and other education professionals have been sounding the alarm about this gap for years. But a new National Centre for Innovation aims to change this, working with educational professionals in an historic collaboration that will create national standards to help teachers and school administrators do their jobs efficiently, effectively and in line with scientific evidence. This is a first step toward eliminating solutions that don’t work.

Dr. Emily Jenkins, a UBC associate professor of nursing and founder of Wellstream: The Canadian Centre for Innovation in Child and Youth Mental Health and Substance Use, shares what needs to change to best support children and youth when it comes to substance use education and intervention.

Why do we need national standards for substance use education and intervention in schools?

Teachers and education system leaders are calling for clear and consistent guidance and resources that are supported by the decades of available evidence showing what does and doesn’t work. In addition, they need solutions that are age- and context-appropriate and can be delivered in a K-12 setting.

Outdated fear-based, abstinence-oriented approaches still exist, despite their mismatch with the realities of youth substance use and decision-making. Continuing with these approaches will cause substantial harm.

Ignoring the consequences of inaction has had devastating effects. We need only look at the current toxic drug crisis to know the importance of early and ongoing programming in responding to this issue.

A recent Canadian study showed that the K-12 school sector lacks clear, evidence-based guidance for substance use education and intervention, leading to a wide variety of approaches both within and between schools. This inconsistency contributes to troubling inequities. For instance, many schools offer no substance use programming beyond curriculum content. Many others use ineffective models that can be harmful.

How do you plan to address this gap?

Our team at Wellstream/Bienamont has recently embarked on a multiyear initiative aimed at bridging the gaps and leveraging opportunities within the K-12 school system to improve lives. We will work in close collaboration with school professionals to co-design solutions to ensure their fit and adoption.

This project will tackle four key areas: co-developing national standards for substance use education and intervention in the K-12 school system, including collaborating with our educational colleagues to review evidence, policy and public opinion about child and youth substance use prevention in schools; providing easy-to-access, easy-to-use, and low-cost resources for change that are aligned with scientific evidence; offering strategic implementation support; and continuously monitoring and refining to optimize outcomes.

What potential impact do you foresee from this work?

Our ultimate goal is for every educational professional in the K-12 system to have consistent, well-researched guidance to lean on.

We’re working to make a difference to the nearly six million children and youth enrolled in Canadian schools, along with the more than three-quarters of a million educational professionals supporting their healthy development. This is where we must concentrate our efforts. Every community, regardless of location or type, has schools. There is no other pathway this comprehensive for building understanding and shifting trajectories.

Strategic Priority Areas:

UBC Crest The official logo of the University of British Columbia. Arrow An arrow indicating direction. Arrow in Circle An arrow indicating direction. Caret An arrowhead indicating direction. E-commerce Cart A shopping cart. Time A clock. Chats Two speech clouds. Facebook The logo for the Facebook social media service. Social Media The globe is the default icon for a social media platform. TikTok The logo for the TikTok social media platform. Calendar Location Home A house in silhouette. Information The letter 'i' in a circle. Instagram The logo for the Instagram social media service. Linkedin The logo for the LinkedIn social media service. Location Pin A map location pin. Mail An envelope. Telephone An antique telephone. Play A media play button. Search A magnifying glass. Arrow indicating share action A directional arrow. Speech Bubble A speech bubble. Star An outline of a star. Twitter The logo for the Twitter social media service. Urgent Message An exclamation mark in a speech bubble. User A silhouette of a person. Vimeo The logo for the Vimeo video sharing service. Youtube The logo for the YouTube video sharing service. Future of work A logo for the Future of Work category. Inclusive leadership A logo for the Inclusive leadership category. Planetary health A logo for the Planetary health category. Solutions for people A logo for the Solutions for people category. Thriving cities A logo for the Thriving cities category. University for future A logo for the University for future category.