UNL Extension program reinforces positive behavior

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A UNL Extension program is working to teach Nebraska children that it is OK to say "no" to tobacco, alcohol and illegal drug use.

Developed through the UNL Extension 4-H program, Health Rocks is a program designed to teach 8- to 14-year-olds skills and self confidence to help them better handle peer pressure. The program is now offered at the national level. In Nebraska, the curriculum is taught by teens and adults in several communities, schools and 4-H clubs.

Leanne Manning, extension educator based in Wilber, teaches Health Rocks in Crete.

"It is really good for the kids," Manning said. "The teens like to share their knowledge and while they teach, their leadership skills are being defined. They are sitting down and planning what they want to do each time and developing communication skills."

While teen teachers develop and hone important lifelong skills, younger students also learn confidence.

"It makes them stop and think" about behaviors that are more positive, Manning said. "It's also a good time for them to share about things going on in their own lives."

Health Rocks began in Crete as an after-school program. It has been taught three times in the elementary school and once in the middle school.

"I feel in my heart that we have taught these kids something," said Amy Hung, a teen Health Rocks teacher from Crete. "This is something they will be able to use later in life. Not only did this class inform them about the horrible things that come from drugs and alcohol, but they've learned so much more than that."

The class also teaches them about who influences them in their lives, about setting goals, being motivated, becoming a leader, taking responsibilities and standing up for who they are and what they believe is right, Hung said.

Teams also have taught the curriculum in Grand Island, and twice at the National 4-H Center in Washington, D.C., where youth and adult teams met other teams from around the country.

Marilyn Fox, extension educator based in Grand Island, wrote the national Health Rocks curriculum.

Fox said the curriculum's main goal is to bring families, youth and communities together, and to reduce tobacco, alcohol and drug use. Teens learn how to teach the curriculum alongside adult leaders, then together they educate younger community youth. There are 18 teams trained across Nebraska to present to youth.

"Youth teachers bring in good ideas," Fox said. "What is really cool is these younger youth participants identify better with the teens than the adults. The teens are role models for the younger youth."

Maria de Guzman, UNL Extension adolescent specialist, said nationally last year about 20,000 youth from 10 states completed 10 hours or more of Health Rocks training. Of those, over 19,500 responded to a survey with the majority saying they learned new skills, such as having confidence to say "no" and resist at-risk behaviors.

Survey participants said they felt prepared to face those situations that involved drugs, alcohol and tobacco and reported learning new things that underline a healthy lifestyle.

In seeing how positive behavior outweighs the negative, de Guzman also added that "youth reported gaining skills in weighing the risks and benefits of engaging in risky behaviors and being able to set long-term goals and manage stress more positively."

- By Sandi Alswager Karstens, IANR News Service