Why abstinence only sex ed, "Just say NO" and DARE didn't work. Why character education won't with some kids either, and may backfire.


D.A.R.E. was used with 36,000,000 students last year. Abstinence only sex education is probably just as popular. But did you know that research has shown that D.A.R.E. and abstinence only sex education are no more effective than control groups in preventing the kinds of behaviors and problems they’re intended to. There's even some evidence that kids who go through such progams are even slightly more likely to do things we don't want them to, i.e. have unprotected sex. I've known this for a long time because I was a health education teacher. But don't take my word for it. Do what I did recently for this article. Type "Effectiveness of D.A.R.E." and "Effectiveness of Abstinence only sex education" and do a search. Here's two links I found:



It's hard to argue against such programs - who wouldn't want kids to resist drugs or having sex early in their lives? When they first came on the scene, proponents also offered supposed “evidence” of their effectiveness. Back then religious groups were really pushing abstinence only sex education hard, but I used to question just how valid their “evidence” of the effectiveness of the programs was. Now, tens of millions of students later, and who knows how many millions of dollars later, it turns out I was right to question it. But being right is not the important thing. It’s understanding why these programs didn’t work as well as intended or purported to that’s important.


It's important to understand why these other programs didn't live up to promise because right now Character Education, in particular Character Counts, is sweeping across the nation in much the same way as these two programs did in the past. Every school I go by seems to have the word of the month for Character Counts posted on their sign boards. Once again, it's hard to argue against such programs. Who wouldn't want their kids to have and demonstrate such positive character traits.

And once again, the proponents of character education are offering similar “evidence” of its success to justify inclusion in schools. But does this “evidence” actually prove that character education is the best way to deal with behavioral issues and problems in schools? Or does the evidence simply prove that if we do something positive and do it proactively, it’s better than the usual negative and punitive approach to behavioral issues and problems?

I was taught and have always believed that the further into discipline we get, the more positive it should become. I grew up hearing my grandparents always say "You get a lot more flies with honey than you do with vinegar" - that was sixty years ago. So it's not a new idea. But the exact opposite usually happens in school. Discipline becomes increasing punitive and negative. So it's not a question of whether a positive, proactive approach will work better than a negative and punitive one. It's whether character education is the only, or even the best way to get students where we'd like them to be. Is there more we could and should be doing?


I like to use a football metaphor to explain why I believe these programs fall short of intentions and expectations. Abstinence only sex education, D.A.R.E., “Just Say No” and so many other single issue programs that get created and introduced into schools are like “offensive game plans” in football games. They are the “plays” we want kids to run - how we want them to think, feel, say and do things As I noted earlier, who would ever argue with the goals of such programs. Who wouldn’t want kids to do what these programs suggest, or be the way these programs suggest they be.

There’s an old saying that “the best defense is a good offense”. That’s essentially how these programs try to defend against the behaviors and problems we don’t like. Here’s the catch. In a football game, you have to have the ball to run your offense. What happens when the other team has the ball? How are you going to stop them from dominating, from controlling the game? It doesn’t matter how good of an offensive game plan you have if the other team controls the ball most of the game. That’s why teams always have a defensive game plan as well. Those in the sport also say things like “The name of the game is defense”, and “good defense will always beat good offense”. So what do we have to give kids a defensive game plan against?


Human beings of any age have what Dr. Albert Ellis called automatic irrational beliefs. Dr. David Amen calls them automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) and says people have ANT problems. These are thoughts they’ve typically practiced and rehearsed for a long time, even a lifetime, and that have been deeply “rutted” in their brains. The fact that people have them is understandable and part of being human. If we put others through exactly the same life experiences, most would probably end up thinking much the same.

The practice and rehearsal makes such thoughts automatic. That could be good or bad, depending on what thoughts they lead to. Too often they lead to thoughts that cause people to generate more emotion than is helpful or necessary, and to say and do things that make their lives and others worse instead of better. Thoughts are very important because despite what most people believe, thoughts always cause feelings, not what other people say or do, or what happens. And, attitude is always the father of behavior. Furthermore, peoples’ behavior will always follow their emotions toward their life events. This simply means that if people get angry, they’ll probably act like an angry person. E-motion is energy to move, and it drives people to behave in the ways their attitudes suggest, or even dictate.


“Ruts” in peoples’ brains are easy to slip into, and hard to stay out of, or get out of – just like real ruts on a dirt road. Plus, once people create such “ruts” in their brains, they can never get rid of them – they can only make new ones and hope they can compete for use with the old ones. That means people can always slip into their old “ruts” and ways of thinking at any time in their lives, even after making and demonstrating that they’ve changed in some way. This can present a real challenge for many people. 

These automatic irrational beliefs or negative thoughts are like the opposing team in a football game. Because these cognitive “ruts” are so deep and the thoughts they give rise to are so automatic, and quick to pop into peoples’ minds, it’s like the other team getting the ball first when a game starts, and our offense never gets to run. "Ruts" are why people recreate their pasts, and why their histories become their destinies. That could be good or bad news, depending on what their histories have been. Unfortunately, it often is bad news because too many kids get off to rough starts in their lives, usually through no fault of their own. In terms of the football analogy, the other side keeps running the same plays, and kids have no defense against them. So how are we going to get the ball so our “offensive game plan” gets a chance to run? That’s why we need a defensive game plan too.


I also like to use a computer metaphor to explain why such “offensive game plan” approaches aren’t enough. It’s a good metaphor, because after all, what we’ve really done by inventing computers is simply duplicate and enhance the human brain. Most people actually know more about how a computer works than they do about how their own brains work. That's especially true for young people today. Working backwards from their knowledge of computer functioning can help people see why "offensive game plan" programs only fail, and what else needs to be done.

A computer can store vast amounts of data (text, images) on its hard drive. But we need a computer screen to see it. Data can pass across a screen so fast as to be indiscernible. It’s there, but going by so fast that we can’t make out what it is. I have written a number of e-books that are about 200 pages long. I can scroll through all 200 pages in literally a second or two. I can't read any of it as it passes by, but it's there. But the catch is that there can only be so much on a screen at a time, and that’s a relatively small amount compared to what’s stored on the hard drive. What is on the screen is the only thing we can attend to. If we can’t get it on the screen, the data is really of no use to us. People sometimes struggle to get the right data on a screen when they want it. If we want to print out something stored on a computer, we have to open a file so it’s displayed on the screen.

Likewise, the human mind can store vast amounts of data as well. That includes helpful advice and information, past experiences, and morals and values. It’s very much like we have a screen in our heads. Sometimes when people are thinking or trying to remember something, it’s very much like they are looking at that screen in their heads instead of us or their surroundings. As is true with a computer, "data" can fly across our internal screens so fast as to be indiscernible as well. It's there, but moving to fast to be fully aware of it, or be able to verbalize it to others. 


I liken it to a message board with a message scrolling across it, but with the speed turned up very high; so high that we can’t make out what the message is. It’s there; we just can’t make it out. It’s why when parents or teachers ask kids “What were you thinking when you did that?” they often get “I don’t know” as a response from kids. But like a computer screen, there can only be so much on the screen at a time, and that’s the important stuff. As I noted earlier, thoughts cause feelings, and attitude is always the father of behavior. In many ways emotion and behavior are like the print outs we do of what we see on the screen with a real computer.


The problem as noted above is that people can also have all kinds of automatic irrational beliefs, or automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) also stored in their memories. Because they’ve been rehearsed and practiced so much, and are so deeply rutted in peoples’ brains and so automatic, they tend to be what pops onto peoples’ screens in situations. That’s especially true if something in the present reminds us of past situations that we perceived as threatening in some way. If present circumstances were potentially threatening, we’d want our brain to recognize the threat quickly. It could be a matter of life and death if there really were a real threat to us. The problem is that human beings so often imagine threats where they don’t exist, or magnify ones that do simply by the way they choose to look at things.


As I noted in the beginning, research has shown that abstinence only sex education and D.A.R.E. really aren’t effective at doing what they were intended to do. Yet they still remain the mainstay approaches to drugs and sex in many schools around the country.

That why I use the term “sacred cows”. A “sacred cow” is something people invest a lot of time, energy and effort into developing or implementing, and come to have faith in. It feels like you’re doing the right thing. Like I said earlier, who could argue with the goals of such programs? There is often even a lot of anecdotal evidence that such efforts seem to working. But it’s often really just the “good” kids simply continuing to be “good” kids, like they would have anyways, and often thanking the teacher for validating them. There’s certainly nothing wrong with validating “good” kids for being “good” - except for the fact that the “bad” kids are in the same room when people do it.


Where does that leave the "bad" kids when a teacher is talking about how bad drugs or sex is for kids, and the “good” kids are all agreeing with the teacher?  What about the kids who are already doing such things? What message are they getting? Is it one that will be helpful? Is it one that will motivate them to stop, or just given them more reason or purpose to continue doing what they already do?

For example, shame is a common reason kids use drugs. Shame comes from being told and believing you don’t live up to expectations. Behavior starts and continues because it serves a purpose in peoples’ lives. A common purpose drugs serve is giving people relief from feelings they don’t like having, including shame. If a teacher is talking about all the dangers of drugs and why kids should never use them, and a student already is, it’s just one more way he/she is not living up to expectations. It’s just one more reason to feel shame, and more reason to resort to drugs.

The same can happen with sex. A teacher is talking about all the reasons to not have sex, and a young girl sitting in the classroom already has, or is currently. It’d be easy for that girl to feel shame. Perhaps that might cause the girl to be less likely to do so again, but shame can play out in many untoward ways, including deciding to just keep doing what she’s been doing anyway.


What’s most important is why these programs didn’t work. In my view, it’s because they lacked a “defensive game plan”. They had great “offensive game plans”, but they neglected to teach kids how to defend against those automatic irrational beliefs or ANTs that so often pop into kids' heads at crucial times. Sometimes in football, the best defense may end up being a great offense. I’m sure it might be sometimes when working with kids as well. But more often than not, the name of the game is defense. We have to give kids a defensive game plan against their ANT problems.


Too often, these “offensive game plan” programs end up creating a “rich get richer, and the poor get poorer scenario. I think that could easily happen with character education. What I mean by this is that those kids who already exhibit the desirable traits or characteristics we’re hoping for, or behave the way we’d like them to get validated, and those who don’t just hear one more way they don’t live up to peoples’ expectations.

As I noted above, being told and believing you don’t live up to expectations is the formula for shame and guilt. The greater the difference between expectations and reality, the more emotion we generate. The "bad" kids already know they don't live up to adult expectations and feel ashamed. Shame usually plays out in kids as "turtles" or "rattlesnakes". With the "rattlers", teachers often wrongly conclude that "The problem with these kids is they have no shame". I heard that a lot in the teacher's lounge. If your theory is that their lack of shame is the real cause of their behavior, then the solution seems to be to instill shame in them to get them to behave. Shaming "bad" kids is like giving alcohol to an alcoholic to get them to stop drinking. 

By highlighting and attaching so much importance to the characteristics, traits and behaviors we want, it can simply serve to exacerbate the gap between our expectations and where the "bad" kids are. That will exacerbate any pre-existing shame and guilt. Many adults would think that’s a good thing – that kids feel ashamed or guilty. They assume the shame and guilt will get kids “to behave” or “clean up their act”. But there simply are too many untoward effects that go with shame and guilt, especially a dysfunctional amount of it.

Regret and remorse are good things for kids to have. Regret and remorse make anyone want to avoid past mistakes, to do better, and to make amends to others they've wronged. But shame and guilt too often end up being too much of a good thing. They are why kids start using alcohol and drugs, shut down at school, drop out, and even commit suicide. The last thing we want to do is give kids more reason to do any of those things.


My daughter took a developmental psychology course recently. It’s been a long, long time since I was an undergraduate psych major, so I read most of her text out of curiosity. The overriding theme of that book can be summed up in the formula:


Where NATURE represents all those constants about human psychological development, NURTURE represents a person’s life experiences, and PERSONALITY represents a pattern of thoughts, feelings and behavior. Based on what I read in that book, so much of what we call character is really traits that human children will simply develop if nothing contaminates their development. If they have helpful life experiences, you see the character we want develop and manifest itself. It would make sense that such traits have been coded in our DNA over ions of time, because they would have enhanced our chances of survival as individuals and as a species.


I once had a poster that said “It’s easy to be an angel if no one ruffles your feathers”. My point is that if kids feathers don’t get ruffled, you’ll typically see the desirable character traits we’d like to see develop naturally. Unfortunately, many kids feathers do get ruffled, and sometimes a lot, because of their early life experiences - typically through no fault of their own. They understandably end up with thoughts, attitudes and beliefs about themselves, others, life and what’s happened to them that cause them to regularly generate a dysfunctional amount of anger, anxiety, depression, shame and guilt.

These emotions can complicate their interactions with other human beings, both adults and their peers, and cause them to feel estranged, or even rejected, and lonely. They often become the equivalent of "rattlesnakes", quick to coil, rattle and even strike out with venom when they feel threatened - which they too often do. When that happens, you won’t see the built-in character traits develop, or manifest themselves as much as we might like.


The two cornerstones of character education are what proponents call the fourth and fifth R of education: Respect and Responsibility. Here are some dictionary definitions of the two terms to serve as a starting point for discussing how best to get students to have both.


1)  A state or fact of having a duty to deal with someone or have control over someone

2)  A state or fact of being accountable or to blame for something

3)  The opportunity or ability to act independently and make decisions without authorization

4)  A thing that one is required to do as part of a job, role or legal obligation

5)  A moral obligation to behave correctly toward or in respect of

6)  Reliability or dependability

7)  Answerable or accountable for something within one’s power, control or management

My definition of responsibility is the ABILITY to RESPOND to life events in the best possible way, rather than simply reacting. That would mean considering consequences before acting, calling up and learning from experiences, being able to access and act on helpful advice and information we’ve been given, and allowing our personal values and morals to guide us.


So what keeps young people from doing this? They generate more emotion than is helpful or necessary in response to their life events, what I like to call a dysfunctional amount of emotion. Ultimately, doing so comes from how they think about themselves, others, life and what has or is happening to them. Often, this happens because their current life events remind them of past life events that were threatening and upsetting for them in some way, or at least perceived to be. An overreaction is often an age regression.

As the frequency, intensity and duration of emotion rises, people become more reactive, and less response-able, or less able to respond in the best possible ways. Behavior will always follow peoples’ emotions toward their life events. That would make sense if a situation was truly threatening in some way. We’d want as much energy to move as possible and to react as quickly as possible. It’s why we have a fight or flight response. The problem is that people so often needlessly plug into their fight or flight responses simply because of the way they choose to think, or look at things before, during or after they happen.


Adults sometimes try to shame kids into being more responsible. Sometimes they go so far as to tell them “You should be ashamed of yourself”. Being told they don’t live up to adult expectations is inherently threatening for kids, in large part because they are so dependent on adults for so much for so long. Shame can lead to anxiety or anger. Kids can become either “turtles” or “rattlesnakes”. Some will suck into their shells, and others will coil, rattle and even strike out with venom. Too often what adults do in trying to get kids to accept responsibility is like poking a turtle or rattlesnake with a stick. The “turtles” goes deeper into their shells, and the “rattlers” just strike out more in self-defense.


To help students become more response-able, or have more ability to respond in the best possible way, we need to teach them to have control over their emotional thermostats. We need to teach them how to keep them turned down, avoid turning them up needlessly, and to turn them down quickly should they go up.


If we want them to accept blame or responsibility for what they’ve done, we need to make it safe for them to do so. Trying to rub their noses in their mistakes or transgressions only causes the opposite reaction. If you scream at a dog to come, it will be torn as to whether it should. If you go ballistic when kids do something, they will feel threatened. I always tell people kids learn to lie to survive, often  because adults do go ballistic. If you call a dog, and it comes, and you beat it, it’s not coming next time. If you ask a student to tell truth, they do, and you go ballistic and hammer them with consequences, they don’t learn to tell the truth and accept blame or responsibility. They learn to lie and try to avoid both. Many students have learned to lie to survive verbal or even physical abuse long before they come to school.


1)  Feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities or achievements

2)  Due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights or traditions of others

3)  Esteem for, or a sense of worth or excellence of a person, a personal quality or ability, or something considered a manifestation of a personal quality or ability

4)  Deference to a right, privilege, privileged position, or someone or something considered to have certain rights and privileges, proper acceptance and courtesy.

If kids don’t seem to have as much respect for rules, school property, authority figures and other students as adults would like them to have, why don’t they? And how can you get them to have it?


A lack of respect is more often than not an understandable product of students’ earlier life experiences, often even starting before they even come to school – having people say and do hurtful things to them.

Kids are not going to have a deep admiration for others, or a regard for their feelings, wishes, rights or traditions of others if they have been violated in some way. That could include punishment of some sort. They could learn to fear and feel threatened by adults because of such experiences, but that can just as easily play out as “fight” as it could “flight”, and often does.


Teachers and schools are certainly not going to gain respect by doing more of what has been done to some students in their pasts. If you look at the above definitions, respect is more likely to be gained from demonstrating a concern for such students, and making efforts to help them attain those things that they would like in their lives, including feeling the way they’d like to feel about themselves and life. 


My experience with my “Tool Time” kids was a perfect example of this. I volunteered to work with the toughest, most troubled and troublesome students in my wife’s school. When I first met these guys, they certainly didn’t show any of the character traits adults would like to see in kids – at least not with teachers and most other students. But they did with each other. That’s important. They all had a dysfunctional amount of emotion for sure, but it was largely confined to their interactions with teachers and others students, not each other.

What I volunteered to do was teach them the “tools” of the Mental and Emotional Tool Kit for Life that I had developed for my students while still in the classroom. I had seen it work so well in the lives of my students, many of whom were troubled and troublesome. I was confident it would work with my “Tool Time” guys the same way.

The goal was to give them some REAL power and control in and over their lives – specifically to help them reduce the frequency, intensity and duration of feelings like anger, anxiety, depression, shame and guilt. As the FID of their troublesome feelings came down, their interactions with teachers and other students improved. They started to show those desirable character traits we’d like all students to have, the same traits that they had always shown with each other – but now it was with teachers and other students as well. Their grades came up, they started passing classes, got in less troubles, and ended up graduating on time. This took some time for sure, even for them to start to be that way with me. They had to start to believe I really had their best interest at heart. They gradually came to feel less estranged and life got better for them and others around them. In the end, one even got the “biggest turn around in a student” award at his senior assembly.


What I essentially gave them was a defensive game plan against their ANT problems – all the automatic irrational beliefs or negative thoughts they had about themselves, others, life, and what had happened to them in their pasts. Their problem was that they kept slipping into their old cognitive “ruts”, and in turn their old emotional and behavioral “ruts”. Their ANTs would get on their screen and stayed there – they couldn’t get them off. That’s analogous to the other team’s offense dominating the ball and playing field. Any helpful advice and information they had been given, morals or values that had been instilled in them, or innate character tendencies they might have couldn’t get on their screen and influence their behavior in a positive way.  I taught them how to clear the screens in their heads of their ANTs so that other things could get on their screens instead and positively impact their choices.

Without that, my guess is that any attempts at character education with them would have been threatening. My guess is that they would have mocked it in self-defense, and probably tried to sabotage it in some way, or get themselves kicked out of class instead of having to sit through it. The reason is simple. It would have felt to them like someone was “rubbing their noses in it”, with “it” being what people thought they should be like and weren’t.  I often talk about kids who have too much shame becoming either “turtles” or “rattlesnakes”. My guys were more often than not “rattlesnakes”, at least in the beginning. It’s why they were put in my groups. They would more often than not coil, rattle and even strike out when they felt threatened in some way – just like real rattlers do. Being in a class about character education would probably have been perceived as a threat to them.


There’s nothing wrong with letting kids know what we expect of them, including in terms of character. It’d be hard to argue against letting them know what we expect. But I think it’s important to recognize that the typical “offensive game plan” most schools take usually won’t be enough with some kids (like my guys), and could even backfire with some. I believe we also have to do a few other things with all kids, gut especially with our “rattlers”:

1)  Let them know we have UOA or Unconditional Other Acceptance for the way they currently think, feel, say and do things.

That doesn’t mean we have to like or agree with it, or even tolerate it. It simply means that we choose to look at what they do as being understandable given that they are human, kids on top of it all, fallible like everyone else, and what they have been through so far in their lives.

2)  Teach them how to have USA or Unconditional Self-Acceptance, and encourage them to have it for themselves,

The reason is that as Dr. Ellis used to say, “shame blocks change” is many ways.

You can read about USA and UOA at:  www.itsjustanevent.com/Tool2.html

3)  Teach them how to get a handle on their thoughts and feelings so they can stop generating a dysfunctional amount of emotion in response to life events, either past or present

The way to do this last thing is to give them some “tools” – tools that empower them and help them gain control over their cognitive, emotional and behavioral thermostats. For example:

4)  Teach them how to have an internal locus of control – that it’s really what they choose to think about things that really determines how they feel, not what others say or do, or what happens

Most people, including most teachers and students, have an external locus of control. They see others and what happens as the cause of how they feel. This puts them at the mercy of other people and life events they can’t and don’t control. It typically results in them generating a dysfunctional amount of emotion, and missing many opportunities to feel better.

You can read more about an internal locus of control at:


5)  Teach them to recognize the common automatic irrational beliefs, or ANTs that human beings so often have.

I like using Dr. Albert Ellis’ model: Demandiness, Awfulizing, Can’t Stand It-itis and Labeling and Damning.

You can read more about this model at:  www.itsjustanevent.com/Tool4.html

In terms of the sports metaphor I used earlier, this is the equivalent of what football coaches do before an upcoming game. They “scout the opposition”. They watch what kind of plays the other team’s offense runs.

6)  Teach them how to correct such thinking.

It’s called cognitive restructuring, and it’s the only way to GET better. GETTING better means permanently reducing the frequency, intensity and duration of feelings like anger, anxiety, depression, shame and guilt.

You can read more about correcting irrational thinking at:  



Dr. Ellis created a five step process to help people learn to get into a better mental and emotional place so that they could GET better and start behaving in more rational, healthier ways.  The steps are based on his ABC Theory of Emotions.

A = Activating Event

        What happened, what they’re imagining might

B = Beliefs

        Identify automatic and irrational beliefs about themselves, others, life and the event

C = Consequences

        What they feel and do as a consequence of their beliefs

D = Disputing

        Questioning and challenging their beliefs

E = Effective Coping Statement

        Alternative beliefs that would allow them to feel better

Step B is teaching them to recognize those common automatic irrational beliefs people often have. It’s like “scouting the opposition”. Step D is teaching them how to correct such thoughts. I like to call Step D the Defensive game plan that is so often missing from most approaches to school issues and problems. Sometimes I combine Step D and Step E and call them the DEfensive game plan.

You can read about these steps at: www.itsjustanevent.com/Tool6.html

7)  Teach and encourage them to always express themselves and any grievances they have with others by using I Messages

It’s called putting their behavior where they want their attitude to be – in this case their verbal behavior. They practice talking the way they want to think (and we’d like them to)

You can read about I Messages at:  www.itsjustanevent.com/Tool7.html


The good news is these are things any teacher can do with students. You don’t have to be a counselor, social worker, school psychologist or therapist to do it. The other bit of good news is that it need not cost anything to do such things – unlike many special programs schools have to purchase, or outside services that might be sought.

Your best chance of winning a football games comes with having both a good offense and defensive game plan. The same is true in trying to get kids to show character, or abstain from sex, or say “No” to drugs.