The holiday season is upon us and bustling with activity.

December also brings the requirement under Maine statute that school districts educate our youth with a 45-minute lesson about the problems and dangers of alcohol abuse upon the individual, the family, and society.

When I received this reminder, I thought about how easy it is for Regional School Unit 5 to ensure that the curriculum is being taught, but know that one day of learning about such a complex topic as alcohol use and abuse is not enough to influence or change habits among our youth.

The drug and alcohol epidemic seems to only be growing since the “drug awareness day” was enacted in 1985. Every day, more than 90 Americans die after overdosing on opioids. The misuse of and addiction to opioids – including prescription pain relievers, heroin, and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl – is a serious national crisis that affects public health as well as social and economic welfare.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the total “economic burden” of prescription opioid misuse alone in the United States is $78.5 billion a year, including the costs of health care, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and criminal justice involvement. Additionally, nearly 90,000 people die from alcohol each year, according to George F. Koob, director of National Institutes on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. We must grapple with the far-reaching impact of such abuse and educate our youth on the significance of this public health problem.

To be effective, drug and alcohol education requires a systemic approach. RSU 5 collaborates regularly with Casco Bay Create Awareness Now, which works to prevent youth substance use in eight Southern Maine communities. They partner with parents, teachers, law enforcement, health care providers, faith-based leaders, coaches, business owners, youth, and others to try to reduce and prevent drug and alcohol abuse. Key in that partnership is the parent. According to CAN, parents are the No. 1 influence in a child’s life and it is important to talk early, talk often, and keep talking.

Although CAN states the importance of parent communication and schools are required to educate students about alcohol, the behavior we model is more powerful. Our children watch our every move, even when they are not listening to the words we are saying. What kids see us doing is a much stronger message than what we tell them to do. Parents often feel that they have no impact or control when it comes to their teenagers, but they truly have the most leverage in their teens’ day-to-day lives.

As we celebrate the holiday season, let’s commit to modeling appropriate drug and alcohol use for our children. There is no better gift we can give our kids than spending time with family, volunteering at a local organization together, or showing them how to work off stress through physical activities, rather than reaching for a drink.

This type of attention and modeling will have a much greater impact on our children than any 45-minute lesson or heart-to-heart discussion about the dangers of drugs. These steps that we take during the holiday season will strengthen our children’s chances of making the right choices when faced with tough decisions as they grow older.

Becky Foley is superintendent of schools in Regional School Unit 5 (Freeport-Durham-Pownal). She can be reached at [email protected].