About Project ALERT
Project ALERT was developed and empirically tested by researchers at RAND in the early 1980s. Initial support for Project ALERT was funded by the Hilton Foundation, who in 1990 established the BEST Foundation for a Drug-Free Tomorrow, which supported and maintained Project ALERT for over 20 years. The BEST Foundation worked to disseminate Project ALERT, update project materials regularly, and transition the training and materials into web-friendly format. In 2014 Project ALERT returned to the RAND Corporation and is managed by researchers and support staff.
Project ALERT has never taken funding from the alcohol or tobacco industry or other special interests. This decision allows Project ALERT to remain credible, authoritative, and independent.
Today, Project ALERT is taught in schools in all 50 states. More than 35,000 educators in nearly 20,000 U.S. school districts have completed the training and are certified to teach the curriculum. Educators have also been certified in Canada, India, Mexico, Chile, Australia, and Japan.
Adolescent Thinking and Project ALERT
Much psychological research indicates that adolescents think differently than adults. These differences make adolescents more vulnerable to taking risks with their health.
The following differences are most relevant to prevention substance use and promoting resistance self-efficacy, or the belief that one can say no when faced with pressure to use substances.
- Difficulty in considering the future consequences of current decisions.
- Difficulty in applying information about risk and consequences to themselves; that is, they often believe themselves to be immune to negative events. Some psychologists refer to this belief as the myth of personal immorality.
- Tendency to discount known risks - Everyone in my family smokes, but no one has gotten lung cancer.
- Difficulty in understanding probability and its meaning for their own lives and health
- Poor decision-making skills. Of particular note is the tendency to discount long-term consequences in making decisions and a general inability to weigh costs and benefits to produce rational decisions.
The goal of Project ALERT is to reduce the use of substances by keeping nonusers from trying them and by preventing experiments from becoming regular users.
The curriculum consists of 11 lessons given over 11 weeks in seventh grade, followed by three booster lessons given over three weeks in eighth grade to reinforce the lessons and solidify outcomes. The frequency of the 45-minute lessons is intentional because one all-school assembly or a one-time lesson isn’t enough to instill self-efficacy and resistance skills. The program is delivered in middle school because that is when teenagers are making new friends and having new experiences. We also know from national substance use data that middle school is a prime time for prevention programming. Substance use increases as students get older, meaning the opportunity and pressures to use increase over time.
One of the unique features of Project ALERT is its emphasis on helping students identify internal, as well as, external pressures to use substances. Young adolescents frequently fail to recognize the subtle, yet powerful, ways they put pressure on themselves - even when no one is trying to influence them specifically ("I'll be left out if I don't act like the others."). Short, teacher-led psychodramas graphically portray these "pressures from inside ourselves." And, role-playing exercises help students learn techniques for resisting them.
Research on adolescents indicates that teenagers tend to discount long-term risks and overestimate drug use among their peers. Thus, to provide greater motivation, Project ALERT stresses how drugs can affect students now, in their daily lives and social relationships. It also counters the belief that "everyone uses" with actual statistics showing that users are in the minority and with videos that depict successful non-users.
The structure of each lesson and the teaching process are designed to increase learning and motivation. Studies have shown that the following four factors help increase motivation and build resistance skills, and these are an integral part of the curriculum:
Providing discrete near-term goals that can be achieved in a single class lesson
Actively involving students in the learning process
Developing skills through demonstration and practice
Encouraging self-efficacy through positive and task-specific feedback.
Meanwhile, the participatory nature of the curriculum explains why it can be used so successfully with adolescents of varying academic capabilities, cultures, and social environments. The program starts with where the students are, and brings their individual experiences and beliefs into each lesson. Hence, Project ALERT adapts to the particular circumstances and background of each classroom and school and builds on the students' knowledge, beliefs, skills, and experiences. It can be used effectively in highly diverse classrooms, with students from different socioeconomic backgrounds, with different academic capabilities, and with different levels of motivational readiness.
Seventh grade appears to be the optimum time for offering programs based on the social influence model. Most seventh graders have just made the transition that readies them socially and experientially to learn resistance skills. They have left the more sheltered environment of the elementary school and are becoming increasingly vulnerable to peer influences. At the same time, they are beginning to make more decisions on their own and are broadening their network of friends and acquaintances and thus, their exposure to various kinds of peer pressure. They also have a stronger cognitive base for understanding difficult concepts such as internal pressure.
This purposeful design founded on 30+ years of research allows Project ALERT to be uniquely successful in helping adolescents make healthy decisions related to substance abuse.
Project ALERT’s 11 lessons and three boosters integrate research about how to change behavior and make learning most effective. One reason that Project ALERT is delivered in middle school is because research suggests that seventh grade - when teens are making new friends and having new experiences - is the optimum time to engage them in anti-substance programs. Because adolescents typically start using alcohol, tobacco, inhalants, and marijuana before they try other drugs, Project ALERT focuses specifically on those four substances.