PERCEPTION VS REALITY: Don’t always believe what you hear

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The Ashland Public Schools are proud to partner with Decisions at Every Turn (DAET) Coalition in this joint blog venture. We have worked together as close community partners for more than a decade. DAET’s vision is “to create a safe and healthy Ashland by working as a community to prevent, reduce and solve the problems that can lead to youth substance use/abuse.” At a meeting in late October, we were discussing ways to promote the vision and mission of the coalition and share with the community all the things that are happening in the coalition, schools, and community. I was able to persuade Amy Turncliff, the chair, to join in this joint venture. She graciously agreed, with a little persuasion. We agreed on the topic of Perception vs Reality.

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As parents, we struggle with perception vs reality. We often see one version of things when what really happens is something completely different. The illustrations above highlight this. As adults we know this, but yet we still struggle. With the explosion of social media in the last decade, people post pictures of those “perfect memories” creating the illusion (perception) that everything is perfect when the reality is that nothing is perfect. Based on “The Science of the Positive”, “The Positive” consists of the behaviors, attitudes, perceptions, traditions, language, and other factors that have a beneficial impact on health, culture, and human experience (Linkenbach, 2016). The messaging we hear and see impacts our perceptions and beliefs about “norms” or what “MOST” people are doing or experiencing.

If as adults we fall into this pitfall so do our children. We often hear them say: “Everyone is going to the Party” “Everyone failed the test.” “Everyone says the teacher is awful.” “All my friends can stay up late.” When the reality is it isn’t everyone, and the percentage is typically small. Keeping this in mind as we work and interact with students is critically important.

How can we balance how kids are feeling and perceiving things while helping them see the reality of the situation?

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Last month a report was presented to our School Committee which fully highlights this. AHS students perceive that “MOST” students in the school are using substances, when in reality, “MOST” (>50%) students choose NOT to use substances. While it is true that more students in 9th grade choose not to use substances than those in 12th grade, “MOST” AHS students feel youth substance use is “wrong”; nearly ¾ would rather not drink alcohol when hanging out with friends (72%); and 89% would support a friend if they chose not to drink alcohol. By sharing the “REALITY” with students we can reduce misperceptions and close the gap between perception and reality.

If our perceptions become our truth, how can we change that mindset?

According to the Boston University School of Public Health, “the Social Norms Theory posits that our behavior is influenced by misperceptions of how our peers think and act. Overestimations of problem behavior in our peers will cause us to increase our own problem behaviors; underestimations of problem behavior in our peers will discourage us from engaging in the problematic behavior. Accordingly, the theory states that correcting misperceptions of perceived norms will most likely result in a decrease in the problem behavior or an increase in the desired behavior.”

Based on the Positive Community Norms (PCN) framework and the Science of the Positive, Ashland Public Schools and the DAET Coalition have been working over the past three years to correct misperceptions of peer substance use at AHS. If students perceive (or misperceive) that “all” of their peers and adults in the community are using substances, they are more likely to use, too. However, in reality, most students don’t use substances and by sharing this positive reality with students, we can grow the positive and empower students to choose not to use substances. By discussing the difference between perception and reality with students, and sharing the data, we can challenge misperceptions with the goal of correcting them.

“IF WE WANT HEALTH, WE MUST PROMOTE HEALTH.” — DR. JEFF LINKENBACH [http://www.montanainstitute.com/]