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The Importance of Prevention

The goals of Project Northland are to delay the age when young people begin drinking, reduce alcohol use among young people who have already tried drinking, and limit the number of alcohol-related problems of young people. Alcohol is the focus of the Project Northland program because it is the drug of choice of American teenagers and inflicts the most harm during this age period.

The programs of Project Northland provide state-of-the-art prevention materials for 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students. These programs invite participation and experiential learning at home and in the classroom. Project Northland has been shown to be effective in delaying and reducing alcohol use among young adolescents in the largest and most rigorous alcohol use prevention trial ever funded by the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse. Furthermore, among those students who had not begun using alcohol by the beginning of 6th grade, reports of cigarette use and marijuana use were lower in those who participated in the Project Northland prevention programs.

The Project Northland programs begin with pre-teens in the 6th grade because studies show that alcohol use often begins during early adolescence. According to Monitoring the Future, a federally sponsored annual national survey of adolescents, in 1993 nearly 70 percent of 8th grade students reported having used alcohol. Moreover, nearly 30 percent reported having been drunk by the 8th grade. Other studies have shown that alcohol use during early adolescence increases the likelihood of progression to heavy alcohol use and to the use of other illicit drugs.

National statistics also point out the serious problems associated with acute alcohol intoxication among teens. Nearly nine of ten teenage motor vehicle crashes involve alcohol, and 51 percent of adolescent motor vehicle fatalities involve youth with measurable blood alcohol levels. Besides auto injuries, acts that are often connected to episodes of acute alcohol intoxication include homicide and suicide, which are the leading causes of death among adolescents.

The less obvious, but terribly serious effects of alcohol use include a delay in normal development, increased school and family problems, and a greater likelihood of early sexual activity that can lead to unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, and HIV/AIDS. Primary prevention attempts to combat these problems before they have a chance to develop. Project Northland utilizes educational materials and community action to achieve these goals of primary prevention.

School-Based Curricula


Research on adolescent alcohol and drug use suggests that factors within a teen's social environment, personality, and behavior are all important determinants of substance use. Alcohol and other drug use is viewed as the result of a complex interaction of influences at each of these levels. Alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drug use can be thought of as socially learned behaviors which serve specific functions and purposes for adolescents. Specifically, alcohol and other drug use may offer an opportunity to challenge parental and societal authorities, to demonstrate autonomy and independence, to be accepted by a peer group, or simply to relieve the stresses of growing up.

Project Northland uses an understanding of factors which influence alcohol and other drug use as a basis for designing school and community-level programs to prevent adolescent alcohol experimentation and use. These factors include:

  • Environmental factors, aspects of the environment that support, permit, or discourage alcohol use by adolescents, include such things as influential role models, social support, specific opportunities or barriers to drink, and community norms and standards related to adolescent drinking.
  • Intrapersonal factors, personality characteristics and ways of thinking which increase or decrease the likelihood of an adolescent using alcohol, include an adolescent's level of knowledge about alcohol use consequences, personal values, attitudes, and self-efficacy.
  • Behavioral factors affect alcohol use directly. These include past alcohol, cigarette and other drug use, intentions to drink in the future, and skills to resist offers to use alcohol.

The social environment provides the necessary conditions for adolescent alcohol use. Environmental influences include behaviors of respected role models, social support from family and friends, and home, school, and community-level policies and practices. These influences create opportunities or barriers to use alcohol or nondrug alternatives. Numerous studies have documented the strong influence of peers and family members on teens' alcohol use. It has been shown that if close friends or family members drink alcohol, an adolescent is likely to drink in a similar manner or under similar circumstances. In addition, teens who believe their peers support use, or that family members do not discourage their use, are more likely to drink than teens who do not have these beliefs.

School and community-level actions also play a key role in promoting or discouraging alcohol use among teens. For example, the short-lived success of some past classroom programs to reduce adolescent alcohol use may be due in part to a lack of integration of these programs with other community programs and policies which address advertising and availability of alcohol to youth. In one of Project Northland's research studies, we found that school and community norms and role models for alcohol use provided nearly half the explanation of why young adolescents drink.

Though experimentation with alcohol and other drugs generally occurs within social situations, not all teens in high-risk environments choose to use alcohol. Intrapersonal and behavioral factors contribute to an adolescent's response to the social environment. Academic achievement and a sense that one has the ability to refuse offers of alcohol are among the intrapersonal factors which influence an adolescent's decisions to use or not use alcohol. The relative value a teen places on conventional goals such as doing well in school (versus drinking), the adolescent's repertoire of skills to refuse offers to drink, and participation in alcohol-free activities also influence alcohol use or non-use.

Project Northland's approach to prevention translates known predictive factors into methods of delaying the onset of alcohol use. Efforts are made to address the functions served by alcohol use along with the social-environmental, intrapersonal, and behavioral factors which put youth at risk for alcohol experimentation and use.


The SLICK TRACY HOME TEAM PROGRAM involves four classroom sessions plus classroom time to prepare for the SLICK TRACY POSTER FAIR. Each session is about 20 to 30 minutes. The AMAZING ALTERNATIVES! and POWERLINES curricula are divided into eight classroom sessions designed to be taught once or twice per week over four to eight consecutive weeks. Each session involves approximately 45 minutes of class time.

The curricula use a variety of educational strategies including group discussions, role plays, peer-led activities, class games, problem solving, videotapes, audiotapes, and small group projects. The curriculum package for each session includes session objectives and outline, activities, student handouts, and instruction sheets for peer leaders.

Each session contains detailed descriptions of procedures for presenting the activities, with direct questions and/or statements for the teacher to ask students. Materials needed for each session as well as peer leader instruction sheets are included in each manual. Original copies of all posters and student materials needed are also included in the manual.

The Curricula

The SLICK TRACY HOME TEAM PROGRAM brings 6th grade students together with their families to complete fun and educational activities at home. Using activity books, this four-week program provides a forum for 6th graders and their families to discuss alcohol-related issues.

A central story presented through comic strips, activities, tips for parents, and a scorecard of participation, along with prizes awarded for participation, make this curriculum an easy and fun way for families to discuss the serious issue of alcohol. Along with the home-based program is the SLICK TRACY POSTER FAIR, during which 6th grade students present their own alcohol-related research projects to their parents and the community.


The AMAZING ALTERNATIVES! curriculum for 7th grade students consists of eight 45-minute classroom sessions of peer-led experiential activities including audio tapes made by kids their age, group discussions, class games, problem solving, and role plays. These activities are designed to teach students skills to identify and resist influences to use alcohol, to change the acceptability of alcohol use, and to encourage alcohol-free alternatives. The primary goal of the program is to delay the onset of alcohol use among 7th graders.


POWERLINES, an eight-session, four-week interactive program for 8th grade students, is designed to reinforce the messages and behaviors learned in 6th and 7th grade Project Northland curricula. POWERLINES introduces 8th graders to professional and political groups within communities that influence adolescents' alcohol use. Through work on small group projects, students learn about these groups and the influences they have within their own communities. Student projects also give 8th graders opportunities to become positive influences within their communities, schools, peer groups, and with younger students.

What makes these curricula successful?

All Project Northland curricula use prevention education which has been successfully implemented in a variety of settings. Home-based correspondence programs which involve parents have been well received by families in other health programs similar to Project Northland.

Two prevention research projects at the University of Minnesota involved looking at the importance of involving parents through a home-based program. The first sought changes in healthy eating habits in order to prevent heart disease. The second was a program designed to prevent kids from starting to smoke cigarettes. Both studies showed that involving parents through home programs can achieve high parental participation and promote positive behavior change in young people. During the Project Northland study, nearly 90 percent of parents participated in the home-based programs.

Peer groups also influence adolescent health behavior. Peers serve as sources of information and role models for new social behaviors. Project Northland takes advantage of the importance of peers by using peer leaders in the classroom programs. Peer-led instruction uses and enhances the positive impact of peer groups, minimizes their negative potential, and improves the credibility of the program. Peer leaders are perceived as more credible sources of social information than adults, and they serve to create and reinforce new behavior patterns. Positive peer influence was one of the primary outcomes of the Project Northland study.

Curriculum Implementation

It has been our intention to create curricula that are friendly to teachers, interesting to students, and effective in preventing alcohol use.

Importance of Starting with the First Program in Sixth Grade

Project Northland curricula for sixth, seventh, and eighth grades provide a sustained and comprehensive prevention program for underage drinking during the middle school years. Each program builds upon materials presented and learned during the first year. For example, peer leaders are introduced in sixth grade and given even more training-and responsibilities in the seventh and eighth grades.

Time Capsules are completed by students during each Project Northland program and are returned to them at the beginning of the seventh and eighth grade programs. Therefore, successful implementation of Project Northland requires that students begin the program when they are in sixth grade, and continue with the programs in seventh and eighth grades. We do not recommend starting the program with a class of seventh or eighth graders who have not participated in the previous Project Northland programs; such students may not have the skills or information that was developed and learned during the previous years. Individual students who have transferred to the school, however, can quickly be brought up to date by classmates who have consistently participated.

Role of the Teacher

The role of the teacher is critical to this curriculum. The materials are designed to permit student- and peer leader-directed activities where possible, but the teacher must guide the process to ensure that the lesson plans are followed as presented. The teacher's enthusiasm makes a big difference in the effectiveness of the programs.

Role of the Peer Leaders

While teachers are effective sources of factual information for students, same-age peers are among the most credible sources of social information concerning alcohol use. Project Northland incorporates this principle -- many of the small group activities within the curricula are led by students who have been selected by their peers. These peer leaders facilitate small group discussions, report students' views to the class, lead role play activities, and organize and lead small group community projects.

The three curricula differ in how peer leaders are selected and the extent of their roles. In SLICK TRACY and AMAZING ALTERNATIVES!, peer leaders are elected by their classmates and then trained by the teacher to conduct activities in the classroom. In POWERLINES, student groups will select different peer leaders with each major classroom activity; no formal peer leader training is needed but special Peer Leader Sheets give them detailed instructions about how to conduct their small group activity. The use of peer leaders in all three curricula allow many students to assume the role of leader over the course of early adolescence. More specific details are provided in each manual.

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