Early Intervention

Early Intervention

Table of Contents

Why Pursue Early Intervention?

Does early intervention reduce substance abuse in children? Research conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) demonstrates that while substance use typically starts in the teenage years, there are known psychological, biological, social, and environmental beginnings for substance abuse that occur even before birth as well as in the early stages of childhood.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) developed a set of early childhood factors that can lead to substance use disorders, including:

Lack of school preparedness skills

Insecure attachement patterns

Uncontrolled aggression signals

And NIDA recognized that at vulnerable times in a child’s life, special attention helps children avoid future substance use:


Moving to a new home or neighborhood

Starting school

The level of success a child has in making the transitions between development periods and in achieving developmental milestones can affect future development, which includes risks for substance abuse or other behavioral, mental or emotional problems as a teenager.1

Notably, all these factors can be minimized by early intervention. So, logically, early intervention should be effective. Let’s see if that’s the case.

Early Intervention Programs

Early intervention programs are designed for early developmental periods and address these risk factors by building on a child’s and parent’s existing strengths. They provide basic parenting and behavioral skills and problem-solving strategies. These programs also focus on providing support in the child’s areas that are lacking. 

Research findings show that stable home environments, adequate nutrition, physical and mental stimulation, and supportive parents can lead to good developmental outcomes.2 There are some research studies that show that children who participated in early intervention programs have shown reduced substance use in later years due to interventions that focused on improving poor parenting skills and decreasing other risk factors during childhood.3

With this in mind, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) conducted research for the past 30 years that resulted in developing a variety of early intervention substance abuse prevention programs.

These programs span the prenatal period through elementary school. Let’s take a closer look at six of the intervention programs.  

Family Spirit Early Intervention

Pregnancy and Childhood Early Intervention for American Indian Teens

The Family Spirit early intervention program has paraprofessionals visit American Indian teen mothers and their children to help decrease health and behavioral risks that can happen in very young mothers. Parenting skills services are delivered by Native paraprofessionals who are locally based workers who coordinate with professionals to deliver program services during home visits.

Participants in the program were mostly unmarried, young, and living at poverty income levels with unstable living situations and low educational levels. The Family Spirit program was developed to address the higher rates of drug abuse, obesity and diabetes that were increasing among American Indian youth.4

An analysis of the program found that, after one year, the group that had early intervention showed considerably more knowledge of parenting and fewer instances of attributing emotions and thoughts to external circumstances. In the subgroup of mothers who had any history of substance abuse, the children in the intervention group showed less dysregulation and externalizing issues compared to those in the standard care group.5

Nurse-Family Partnership

Early Intervention Home Visits for First-Time Mothers in Low Socio-Economic Backgrounds

The Nurse-Family Partnership is a community health program that matches up nurses to first-time mothers and their babies. The goals of the program are to keep children healthy and safe while improving the lives of both mothers and babies. The program matches a specially trained nurse with a young, first-time mom-to-be. The nurse visits regularly from the early stages of pregnancy through the child’s second birthday.6

Some short-term positive effects include improved mother and child health, including less neglect and abuse of children.7

Research also reports that mothers and children who participate in the Nurse-Family Partnership early intervention programs decreased the likelihood of the children’s use of substances and mental health issues while improving their academic achievements.8

Caring School Community Program Early Intervention

(Formerly Known as the Child Development Project)

The Caring School Community Program is a school-based early intervention that focuses on improving children’s attitudes towards school and to decrease delinquency. Research on the Caring School Community programs shows a positive effect on students who participated compared to a group who did not.7

Formerly known as the Child Development Project, the program is provided in elementary schools. It works to boost the connection between students and school by creating an academic setting that cultivates motivation, achievement, and solid character development. The Caring School Community Program also seeks to reduce substance abuse, mental health issues, and violence.

Research showed a significant drop in students’ substance use and other behavioral issues in schools where the Caring School Community Program was used by teachers over a 3-year period as compared to schools that did not implement the program.7

Linking the Interests of Families and Teachers (LIFT)

Early Intervention to Reduce Delinquency

Linking the Interests of Families and Teachers (LIFT) is a program that provides preventive interventions in grade schools where there are high concentrations of juvenile delinquency. The program focuses on improving and reinforcing the connections between schools and families.

The program aims to reduce children’s aggressive behavior and the rejection of aggressive children by their classmates. Games with children focus on reinforcing positive social behaviors while the children are playing. Parental training is also provided that emphasizes supervision, positive discipline as well as problem-solving skills. School to parent communication helps parents and teachers connect and communicate via email, internet, phone, and weekly newsletters. This extra communication helps describe current program activities and home activity suggestions.

Research into the effects of early intervention from the LIFT program showed improvements in parenting behaviors and children’s social skills.7 As children from the program entered middle and high schools, LIFT participants had lower rates of arrests and substance use compared to children in research groups that had not.7

Raising Healthy Children (RHC) Early Intervention

School-Based Intervention to Increase Healthy Social Behaviors

Raising Healthy Children (RHC) is a home- and school-based intervention program for children in 1st through 12th grades. RHC works with parents, students, and teachers. The focus is to increase healthy social behaviors and reduce drug and alcohol use as well as other problem behaviors.

Workshops for teachers focus on improving instruction and classroom management skills. Parents attend workshops and individual in-home sessions that concentrate on improving parenting skills. Children learn emotional, social, and cognitive skills. Also, school-home coordinators check in regularly with families and are available to help with any problems that come up.

Students in the RHC early intervention programs demonstrated higher academic achievement, stronger commitments to school and increased socialization skills.7 These students also displayed less antisocial behaviors and fewer instances of alcohol and marijuana use. They were also less likely to drive when drinking or to ride with a driver who had been drinking alcohol. RHC interventions promote healthy behaviors and academic performances and helped to reduce substance use and drunk driving as well as lessening antisocial behaviors.7

Fast Track Prevention Trial for Conduct Problems

Early Intervention to Identify and Reduce Aggression

Fast Track Prevention Trial for Conduct Problems is a preventive intervention program provided to children in the 1st to 10th grades who are likely candidates for long-term antisocial behavior. Fast Track is a classroom intervention that helps children develop skills in the areas of communication, emotional understanding, self-control, friendship, and problem-solving in social situations. Also, interventions for high-risk kids are provided to those who display high levels of aggression at home and school when in kindergarten. Social skills training and educational tutoring are also provided. Parents receive parental skills training.

The services children receive help to improve their self-control skills as well as academic and social competencies. Training sessions for parents help children foster their self-control. Parental training also aims to foster support for the adjusting to school, improve the child’s behavior, make clear what appropriate behaviors are expected from the child at home and school, and to improve interactions between parents and children.

12th Grade Study Results

A study was done on children in the 12th grade who had attended the Fast Track intervention program. Research showed that there was less adolescent delinquency. Among the children at highest risk, there was a reduction in lifetime prevalence for oppositional defiant disorders, conduct disorder, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) as well as any externalizing disorder.7

Elementary School Study Results

At the end of elementary school, children in the Fast Track program displayed considerably less home and community problems, which included substance use in the past year.7 Children in Fast Track at the end of 12th grade made much fewer healthcare visits and had fewer visits to emergency rooms for behavioral, emotional, educational, or substance abuse problems.7

Follow-up studies for children who had participated in the Fast Track interventions and were at the age of 25 showed the program did significantly decrease alcohol abuse and serious substance use.7

The Bottom Line

Early Intervention Reduces Substance Use Disorders

Due to more than 30 years of research about what influences a child’s ability to cope with life’s unavoidable stresses, researchers and intervention program developers and administrators have the information they need to intervene very early in life to prevent substance use disorders.

Successful early interventions help children develop more positive self-regulation and decrease the likelihood of substance use disorders. 

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