"Statement number one, it's ok for a middle schooler to drink alcohol at a party," called out science teacher Mr. Anselmi.
This academic exercise during 7th grade science class at Meeker Middle School in Kent challenged the students to think about their own values.
"Remember it's whether you agree or disagree with those statements, not your friends, not your neighbors," Mr. Anselmi continued.
The students talked about how tough it can become to choose wisely in middle school.
"Everybody wants to fit in I think," said 13 year old Kayse Odman.
Students find studies more stressful compared to elementary school.
"A lot more homework," lamented twelve year old Robert Gates.
Peer pressure grows too.
"Right now looking good is a huge thing in school," said 13 year old Nathan Pettit.
And kids often have to make choices quickly. Interacting with older teens can lead to snap decisions.
"I saw them like smoking, drinking, and they asked me if I wanted some and I said no," recalled 13 year old Kevin Keowla about a recent encounter with some high school students.
It's all happening while students are starting to pull away from parents. That makes it difficult for parents who worry whether their kids can resist temptations to start drinking or using drugs.
"Parents can't do this work alone. We need other people to step up to the plate in terms of guiding our youth to make healthy decisions," said Dr. Carolyn McCarty, of Seattle Children's Research Institute.
Dr. McCarty, who is also a Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington led a study of early alcohol and drug use in Seattle public middle schools. Her study was recently published online in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.
"We found that stress in particular was something that created risk for early use," said Dr. McCarty
So how can teachers help their students deal positively with stress? The researchers asked the middle school students some specific questions.
"How connected they felt to their teacher, how much their teacher was helpful to them, helped them do their best," said Dr. McCarty.
Responses from students showed teachers have a big impact.
"Youth who reported teachers who were supportive of them, actually initiated substance use later. So teachers play
A key role in prevention," she said.
Knowing he can make a difference is an important reason Steven Anselmi prefers to teach kids during middle school.
"We can still have an influence on them. And we can still say, hey this is good, this is bad, and they'll still listen." he explained.
Mr. Anselmi gets the kinds of responses from students you would expect when looking for a supportive teacher.
"He's very inspirational about what he teaches," said Nathan Pettit.
"With Mr. Anselmi, if anyone's having a bad day, "are you OK? Is there anything I can do?" (he'll ask), added Kayse Odman.
Mr. Anselmi said support of a good teacher helps his students. That rule applies to his own family too.
"I am a parent myself, of a middle school age student. And I know what I want his teacher to be doing where I can't be there for him," he explained.
Dr. McCarty said teaching stress management skills is another way to protect kids against early substance use. She said her research uncovered something else parents should know. Kids who started using drugs or alcohol before 6th grade, displayed more symptoms of depression.