How Drugs Affect Kids in School

By Karen Hellesvig-Gaskell
Drugs and alcohol can impair judgment.
Drugs and alcohol can impair judgment.

Drugs are chemicals that can wreak havoc on the brain's communication system by meddling with the meticulous method nerve cells use to send, receive and process information, explains the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Persistent peer pressure to do drugs can be tempting, despite the risks. Encourage your child to avoid drug use to ensure that he's working to get high marks in school instead of getting high.


Drugs can affect a child's brain in ways that can impair learning in school, explains the NIDA. Therefore it should come as no surprise that kids and teens who abuse alcohol and other drugs often have less than exemplary academic performance. For example, marijuana -- the most widely abused illegal substance -- weakens short-term memory and makes it difficult to stay focused. Lack of motivation is another common effect of marijuana. Becoming dependent on alcohol, marijuana or other drugs can lead to missed school days, lackluster performance, confusion and a lack of desire to participate in formerly enjoyable hobbies or pursuits such as sports or music lessons.

Brain Effects

Areas of the brain that are especially susceptible to alcohol-related damage include the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for solving problems and making decisions; the hippocampus, which is critical for learning and retaining information and the cerebellum, which is necessary for motor control such as using a pen or kicking a ball. Other central nervous system depressants include prescription tranquilizers like Valium or Xanax. Tranquilizers slow brain function, can cause fogginess and make it very hard to concentrate.

Brain's Response To Analgesic and Stimulant Drugs

The chemical structure of heroine and other highly addictive analgesic drugs such as prescription painkillers like Percocet or Vicodin imitate that of a natural neurotransmitter. The comparable configuration of these drugs trick receptors and allows them to latch onto and activate the nerve cells. Since drugs don't set off nerve cells the same way as an inborn neurotransmitter, distorted messages are transmitted through the brain's communication network. For example, a school student high on heroine might think that it's more important and interesting to focus on the flowers outside the window than on her teacher’s lecture. In contrast, cocaine can cause neurons to emit unusually large amounts of natural neurotransmitters or block the normal recycling of brain chemicals, creating chaos in the communication channels. A student high on cocaine may be bouncing of the walls with excitement and grandiose thoughts, leaving little room for the “mundane” task of school work.


Children and teens with higher grades are far less likely to engage in potentially precarious behaviors including drinking alcohol and taking drugs than are those who don't do as well academically, explains the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Additional research is needed to learn whether poor grades lead to drug and alcohol use, or whether substance use causes low grades and whether other factors play a role in both scenarios.

About the Author

Karen Hellesvig-Gaskell is a broadcast journalist who began writing professionally in 1980. Her writing focuses on parenting and health, and has appeared in “Spirituality & Health Magazine" and “Essential Wellness.” Hellesvig-Gaskell has worked with autistic children at the Fraser School in Minneapolis and as a child care assistant for toddlers and preschoolers at the International School of Minnesota, Eden Prairie.