Problem: Adolescents who begin abusing substances, including alcohol, prescription drugs, and
illegal drugs often fail in school suffering life-altering consequences (Cox, Zhang, Johnson, &
Bender, 2007). While plentiful research exists on substance abuse, there is a dearth of research
on the school experiences of recovering substance abusers.
There is a lack of awareness of ways for families, schools, and agencies to recognize potential
roadblocks to guide every student toward a successful learning environment.
Methods: Using a phenomenological approach (Creswell, 2007) the lived experiences (Van
Manen, 1990) of recovering substance abusers’ secondary school experiences were explored.
Using semi-structured interviews (Kvale, 1996), six adult males were interviewed 3 times
(Seidman, 2006). Data collection consisted of verbatim transcriptions, my reflexive journaling
and field notes, and member checks during and after the interview process. Open coding
strategies (Strauss & Corbin, 1998) were used to determine emerging themes and commonalities.
Findings: Participants’ accounts revealed seven key themes of their secondary school
experiences. 1. Importance of parental, sibling, and child relationships on child wellbeing. 2.
Impact of parental practices on development of the child academically and emotionally. 3.
Importance of peer influence and peer relationships on student behavior. 4. Human need for
connectedness and purpose. 5. Relationship between participation in extra-curricular activities
and school success. 6. Link between student-school relationships, school success, and avoidance
of substance abuse. 7. Initiation and progression of substance abuse.
Conclusions: Participants experienced a lack of a sense of belonging in different phases of their
lives, and within the different groups to which they belonged. Consequently, participants sought
acceptance through negative peers groups and substance use, progressing to increasingly selfdestructive
behaviors. They favored small school environments. The onset of substance abuse
paralleled secondary school years resulting in academic decline, and failure to complete high
school or post secondary education.
Recommendations: Teachers may benefit from professional development on the emotional
needs of all students using district resources to support programs at the elementary, middle
school, and high school. Districts should collaborate and pool resources to provide services such
as alternative programs. Importantly, individuals and families must have knowledge of and
access to support available through programs that assist with family and parenting dysfunction,
development of coping mechanisms, and early identification and treatment for substance abuse.