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Straight talk by Nancy Kolsti
Spring 2002      

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Say It Straight program

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Burning Issues

Straight Talk

Building a P.R.I.N.T.
Layer by Layer

The Drive to Succeed

photo of students Making sculptures with their bodies, students learn to transform body positions into straightforward communications.

As a counselor in 1985 at Bishop McGuiness Catholic High School in Oklahoma City, David Morton knew communication with students was a problem. Many of the 720 students at the racially diverse school hesitated to speak to him about their own or others’ problems with alcohol and drug abuse, sexual activity or suicidal feelings.

That changed when Morton brought Say It Straight, a substance abuse prevention program, to Bishop McGuiness. Created by Paula Englander-Golden, UNT professor of rehabilitation, social work and addictions, the program promotes behavioral changes through communication skills training.

“When I first learned about Say It Straight in a workshop, I began to recognize a lot of stumbling blocks with students in communication skills,” says Morton, now Bishop McGuiness’ principal. “But students who completed the program were immediately more open. They began coming to me more with their problems or their friends’ problems and were more willing to listen to me.”

The skills students learn in Say It Straight help them to say no to cheating, shoplifting and other behaviors besides alcohol and drug abuse, says Susan Armoni, who has conducted Say It Straight training with students in the Dallas and Plano school districts.

“The students I trained were at risk for dropping out of school and using drugs. If we can strengthen their resistance against alcohol and drug abuse, we can strengthen their resistance against all unacceptable behaviors,” she says.


Exploring communication styles

Since 1991, Say It Straight has been funded by the U.S. Department of Education. In 2001, the department’s Expert Panel on Safe, Disciplined and Drug-Free Schools designated Say It Straight as one of 33 promising school-based programs.

Englander-Golden created the program in the mid-1970s.

“I thought that connecting to and putting voice to our inner wisdom could be a very powerful intervention in substance abuse situations,” she says. “I wanted to respond to three questions students ask: ‘How do I say no to a friend?’ ‘How do I tell a friend I’ve quit?’ and ‘How do I tell friends that I’m scared when I see what they are doing?’”

Participants begin Say It Straight training by first exploring unhealthy behaviors typically used to relate to others — placating, blaming, being passive-aggressive, lecturing and avoiding. They illustrate these behaviors by making sculptures with their bodies, learning to transform these body positions into straightforward communication.

“They begin honoring their deepest yearnings and wisdom,” Englander-Golden says.

Say It Straight participants also create “movies” — scenarios from their lives that may cause them to give in to peer pressure. During the movies, participants explore how they feel when they use the different communications represented in the sculptures, Englander-Golden says.


Getting results

First funded by the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health, Say It Straight was tested in 1982 at a Norman middle school. The school had previously suspended 13 students for substance abuse, but suspended none in the year after the Say It Straight training.

Another Norman middle school had 40 suspensions for substance abuse before its students completed Say It Straight. After the training, the school suspended only one student.

“The effect of the training was beyond my wildest dreams,” Englander-Golden says.

Rebecca Jim, a counselor at Miami High School in Miami, Okla., uses the Say It Straight program at a leadership camp for Native American students.

“I was skeptical myself when I first learned about Say It Straight, and before we start the training, I tell the students that some of what we will do may feel uncomfortable,” she says. “Slowly, they learn that they don’t have to be stuck in one communication style. They realize they have other ways of dealing with peer pressure.”


photo of students More than 35,000 students across the United States and in several countries have completed Say It Straight training.

Gaining others’ respect

More than 35,000 students across the United States and in several countries have completed Say It Straight training. More than 2,000 teachers, counselors, clergy members and law enforcement officials have learned how to train others.

Say It Straight was recently expanded to include adults in prisons and substance abuse treatment centers. One center in Fort Worth had women in treatment for an average of 40 days and women in treatment for an average of 140 days. After all the women received Say It Straight training, those who had been in treatment for the shorter time caught up with the others in communication skills and perceived quality of life, says Englander-Golden.

“In enacting situations that are significant to their lives in recovery, they discovered how rules and communication processes can contribute to breakdowns or breakthroughs in relationships,” she says. “They learned that when they give voice to their deepest wishes, their fears of being rejected by a friend or hurting a friend’s feelings are largely unfounded.”

Say It Straight has been beneficial not just to those who are being trained, but also to those who are doing the training. Jim says the skills helped her leave an unhappy marriage.

“Paula changed my life,” she says. “I now have a different life where I can feel good about myself again.”



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