PAYING attention isn't hard for children in this sixth-grade class. The teacher is great, class discussion is lively - and homework is fun. That may sound strange, but the enthusiastic group of South Middle School students in Braintree, Mass., is learning how to stay away from drugs.
The program - called Lion-Quest ``Skills for Adolescence''- aims to prod youngsters to think about and learn to handle the trials of growing up, including dealing with peer pressure. It's taught at nearly 8,000 other schools in the United States and Canada, and also in Sweden, Iceland, and New Zealand.
Sponsored by Lion's Club International and the Quest National Center, the program is specifically geared for 10- to 14-year-olds.
The 6th-graders in Joyce Allen's class seat themselves around her in a semicircle. Mrs. Allen starts off by calling on them, but soon they participate voluntarily. The twelve talk about how to say no to marijuana, how to make decisions, and how to get along with parents.
The course, taught here every day for 25 days per semester, is a required part of Braintree Middle School's 6th-grade curriculum. But most of the students enjoy the class enough to want to take it on their own.
``This is my best class except gym,'' says an enthusiastic Efie Kardaris, as she pulls out a homework assignment of a photo collage and proudly holds up her ``success life line.''
Through the use of family photos and drawings, Efie and the other students have put together pictures of themselves being successful in a variety of activities, such as sports, hobbies, and school work. These and other assignments are designed to help them identify their strengths as individuals.
The Quest program includes a community activity at the semester's end. Children participate in group projects, such as town cleanups or visits to local nursing homes. These ``service learning projects'' are intended to provide links to school, community, and family.
``[The program] has a number of components that are recommended by researchers,'' says Bettina Scott of the National Institute of Drug Abuse. Children are involved in nonacademic projects and ``not just reading and writing activities.'' Forcing them to become involved in this way, she says, develops real interest.
Four seminars for parents accompany each Quest course, which provides a special parents' textbook and encourages parental involvement in homework assignments.
``I think it's a great program,'' says Ruth Sigel, whose son is in the Braintree class. ``It lets [children] look within themselves and lets them ask questions.''
Calling herself more of a ``facilitator'' than a lecturer, Mrs. Allen says children benefit by listening to each other. ``To see a kid talking about something and have the other kids say, `Wow, me too!' happens a lot.''
The Quest textbook, which includes anecdotes by Bill Cosby, is upbeat and down to earth. Children are graded in the class, and discussion is often based on material assigned for homework. In this way, they tend to take the class more seriously and keep up with the discussion.
Brenda Snapp, a Quest teacher in Detroit, has learned the secret of how to get children to open up.
On her desk, she has placed what is called her ``Aunt Blabby box.'' Children write questions to a fictitious ``Aunt Blabby'' on a slip of paper and leave them in the box, unsigned.
During the first five minutes of class, Ms. Snapp picks a few of the questions out of the box and reads them to the students. Topics include things like family, dating, schoolwork, and money.
``They love it,'' says Snapp.
She says it really helps ``to get grips on problems by getting them out into the open.''