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What is the Life Skills Approach?

The challenges facing young people today have changed significantly from those affecting previous generations; some simply did not exist before, and others have intensified or become more complex — for example, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, alcohol, tobacco and other drug use, war and political instability, also unemployment, sexual and other forms of exploitation, and discrimination in its many forms.

The causes of these problems are complex and multifaceted, and so they are unlikely to be solved quickly or simply. As part of a comprehensive, multi-strategy approach, a life skills approach may help to contribute to a reduction in the harm associated with these issues, and to maintaining and promoting healthy lifestyles.

The Life Skills Approach refers to

the interactive process of teaching and learning which focuses on acquiring knowledge, attitudes and skills which support behaviours that enable us to take greater responsibility for our own lives; by making healthy life choices, gaining greater resistance to negative pressures, and minimising harmful behaviours.

Where did the life skills approach come from?

The life skills approach has evolved from a number of influences, and indeed the basic approach may be utilised under a variety of other names, not just as the catchy brand name of ‘life skills’. At its simplest, the life skills approach is simply good interactive educational methodology which focuses on more than just information. Although useful in more contexts than that of health alone, an important influence has been adolescent health behavior research and practice, in areas such drug use and HIV/AIDS related risk. A major finding reinforced across these extensive field is that information is necessary but not sufficient to develop or change behaviors. To have an impact on behaviour, information based approaches need to be combined with attitudinal and interpersonal skills, known as ‘life skills’, which has become a kind of brand name for this approach.

What distinguishes the life skills approach from others?

Life skills as a teaching-learning approach is specifically designed to enhance efforts to positively develop or change behaviour, especially related to well being and healthy functioning in society. This focus on behaviour change as a primary objective distinguishes life skills from other approaches, such as information only approaches which are used for simple information acquisition but are not generally effective in making an impact on behaviour.

A second distinguishing factor of the life skills approach is the existence of a balance of three components: (i) Knowledge or information, (ii) Attitudes and values and (iii) (life) Skills as the most effective method of developing or changing behaviors. This skill component consists of interpersonal and psycho-social skills such as assertion, negotiation, decision making, empathy building, values clarification, stress and coping skills. Whereas information acquisition strategies might focus mainly on the knowledge component, the life skills approach encompasses and balances all three of these components (K.A.S.).

Practical experience shows that behaviour is substantially more difficult to change and requires more intensive approaches than knowledge and attitude change. While information is necessary for behavior change it is not sufficient to be effective, primarily because the necessary balance of all three essential components (KAS) is not achieved. The goal of the life skills approach is to promote healthy, sociable behaviour and to prevent or reduce risk behaviours, as well as make an impact on knowledge and attitudinal components.

A third distinguishing factor: Challenge to education systems & assessment

An assumption is made here that some behaviours need to change because they are associated with significant risks related to the challenges mentioned above. As such, the goal of the life skills approach is to make an impact on these risk behaviours. Education systems have not typically focused on behaviour change in this way, and very often aspire to changes in knowledge alone. A history of content or knowledge focus in education systems presents a significant challenge to advocating for, and implementing life skills approaches. In this context the higher goal is behaviour change, and so the life skills approach is distinct in not presenting all the information that there is to know about a topic, but rather, presents only that information considered necessary to influencing attitudes and achieving the higher goal of reducing risk behaviours and promoting positive behaviour. A direct consequence of achieving this overall goal is the achievement of positive outcomes in terms of knowledge, attitudes and values and intermediate skills.

Additional Resources and Information

Handouts Explaining the Life Skills Approach

A series of Handouts has been prepared to help communicate key elements of the approach. These pages can be used to increase your own expertise or to advocate for the implementation of a Life Skills Approach in your school system. The Talking Points provide a rationale for each of the handouts.

Interviews with Teachers using the Life Skills Approach

Two interviews were conducted for the Teachers Talking Forum by Dr. Phan Thi Le Mai with teachers using the approach. Mrs. Trinh Thuy Nga shares her experiences at the Cao Xanh Primary school. Mrs. Mai Bich Nga of the Hong Hai lower secondary school offers her perspective. Both schools are located in suburban Ha long city, Quang Ninh province.

Sona Karapetyan compiled evaluation feedback from teachers who have begun using the Life Skills approach in Armenia. This was posted in July, 2000, and it shares teacher experiences, student achievement, and parental responses.

Primary UNICEF Resource on the Life Skills Approach

Skills-based Health Education to prevent HIV/AIDS
"Life skills based health education focuses on sharing knowledge, attitudes and skills which support behaviours that help young people take greater control of their lives -- by making healthy life choices, gaining greater resistance to negative pressures, and minimising harmful behaviours."

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Last revised September, 2001
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