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Project Background

West Virginia Teachers and the Opioid Epidemic

West Virginia struggles with the highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the country. Children whose parents struggle with a substance use disorder bring experiences of neglect, trauma, and mental health issues to school. And teachers are seeing the effects in the classroom.

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Some students are so fixated on “survival” that learning is not a priority for them.

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I used to be energetic and love teaching kindergarten. Now, however, I am fearful for what each school year brings.

Within this context, our research team sought to examine teachers’ experience of the opioid epidemic in the classroom. What student behaviors are challenging for teachers? Are teachers well-equipped? Who should help them through challenges stemming from the opioid crisis? We describe results of an anonymous online survey of 2,639 West Virginia teachers (in 54 counties) who were asked to anonymously report on their classroom experiences. The results paint a grim picture of the challenges facing West Virginia teachers.

Mismatch Between Classroom Behaviors and Teacher Preparedness

For many classroom behaviors we asked about common behaviors in the classroom. Teachers reported suppression, low motivation, errors in judgement, hyperactivity, and immaturity as extremely common behaviors, but also reported low confidence in managing those behaviors.


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For those children that I do recognize are coming from homes of addiction or are broken for some reason or another, I know they need more support in the classroom, I just don’t know what supports those are or how to deliver them.

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Do I have the right to reach out and offer resources and services to get the parent help? To open and honestly talk to the parent about their addiction? Is that overstepping?

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Teach? We are no longer just teaching. Teachers and administrators are now counselors, policemen, CPS workers, food pantries, friends, and teachers.

Most teachers (70%) experienced at least occasional burnout – emotional exhaustion, cynicism, lack of personal accomplishment – on a monthly basis. One-third of teachers experienced burnout frequently. With over 206 open professional positions in the state, burnout may lead to an increase in teacher shortages.

Recommendations

Needs Indicated by the Survey

Based on results from this survey, we provide the following recommendations, drawing upon best practices in education, addiction studies, and child and family studies.

Additional training on topics including:
  • Effects of addiction on family systems and children.
  • Classroom strategies for common behavioral manifestations related to common yet challenging student behaviors.
  • Parent and family interaction strategies.
How we are addressing additional training:
Support infrastructure for teachers including:
  • Increased staff support (such as social worker, counselors, principals) for teachers and students to provide trainings in addiction..
  • Mentor system programs to facilitate regular problem solving around classroom challenges
  • Regular, facilitated meetings to discuss experiences and effective strategies with other teachers.
How we are supporting infrastructure:
  • Establish teacher buddies within the training.
  • Facilitate creation of a plan for buddies to connect with one another to offer support.
Concrete resources for teachers including:
  • Local and regional addiction services to distribute to parents, families, and staff.
  • Tools to use with students.
  • National organizations
How we are providing resources for teachers
  • Discuss national and local resources throughout the training.
  • Provide a digital resource handbook including:
    • An addictions glossary.
    • Classroom posters.
    • A list of national and local agencies.
    • A Self-Care Guide.
View our resources

Curbing the downstream effects of the opioid crisis on West Virginia’s children will take effort and resources. Those outlined above are a critical first step to make a positive impact on our children and our state.

Contributors

This report was supported by small grant funding from the West Virginia Clinical and Translational Science Institute (2U54GM104942-02) and by generous support from Dr. Kim Horn.