Addiction can be disruptive to a teen’s academic future. With appropriate treatment services and support, teens with addiction can find a path for academic success.

High school is the center of social and academic growth for teenagers. An important part of adolescence revolves around school, and teen addiction can negatively affect academic and social development. School may also be interrupted throughout the process of recovery and treatment. With good support and well-chosen treatment services, however, teens dealing with substance use issues can still find a path for academic success.

How Drugs Affect Academic Success

The effects of drug abuse on school and academic performance can be devastating. Along with drugs, many teens consume alcohol. Of all the alcohol consumed in the United States, 11% is consumed by people aged 12 to 20. This is the same age range when adolescents begin developing a solid school track record. A teen abusing substances takes risks that lead to school absences, tardies, missed assignments and poor overall grades.

Brain development is not complete until about the mid-20s, so this is a time of both growth and immaturity. Younger people tend to dismiss and minimize the effects of risky behaviors, including using drugs in school. However, overuse of substances can bring on added consequences.

If drug and alcohol use is rewarded in a teen’s social group, they may choose risky behaviors over academic responsibilities. The side effects of excessive substance use can cause a teen to feel ill and miss school. A teen using substances in the night may still be intoxicated when they go to school. All of these choices can negatively affect a teen’s ability to have academic success.

Drugs and Long-Term Education Issues

What if school is no longer an option? Many schools have zero-tolerance policies about possession of drugs or alcohol. When a school catches a teen with substances on school grounds, they may suspend or expel the student. This can sometimes occur on the first offense.

If your son or daughter is facing expulsion because of substances, you may need to consider a different educational path. Your teen needs to make the personal decision to pursue alternative schooling when high school is no longer a choice. Once they make this choice, they have several options.

Models for Alternative High Schools:

Models for alternative high schools include the following:

  • Alternative classrooms – Self-contained classrooms offering varied programs within traditional schools
  • School-within-a-school – Schools with semi-autonomous or specialized educational programs, housed within traditional schools
  • Separate alternative schools – Freestanding schools with academic and social adjustment programs that are different from regular public schools
  • Continuation schools – Schools offering real-life academies (job-related training and parenting courses) for teens no longer pursuing traditional education
  • Magnet schools – Intensified, focused programs for individual subjects, such as math or science

Teens who cannot continue in a standard high school can pursue a General Education Development (GED) certificate. The GED program allows them to learn a significant portion of the lessons they would have learned in traditional school. It also ensures they receive a certificate for their efforts. Many employers, particularly those in the labor force, view a GED certificate as the equivalent of a high school diploma. Teens who earn a GED have far better odds of being accepted into college than teens with no diploma of any kind.

Reports show the overall high school dropout rate has declined from 10.9% to 6.9% from 2000 to 2016. But that still leaves thousands of young people cutting their education short every year.

Substance use problems often play a big role. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSA) found teen dropouts were more likely to use substances than peers who attended school. Many teens are aware of the impact their substance abuse has had on their education. Though a variety of personal struggles can lead to a teen dropping out of school, drugs and high school dropouts occur together frequently.

If substance abuse in high school is not resolved, academic issues can follow your teen into college. College students who use drugs or alcohol spend less time studying and skip more classes. For example, one study shows that college students who use marijuana and other illicit drugs are not as likely to stay enrolled from semester to semester. When there is drug abuse in college students and their plans are interrupted, getting back on track can be challenging.

Academic Support in Drug Rehab Programs

Drug and alcohol addiction can be a relentless battle, and teenagers struggling with addiction are often putting their academic futures at risk. However, there are a number of ways for them to restore their educational future and get back on track.

To meet the needs of teenagers in treatment, many teen drug rehab clinics offer some form of academic support. Outpatient treatment options allow teens to go through treatment while living at home and attending school. Inpatient rehab is a more intense form of therapy. This type of treatment requires the person to live in the drug rehab school or treatment facility during their program. Many programs last a few months and provide support when transitioning back home.

Depending on the needs of your teen, your chosen rehab clinic may offer options for academic support. These options can become part of their overall treatment plan at the facility:

Educational Assessment:

Assessments determine several things about your teen’s academic progress and needs. The treatment staff can then create an appropriate coursework plan for your child. Assessments typically cover the following areas:

  • Current mastery of the core subjects.
  • Your teen’s current progress through class curriculums
  • Teacher expectations for the remainder of the school year
On-Site Classrooms:

These provide teens with the next best thing to their previous classroom environment. Each room has typical classroom items, such as large writing boards, desks and interactive materials. On-site classrooms are used for teaching core material, and grades from these classes are sent to each teen’s original school. The student’s transcripts stay current and they progress through grade levels with their peers.

Individualized Tutoring:

Tutoring provides teens with a personalized learning environment. Each teen can focus on the academic areas that need improvement with one-on-one support.

ACT, SAT & GED Prep:

Test prep provides teens the necessary tools to succeed in standardized tests. These tests play a huge role in graduation and college placement in many school districts. Test prep focuses on several areas, including:

  • Instruction on the various sections of each exam
  • How to approach complex problems on the test
  • Practice tests modeled after the ACT, SAT and others
College Prep:

College prep helps teens who are nearing the end of high school and pursuing a college degree. Prep activities help each student apply for college and understand what to expect. Activities include:

  • Researching schools of interest
  • Writing college essays
  • Filling out applications
  • Pre-enrollment tasks
Psychoeducational Services:

Psychoeducational classes are not usually part of a typical high school curriculum. However, these classes serve as a vital supplement to treatment itself. Learning about these important personal issues can be very helpful for teens in treatment, teaching them how to understand their personal situation and substance addiction as a whole. These classes teach students about:

  • The nature of addiction and substance use
  • How to cope with their substance use issues and triggers
  • What’s at stake if they continue to use

Skill-building workshops focus on improving non-academic knowledge. These workshops are vital for teens in recovery. Skill-building sets the foundation for succeeding in higher-level activities like core academic courses. This approach strengthens these teens as they prepare to reenter the outside world.  Workshops include:

  • Computer skills
  • Interpersonal communication
  • Job hunting
  • Self-image and personal presentation

What Is a Recovery High School?

Substance use is prohibited in all public schools, and the faculty will do what they can to prevent it. However, this task is easier said than done. A 2018 annual study by the University of Michigan revealed that overall teen substance use seems to be trending downward, but vaping has significantly increased in the last year.

Recovery high schools have been developing across the United States since 1987. These schools are designed for teens with a history of substance problems. Recovery schools offer an academic pathway while putting a clear focus on recovery.

Kevin Jennings, the assistant deputy secretary for Safe and Drug-Free Schools at the U.S. Department of Education, believes it is dangerous for teens to return to their old high schools during addiction recovery.

Instead, Jennings highlights recovery schools as a better option for these teens.

“Recovery schools are a unique intervention that can help students sustain their abstinence [from substances], which in many cases can save their lives,” he says.

Recovery schools make serious efforts to separate their students from public school students. For teens to progress in recovery, temptation must be kept to a minimum. Separation of teens in recovery from teens who use substances is a crucial part of this strategy. Scheduling plans and physical barriers are used to keep the two populations apart.

Recovery Schools Focus on the Following Priorities:
  • Target multiple life-health domains (emotional, physical, vocational and psychiatric)
  • Offer academic courses that translate to high school or college credits
  • Show sensitivity to each student’s realities (cultural and socioeconomic)
  • Encourage family involvement during treatment
  • Motivate students toward pro-social hobbies
  • Provide cognitive and behavioral skills training to help prevent future substance use
  • Create a sober social network for every student

Why Should My Teen Attend a Recovery High School?

Only your teen’s medical treatment team can determine the best educational option. However, many parents and drug treatment professionals can agree that teens in recovery need a learning environment free from the temptation to use substances. These teens need the flexibility to work on recovery and their education at the same time.

Sober high schools are built to meet this demand. It’s believed that the first 60 days after addiction treatment pose the greatest risk for relapse. A newly sober person needs extra support to build healthy living habits. Because of its protected and supportive environment, a sober school can be ideal for teens finishing treatment.

Many students are likely to have been through some form of treatment before attending a sober school. The therapeutic setting of sober schools goes beyond what a typical school offers. Since the period after treatment is particularly fragile, a therapeutic school setting helps these students during a vulnerable transition.

To find a sober school near you, speak with your teen’s doctor or school administrators. The Association of Recovery Schools also has a page with names and locations of open schools.  

Rebounding from Teen Drug Addiction After Treatment

Your child can easily feel overwhelmed returning to normal life after teen drug abuse or addiction treatment.

Ways to Help Your Teen Stay on the Right Academic Track:
  • Establish support – Your teen should build a network of academic advisors and teachers who are invested in their success. Their school guidance counselor can help with this process. Many teachers may extend extra understanding if they know that a student is in recovery.
  • Stay in therapy – Your teen should continue some form of outpatient therapy, even as little as once a week. As your teen progresses, their therapist will determine when therapy is no longer necessary. Since relapse is common right after treatment, some form of continuing therapy is crucial.
  • Plan to stay busy – When your teen sets a schedule, healthy activities and social outlets can help prevent relapse. This could mean planning to hang out with sober friends, having some family fun or enjoying physical activity. Exercise is a great way to stay busy and get healthy. Exercise also provides your teen with a natural dose of endorphins, a brain chemical that boosts mood. Plus, if your teen has a set schedule, it is easy for them to stick with study sessions.

Does My Child Need Rehab?

If your child is struggling with substance addiction, rehab may be necessary. Once you become aware of the problem, contact your child’s guidance counselor at school. Starting the recovery process can seem overwhelming at first, but guidance counselors can support your family by helping you find suitable treatment options.

Once you’ve narrowed down your options, schedule visits with them if possible. This will allow you to get a feel for the environment and meet the academic support team. If this is not an option, ask about having a video meeting. Treatment centers help people from all areas of the country. The staff will do whatever they can to help you understand their process and feel at ease.

For free assistance with finding the right treatment program, contact The Recovery Village today. Your call is confidential, and you can get answers 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Our expert treatment advisors understand the complexity of adolescent rehab. Academic support during therapy is a high priority for teen treatment programs at The Recovery Village.

Sending your child to residential treatment is a big step, and it’s not to be taken lightly. However, when you know your child’s life is at stake, it’s important to lean on the support of friends, family and professionals. Academics and treatment mean your teen can look forward to a better tomorrow.

Jonathan Strum
Editor – Jonathan Strum
Jonathan Strum graduated from the University of Nebraska Omaha with a Bachelor's in Communication in 2017 and has been writing professionally ever since. Read more

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Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. “Brain Development, Teen Behavior and Preventing Drug Abuse.” (n.d.) Accessed June 27, 2019.

Taylor & Francis Online. “Continuing Care in High Schools: A Descr[…]High School Programs.“ The Journal of Child and Adolescent Substance Abuse, January 24, 2014. Accessed June 30, 2019.

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National Center for Education Statistics. “Fast Facts: Back to School Statistics.” (n.d.). Accessed June 30, 2019.

Association of Recovery Schools. “Find a School.” (n.d.). Accessed June 30, 2019.

SAMHSA. “Substance Use among 12th Grade Aged Yout[…]s, By Dropout Status.” August 15, 2017. Accessed June 29, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.