Researchers investigate the impact of the statewide opioid crisis on teachers

March 13, 2019, West Virginia University
Frankie Tack, Sara Anderson and Jessica Trollo have researched the effects of the opioid crisis on classroom teachers and how they deal with students whose lives are affected by addiction at home. Credit: WVU

When their family members struggle with substance use disorders, children bring experiences of neglect, trauma and often, mental health issues into the classroom, creating challenging environments for their teachers. Researchers at West Virginia University have evaluated the impact of the opioid crisis in classrooms across the Mountain State through a survey of 2,205 teachers in 49 counties.

The study, conducted by three scholars from the WVU College of Education and Human Services - Sara Anderson, assistant professor in the Department of Learning Sciences and Human Development; Jessica Troilo, associate professor in the Department of Learning Sciences and Human Development; and Frankie Tack, addiction studies minor coordinator and clinical assistant professor in the Department of Counseling, Rehabilitation Counseling and Counseling Psychology—blends Anderson and Troilo's expertise in child development and family systems with Tack's background in the field of addiction.

"A lot of the study is based upon developmental and family theories, but Frankie's expertise adds a new dimension," Anderson said. "As far as we can tell, this study will be the first of its kind. I don't think anyone else has taken this approach."

The study finds that while 70 percent of West Virginia teachers report an increase in students impacted by substance use in the home, only 10 percent of teachers feel confident in knowing how to support children with parents or caregivers who use substances. Most of the teachers' survey responses indicated that they are experiencing emotional exhaustion, cynicism and a lack of personal accomplishment related to the changing classroom dynamics created by the opioid crisis.

"The comments from the teachers were pretty shocking," Tack said. "We expected to hear that the opioid epidemic had an impact in classrooms, but not to this extent. Much of what is known about students relative to addiction focuses on prevention in the classroom and not necessarily on the collateral damage that occurs."

"What we're also seeing is that the impact on students extends beyond those with direct experience with at home," Troilo added. "The students who don't have those experiences at home are witnessing behaviors in the classroom that they aren't accustomed to; this is what we call the tertiary effect of higher classroom stress linked to the opioid crisis."

Drawing upon best practices in education, addiction studies, and and family studies, Anderson, Troilo and Tack recommend additional training and support for West Virginia teachers to curb the downstream effects of the opioid crisis on West Virginia's children. They will present their research to the West Virginia Board of Education on Wednesday, March 13 in Charleston.

The goal of this study is to use these initial findings to develop and pilot a training module around addiction in the that Anderson, Troilo and Tack hope to implement statewide.

"West Virginia teachers are in desperate need of support in this area, and that's what we hope to provide," Troilo said.

Explore further: Kindness works: Teachers' helping behaviors related to better student relationships and academic confidence

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