Photo courtesy of Amy Lauren Smith

What Students Have to Say About Skills-Based Health Education

Amy Lauren Smith

Editors note: Still teaching a content-based health curriculum? Choices teacher-adviser Amy Lauren Smith—a sixth to eighth grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our Teachers Guide each month—makes the case for why you should switch to skills-based education.


Almost nine years ago, I packed up everything and left my small town in Southern California to teach middle school health in Shanghai, China. Though I’d be teaching in a foreign country, it was an American school with international expat students, so I figured my go-to lessons and projects would transfer well.


But the reality was very different from what I expected. The health concerns of my middle school students who were living abroad and attending a high-pressure prep school differed drastically from the concerns of the high school students living in my hometown. I was going to need a whole new curriculum.


Without official content standards to work off of, I was able to survey the students to find out what their top health concerns were and adapt my lessons accordingly. The beauty of the National Health Education Standards is that they’re skill-based and adaptable to meet the needs of any student population.


This is key for so many reasons, especially since health concerns shift dramatically between students from state to state, school to school, and even from year to year. If you get tied to content you’ve been teaching for several years, you’re missing an opportunity to truly help your students by equipping them with the health literacy skills they’ll need to make the right choices both now and well into the future.


As skills-based health education is still in the early stages, we don’t yet have solid proof that this common sense, adaptable approach is the best way to reach all of our students. Luckily, teaching at a PK-12 school gives me a chance to check back in with former students to ask for their opinion on skills-based health. How does it work, why is it important, and what exactly do they remember about the skills that they’ve learned?


Here’s what they had to say:


The old version of health is more like you get the scenario, and they tell you what to do. Whereas now we learn it in a way that’s opposite from before, where the scenarios are varied and you don’t know what’s going to come, but you have these ways you can think critically about what you’re going to do, which is more like how it happens in real life.  

-Zini, ninth grade


The benefit of skills-based health education is that it can be applied to many different areas of learning and life, not just health class. For example, we are making a Shark Tank presentation in Social Studies class. We can use our decision-making skills we learned in health to make the right decision for our business plan. Also, health concerns are constantly changing and everybody is unique, so content-based learning may not be applicable in a few years and it may not be applicable to everyone. On the other hand, skills-based learning can help everyone in any situation. 

-Laurel, eighth grade


I’m not sure I could have put it any better.


Ready to make the switch? Start with these seminal texts by the top experts in the field: The Essentials of Teaching Health Education by Sarah Benes and Holly Alperin, and Skills-Based Health Education by Mary Connolly


Related: Switching From Content-Based to Skills-Based Health Ed

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