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Facilitating SMART Recovery in High Schools

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

All young people and their families deserve a multitude of resources to grow into well-rounded and healthy members of their communities.

This past year, I had the privilege of offering weekly SMART Recovery sessions to students at two local high schools -- a rare opportunity to provide substance use recovery programming in-house (school-based) to youth who may need it the most. Through this partnership between the high schools and Kenneth Young Center, I met some super smart, funny, compassionate, and giving young people in each of my sessions who demonstrated profound courage and self-love to engage in the work of recovery.

SMART Recovery is a peer-led substance use recovery program where trained facilitators, such as myself, make space for people to share their experiences of substance use and provide tools to support them in their recovery experience.

These tools are evidence based, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Motivational Interviewing, and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. At the high school level, each student received a free SMART Recovery Teen and Youth Handbook from the Kenneth Young Center. The workbook features a variety of activities to help students make gains towards their specific recovery goals. These activities include: a ‘timeline’ of use, use/urge log, identifying and managing triggers, creating a hierarchy of personal values, and more.

Our sessions were dynamic. I made sure to provide opportunities for students to express their stories and needs, while introducing them to SMART tools. Many of my assumptions about the youth were challenged. Subsequently, I worked to make each session relevant for them as many of the youth had different experiences and needs. As I reflect on my time providing SMART Recovery in schools, I would like to highlight some takeaways from this experience which may be useful for others working in the fields of substance use recovery and positive youth development.

  1. Some youth expressed that they did not receive substance use prevention education classes in school. Others felt like the drug education that they did receive was impartial and incomplete. Many students provided peer education to each other during sessions, and I found myself doing some of that work as well if students had misinformation.

  2. Most youth wanted to talk about their mental health as much as their substance use. Research shows that mental health struggles and substance use issues occur concurrently. With that in mind, I started off most of my sessions by doing an emotions check and made space for students to share about their mental health, with or without diagnoses, in a way that was normalizing and non-stigmatizing.

  3. Many of my students had experienced a significant amount of trauma in their lives. This trauma may be connected to living in poverty, sexual assault, abusive family members, loss of parents or caretakers, lack of connections to the community, encounters with law enforcement including immigration officials, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny, ableism, and racism. It was imperative that our conversations on substance use touched on some of these painful experiences, especially if these experiences may have pushed them to use substances to cope.

  4. Not all youth who used substances did so to self-medicate as a way to cope with traumatic experiences. This is a crucial nuance to understand. People of all ages use drugs for different reasons. Some of these reasons include: just being simply curious, growing up in a household where others are using, having easy access to substances in their community, or wanting to have fun.

  5. Not all youth were seeking abstinence. Many were looking to reduce their use, or cut out specific substances from their lives that they felt were the most dangerous. Many youth acknowledged how substance use was negatively affecting their lives in terms of their relationships, health, schoolwork, ability to keep a job, or encounters with law enforcement. Many students expressed repeatedly wanting to improve their lives, even if they were not sure how to make it happen on their own.

Each student was beyond any stereotypes or assumptions that might be imposed on them. For example, some of the youth live with a profound sense of loss, hopelessness, or apathy whereas others did not. Some students did well in their classes whereas others were struggling. Some students were admirers of the arts, whereas others were creatives themselves.

One common characteristic among all of my students is that music and art played a profound role in shaping their lives. I made room for students to express themselves through creative means especially if some of them found it easier to talk about their lives through making a collage rather than traditional talk or writing exercises.

As widespread research demonstrates, those living with substance use disorders and/or mental health illness benefit from having access to culturally relevant recovery resources as well as having their basic needs of food, shelter, housing, healthcare, and community support met. It is the hope of mine as well as that of the Kenneth Young Center that our SMART Recovery programming has been a useful tool to positively shape the self-esteem, determination, and success of each of the youth’s specific goals - both recovery-related and otherwise. All youth deserve opportunities for growth in their lives, and I am grateful to have worked with schools open to offering unique programming to their young people.

If you are a school administrator or teacher and would like to learn more about the SMART Recovery program and how to partner with the Kenneth Young Center, please contact Daryl Pass, Manager of Recovery Resources at

If you are a youth looking for SMART Recovery options outside of school, join our weekly SMART Recovery group for youth that meets Thursdays from 4:30-6p CST on Zoom video and audio by clicking here to learn more and register. For more recovery resources, please visit the CPYD Recovery Resource Guide by clicking here.

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