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Q&A with Emmanuelle Abrioux, UNICEF Life Skills in Education Specialist

Two adolescent girls are making notes during a Life Skills workshop in Baucau District, sponsored by UNICEF Timor-Leste.

Teaching life skills has become a critical element in UNICEF's definition of quality education.  But ‘life skills’ is a term that different agencies and educators apply differently. It typically appears in many health-related projects and programmes, most especially in relation to HIV-prevention. However, life skills is also used to refer to functional skills related to income generation and the practical application of post-literacy projects. Around the world, schools and non-formal education programmes are using life skills education, broadly defined, to empower young people to deal with challenging situations.

Emmanuelle Abrioux, a Life Skills in Education Specialist with the UNICEF East Asia and Pacific Regional Office (EAPRO), has been working with education ministry officials and development partners in the region who are turning to or considering evidence-based life-skills education. She answers questions on the challenges of applying a relatively new concept. 

Q: General education is a life skill. So what is life skills-based education? 

A: UNICEF uses life skills-based education as an interactive process of teaching and learning that enables students to acquire knowledge and develop attitudes and skills for adopting healthy behaviours. Life skills (again, as UNICEF uses it) refer to the social and emotional abilities we have to deal with challenging situations, from learning in school to social relationships and self-protection. I find it is useful to consider three groupings: 1) interpersonal or communication skills; 2) skills relating to problem solving or decision making; and 3) skills that are more intrapersonal (such as coping with stress). 

Certainly schools have always taught these types of skills – in a way. But the formal emphasis, complete with teaching materials and lesson plans (guides to teaching emotional skills, for instance) and even the life skills term itself, first emerged in the early 1990s – largely from the evolving debate of what is good education and as a response to the times. With the way the world is changing so rapidly, we can’t provide all the knowledge our children need. Instead, we need to provide them with skills to access and process knowledge for themselves.

Initially, life skills started within the AIDS domain. In some countries, HIV-prevention education has served as an entry point for the more general life skills-based education approach. However, there is still a tendency globally to talk about life skills education and HIV prevention in the same breath, as if the two are interchangeable. But life skills education is far broader than this. From the UNICEF perspective, it is not restricted to any one subject. Instead, it is a method, or approach, that can achieve various outcomes, including HIV prevention, sanitation and hygiene practices and even traffic safety.
Nor is a life skills-based approach about being proscriptive. Educators can choose what skills they want to focus on. In HIV prevention, for example, negotiation, empathy and communication skills are emphasized. Another programme seeking different outcomes would teach different skills. For instance, China’s Ministry of Education is promoting critical thinking, collaboration and goal setting as components of their vision for ‘harmonious schools’. 

Q: How is UNICEF supporting life skills initiatives in this region?

A: Ideally, UNICEF seeks to have these skills taught ‘generically’ across the curriculum and not restricted to only one project or initiative. But what UNICEF has achieved so far in this region is to infuse the life-skills approach within a variety of projects for children and young people. We would like to move beyond that to a systems approach in which all teachers support the development of these skills. That is beginning to happen in a few countries.   

The UNICEF approach is geared to both formal and non-formal education initiatives throughout the region, with differences country by country in terms of the outcomes sought. UNICEF supports the outcomes that an education ministry has chosen to emphasize. For example, schools in Malaysia use life skills for a child-protection outcome (an anti-bullying programme); China, Lao PDR and Thailand use life skills for HIV-prevention education; schools in the Pacific and in Viet Nam focus their life skills programmes on adolescent reproductive health and development; and Indonesia and Myanmar are focusing on out-of-school young people. Now, Cambodia and the Philippines have moved beyond a single outcome and are applying generic social and emotional skills development. This direction is actually what UNICEF would like to see applied in every country.

A generic application means incorporating the teaching of social, emotional and behavioural skills across a curriculum and across a school (both in class and on the playground). After all, if a health education teacher is the only staff member modelling these skills and trying to have students learn them (realistically, a 45-minute time slot once a week), can we really expect students to develop these skills and, even more importantly, implement them? Critical thinking and communication skills can be reinforced in math group work. And language classes can use texts that discuss conflicts and students can be encouraged talk about how to resolve those conflicts to work on their negotiation skills while also learning a language. Health subjects may be the easiest entry point for life skills education; but if all teachers reinforce these skills, a student has a better chance of acquiring them.

Q: Why is a life-skills component so critical to a quality education?

A: Quality education seeks to provide young people with the knowledge and skills to help them thrive in the changing world. It is now the school’s role to develop students’ ability to access, interpret and apply information for use in their development and in their self-protection. This includes personal relationship skills. And having skills that facilitate working in teams and communicating reinforces an interest in learning among students. Thus, they become better students and that then helps make teaching easier for teachers.

Even though we talk about life skills as a ‘new concept’, it’s not really. Most teachers recognize and value the non-academic purpose of their jobs. For many, this is why they entered the profession in the first place! But until life skills became formalized and complemented with clear ways of teaching those skills, there was more of a focus on teaching knowledge. Certainly teaching children about geography is much easier than helping them learn empathy. Thus, the challenge lies in the implementation of teaching these skills and having schools and school systems that support teachers in doing this. What has been lacking is a formalization of the life skills approach; for the approach to be valued and invested in across the education system, a certain ‘formality’ is needed. Actually, life skills-based education and quality education are synonymous. And ideally, we shouldn’t need a separate life skills-based education focus. However, it’s a bit like gender awareness in that when it is isn't separated for greater attention, it is often overlooked.

But is it really the school’s domain to teach about relationships along with reading and writing?

A: It’s the right of all children and young people to have life skills development promoted through their education system. Teaching skills useful in developing healthy relationships is within the goals of education and schools.

But teaching these things can be tricky. Communication skills are not only—or even primarily about—standing up to make a presentation. It is about listening and expressing emotions. Goal setting is a crucial skill to learn, for both the short and long terms. In some systems, students set personal goals and the teacher helps them work toward that.

Girls are joining a life skill class led by Buddhist monks at Keo Pan Ya school in Vientiane, LAO PDR

Q: What else is tricky about teaching life skills?

A: There is much confusion over what ‘life skills’ does and does not encompass. I can’t count the number of life-skills workshops I’ve attended in which participants discussed the term at cross purposes because of their differing perspectives. The term is confusing. And that leads people to imagine we are referring to all skills that are important to progress in life.

When I talk about the concept, I try to avoid using the term ‘life skills’ and instead use language that better pinpoints what UNICEF wants the concept to emphasize. I call it ‘social and emotional learning’, which highlights our focus on social, emotional and behavioural skills. This is not to say that other types of skills, such as technical or vocational skills or manual skills (including those relating to health, such as hand washing or putting on a condom) are not important to have in life. Those skills do not fall within our understanding of life skills-based education.

But, we need to make sure that a life-skills component is not used as an excuse to avoid teaching the factual information that young people are entitled to, particularly with regard to sexual and reproductive health. I would not want people to think that this approach calls only for the development of skills to the detriment of correct, relevant information. 

Although I divide life skills into three groupings, it is somewhat artificial to separate the different types of skills or to separate life skills from other skills. This is because we draw on many different skills at any one time. For example, putting on a condom involves the ‘manual’ skill of actually rolling on the condom and it requires a person to think through the benefits and drawbacks of using it in the first place as well as communicating with a partner about its use.

Q: Other approaches say the desired outcome of life skills-based education is behaviour change. Is that the UNICEF intention?

A: Frankly, a lot of life skills education focuses on behaviour change communication [BCC], which, while drawing on useful concepts, is somewhat at odds with the essence of what an education system seeks to be. Are we really saying that education is about fixing children or young people? BCC assumes individuals need to be changed. Life skills is not about fixing someone. As we move toward viewing young people as assets and not problems, we move from fixing behaviours to developing, from early on, behaviours that promote healthy well-being. Right now, we say young people are assets but then we focus on changing them. Pick up any material about behaviour and you’ll see the term ‘risky behaviour’. Risky behaviour doesn’t always lead to bad or negative outcomes. You can take risks and be okay. In fact, we encourage young people to take risks in pedagogical approaches that emphasize learning by doing. Risky behaviour is a normal part of adolescence. We say learn by doing, but then we say, “Don’t do that…”

BCC has strengths and draws on good concepts. But we have to look at how schools work and see how teachers work. I don’t think we should be blindly promoting behaviour change in schools. What we want to do is deliver skills to help young people to change on their own—if they want. All young people have a right to develop these skills. Whether they use them is another question. But can we expect —impose on—them to use them? We need to be engaging in discourse that gets away from the traditional focus on risky behaviours.

Q: What about impact of life skills-based education? How is it even possible to measure, say, the teaching of empathy?

A: Researchers in the United States have identified [see the report links] many impacts of social and emotional life skills: academic scores increase, classroom behaviour improves—especially empathy and communication.

Certainly donors investing in life skills development want to know its impact. Thus, it is important to have assessments. But life skills impact is difficult to assess. UNICEF EAPRO is currently working with the Center for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning at the University of Illinois at Chicago [United States] and the American Institute for Research to develop assessment tools for our country programmes to use to measure impact. These are tools that will help us measure the social, emotional and behavioural skills among students in our child-friendly school model.

Q: How realistic is it to support life skills-based education in under-resourced school settings that struggle to cope with large class sizes?

A: There are definite constraints that teachers face in having large numbers of students in poor learning environments. Clearly, this will also have an impact on the effectiveness of using a life-skills approach. However, by teaching these skills, teachers will find their classes easier to manage as students take responsibility for their own learning (they want to learn and are more engaging with teachers). This is a particularly important element where there are so many students that teachers feel they are unable to cope.

In these situations, we need to be realistic about the impact of teaching life skills. Yes, students may indicate improvements in their relationships as a result of acquiring these skills (and provide positive feedback in terms of their increased resilience), but these protective factors may well be insufficient to compensate for the lack of services, an unsupportive home environment or the significant risk factors that they encounter in daily life.

Q: What’s the level of acceptance or interest among education ministry officials around the region?

A: I never have to convince anyone of the need for life skills-based education. Everyone understands its importance. What we focus on is the ‘how’. Education ministry officials are asking us for good practices from anywhere – in this region or outside. The interest is two-fold: They want to look at something that is quality and different in education models, and they want to see how a country deals with emerging issues, such as relationship education and substance abuse.

I have shown officials in this region some very good school-based social and emotional learning programmes in Europe, the United States and New Zealand, among others [see links to reports].  A social, emotional and academic learning initiative has been piloted over the past fours years in the United Kingdom, and they’re now rolling it out across the country in primary and secondary schools. I am taking education officials from Viet Nam and Fiji on a study tour there later this year to look at it in secondary education. They specifically want to look at their approach to sexuality and relationship education and drug prevention.

Educators are interested in finding the best models and looking at the characteristics of those models. What they’re really keen to do is replicate the characteristics of good models. I wouldn’t say they’re investing in life skills-based education yet, but there are a lot of projects.





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