Teaching Life skills to Increase Student Empowerment

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The aim of this study is to examine the relationship between the teaching of life skills and student empowerment. The World Health Organization (1997) defines life skills as "the abilities for adaptive and positive behaviour that enable individuals to deal effectively with the demands and challenges of everyday life" and the World Bank (2007) defines empowerment as the "process of enhancing the capacity of individuals or groups to make choices and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes".

The central position is that the teaching of life skills to adolescents through a Health and Family Life Education (HFLE) programme does influence and modify their behaviour (Elias, 1991; Griffin & Svendsen, 1992; Caplan et al., 1992; and Tolan & Guerra, 1994). The implementation and assessment of life skills programmes conducted globally, regionally and in Trinidad and Tobago are discussed and the positive and negative effects is presented. The literature will also show that skill-based programmes inculcate lifelong values which promote the development of students as active members of society (Elias, Gara, Schulyer, Brandon-Muller, and Sayette,; 1991). Lastly, the literature will show that an economy that focuses on the health and welfare of its populace will experience positive growth (Bloom & Canning, 2003; Bloom & Sevilla, 2004; and Gyimah-Brempong & Wilson, 2004). Drawing on insights derived from these studies I will show that teaching life skills improve students' well-being, increase student growth and development and create democratic citizens thereby enabling them to become conscientious and contributing members of society.

Life-Skills Based Education Programmes

Skills based programmes are not new; they have been around in one form or the other for a number of years and have been successful in several regions in the world including the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Canada and Colombia to name a few (Prevatt-Wiltshire, 2006). Life Skills programmes were developed to address the high levels of risky behaviours that exist among the youth in these regions - high school dropouts and young persons who had left the school system .

The first Skills-Based Education programme was introduced to the region in the 1980s as the Family Life Education Programme. The curriculum was prepared for the needs and culture of a developed society but it was taken and adapted to suit the needs and culture of the Caribbean people. The Family Life Education Programme fell through and later gave rise to the Health and Family Life Education (HFLE) Project several decades later in the year 1996 by the CARICOM Ministers of Health. In the year 2001 HFLE was implemented as part of the Primary school syllabus in Trinidad and Tobago, but it was only in 2007 that it was introduced on a pilot school basis in secondary schools. The HFLE programme teaches adolescents life skills which seek to increase their self efficacy and enhance the quality of their lives. Bandura defined self efficacy as a person's belief that he can succeed.

Our society is a democratic one and is constantly changing so it requires persons who could think critically and make responsible decisions. Soder, Goodlad, & McMannon (2001) and Dewey (1916) said that a democratic society requires citizens who are participatory, socially conscious and competent and it is through education that social reform may be achieved. The HFLE programme teaches life skills which "include problem solving, decision making, critical and creative thinking, self-awareness, the ability to empathize, coping with emotions and resistance skills" (UNICEF, 1999). The goal of this programme is to inculcate particular values and traits that will make for better citizens and foster laudable attitudes which allow the children to develop the skills they need to become responsible, independent and contributing citizens.

Nature of Adolescent Health in the Region

Over the last couple of decades the countries of the region have focused their attention on education and health in an effort to increase the welfare of the people. Studies have shown that investing in Education and Health leads to approximately 30% increase standard of living, development and growth (Bloom & Canning, 2003; Bloom & Canning, 2004; and Gyimah-Brempong and Wilson, 2004). The World Health Organization (1978) has defined health as "a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity". This definition infers that health involves a multifaceted view of an individual's quality of life and it is this concept which constitutes the foundation of the Health and Family Life Education Project (HFLE).

Traditionally, the family was the primary socialization unit and the values that were instilled at this level were echoed by all the stakeholders in the child's life - the community members, school, and the church. The old adage 'it takes a village to raise a child' was evident as all institutions of socialization were involved in the upbringing of the child. I remember as a child growing up my relatives and members of the community were very active in nurturing me to be a better individual and any attempt to deviate from the right path was met with a reprimand. Persons not related to me by blood felt it was their duty to instil discipline and the right values in all children so that they may become better adults. However, at present, the role of the family regarding familial socialization is collapsing and this can be damaging to both the individual and the society at large. PAHO (1998) and The World Bank (2003) identified the following social issues as the main causes of the breakdown of family life: absentee fathers, low rates of marriages, poverty, overly academic curriculum, abuse (mental, physical etc.), neglect, poor media influence, inadequate physical environments, fragmented homes and communities, fragmented relationships, and hostile social environments (home, school and neighbourhood).

These societal ills that currently face today's adolescents are manifested in the behaviour they exhibit and have given rise to the level of communicable and non-communicable diseases that are now prevalent. Non-communicable diseases are the main cause of the problems that exists in society today. Diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, anaemia, bulimia, obesity and undernourishment are rampant in today's society and are the results of the sedentary lifestyles of the youths. The levels of teenage pregnancies, diminished learning potential, increasing violence, juvenile delinquency, marginalized males, increasing adolescent dropouts, drugs, alcohol and tobacco, and violence are also on the rise and if these risky behaviours are not addressed they will increase as the child gets older. (Ministry of Education, 2001)

Schools, therefore, have a pivotal role in attempting to address these ills of society since its primary function is moral and social education, as well as, academic instruction. This new role requires schools to adopt an all-round approach to education which addresses the holistic needs of the child since human needs cannot be rigidly compartmentalized. The HFLE life skills programme was proposed to address the social, psychological and physical ills that face adolescents (UNICEF, 1999) in an attempt to facilitate holistic development. The UNFPA (2005) report identified that 20.7% of the population in the region are between ages 15-24 and it is this section of the population that is highly at risk and if children develop sound decision making skills and adopt desirable behaviours during their adolescence then these choices should continue and guide them through their adult lives.

The implementation of the Life-Skills Programme in Trinidad & Tobago

The HFLE curriculum was introduced as a pilot project to secondary schools in 2007 and my school (Fyzabad Anglican Secondary) is one of the participating schools in the programme. HFLE was introduced as a separate subject to the then Form Ones once a week for two periods. The curriculum is student focused and it consists of four themes: Sexuality and Sexual Health, Self and Interpersonal Relationships, Eating and Fitness, and Managing the Environment. HFLE is not a 'teaching' subject, the curriculum is one that is predominantly student oriented and the teacher acts as a facilitator and guides student learning. The traditional curricular is content based and it focuses on knowledge development and assessment takes the form of written examinations. These curricula fail to prepare students for the real-world and do not allow them to reach their full-potential as citizens. The life-skills curriculum addresses the students' multiple intelligences and according to UNICEF/CARICOM (1999) the programme "is perceived as the viable way to bridge existing gaps to enable young person's to attain the high levels of educational achievement and productivity required for the 21st century."

The Life-Skills sessions take a constructivist approach to education and class activities and assessment involves engaging students in participatory activities. The students are encouraged to move, write, sing, dance, act, draw, compose poems, stories and plays to express their feelings and put forward their contributions. The topics explored are built on the students' prior knowledge and it allows the students to engage in cooperative learning through group work and peer discussions. The Assessment of this skills-based curriculum is different from one that is content based in that there are no written examinations and assessment is done on a continuous basis to determine if student attitudes and behaviours have changed. The students are also required to keep journals which document their experiences and growth. Each student keeps a portfolio of their work and the contents are both self and teacher assessed. Assessment is done in a on a continuous basis and the students are given the opportunity of redoing an assignment if they are not satisfied with the quality of their work. The portfolio lends itself to be a self building tool as students can map out their progress from the inception to the completion of particular tasks. The high level of student involvement and student assessment in this programme encourages the students become socially empowered since they are actively involved in their own learning (Cook-Sather, 2002).

Effects of Life-Skills Programmes

The effects of skill based programmes have been both positive and negative. However, most life skills programmes have had positive results. Studies done by Elias, Gara, Schulyer, Brandon-Muller, and Sayette (1991) found that there was a direct relationship between skills-based education and improvements in students' academic performance and social adjustment, this means that the attitudes and behaviours learnt in this program transcended the classroom and allowed the students to adapt to any social situation that arose. Other studies linked skills-based education to reductions in risk-taking and delinquent behaviour (Elias, 1991 and Tolan & Guerra, 1994) and delaying the use of alcohol and other drugs (Griffin & Svendsen, 1992 and Caplan et al., 1992). These studies have shown that the students were competent to make positive and informed healthy decisions which contribute to the development of conscientious and productive individuals who will contribute positively to the future development of society.

Although the secondary schools life-skills pilot programme is only in its third year, it has been observed to be very effective. It has been observed that behaviour of the current Form Three students is significantly better than similar students at this level in the past. The students are more involved in school activities and are socially conscience of the impact that they have on society and vice versa. It was also observed that there were some behavioural changes with respect to particular students in the programme. A few of the students in this group are special needs children and have one or more social and mental handicap. These children entered the school very timid and withdrawn and often did not participate in classroom and school related activities, however, a number of them have taken a more active role in and out of the classroom (Cummins, 1986) which also had positive impacts on their academic performance. The self efficacy of these students has increased and they are more assertive and self-assured in their interactions with both their peers and teachers as is evident in their posture, mannerisms and attitude. The confidence that these students exude have driven their motivation to succeed academically (Cummins, 1986).

However, although several studies have shown that life skills do impact positively on student empowerment, there are other studies which show that there has been no impact of the programme on adolescent behaviour and empowerment. An evaluation was conducted on the HFLE programme of the students in the Eastern Caribbean - Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Grenada and St. Lucia - who were exposed to the programme and the findings were that there were no negligible changes in students' behaviour after participating in the programme (UNICEF, 2009). So although the students were exposed to the relevant information and skills necessary to make informed judgements they continued making their same poor decisions which resulted in their dysfunctional and negative behaviours. The students did not feel politically empowered since the adults in society still control how things exist and they still held no true power as their voices are often ignored and there is no room for their creativity (Cook-Sather, 2002). Some of the problems encountered in the implementation of the Regional study were that resources were not readily available, there was no standardization of the programme, teachers were ill equipped to deal with the life skills curriculum and there was limited monitoring and evaluation of the programme (UNICEF, 2009). The ethos of these schools was negative since the programme cannot exist in isolation and there must be a shared vision and communication among all partners within the school environment.


The effects of Life Skills Based Education Programme (LSBE) have been two-fold in the reports both supported and disagreed with the premise that the programme increases student empowerment. On a global level such programmes have yielded major successes and reported significant changes in behaviour, attitudes and academic performance as a result of giving students more autonomy, power and choice. The students could effectively solve problems and make positive decisions which according to Friere (1970) are the basis of empowerment since it involves persons gaining control of their lives in order to transcend their social restrictions.

Although there has been no formal assessment of the effectiveness of the Secondary Schools HFLE life skills programme in Trinidad and Tobago, the following observations were made based on the students of one school in the Secondary Schools Pilot HFLE programme. The first observation was that the life skills programme was both effective and affective as it resulted in positive behavioural changes in several students who participated in the programme over a two year period. The second observation showed that the level of self efficacy of the student population at the Form Three level had increased and the persona and attitude of several individual students were more engaging and sociable.

The report on the programme at the regional level, based on a study of four Caribbean countries, was not as positive since it was shown that the life skills program had no discernable effect on student behaviour and empowerment because of the hindrances they faced in the programme's administration and delivery. To overcome the impeding factors encountered and aid the life skills programme in its fight against societal ills and the promotion of student empowerment and democratic citizenship the following recommendations should be taken into account:

The introduction of an inter-school initiative or 'pair and share' programme whereby the past and present participants in the life skills programme meet and discuss the impact the programme had on their lives. This type of programme will allow the students to see the link between themselves and their society and increase their level of citizenship.

The life skills programme should be implemented in all secondary schools in the country so that all adolescents in society could benefit from the exercise. Even if the effects are minute the programme should be continued since a succession of small strides could lead to large, positive impacts on society.

More involvement from the members of the community in the administration of this programme since it will allow the community members to be more actively involved in the education of the nation's youths and it will strengthen the relationship between the home, school and the community. It will also allow the recipients to receive a comprehensive view of all the aspects covered in the syllabus.

Comprehensive evaluation of the programme should be done continuously to assess the effectiveness of the teaching methods, programme delivery and the impact on the school environment. These periodic assessments will also be used to adapt the programme to the changing needs of society.

The teachers and/or facilitators of these programmes should be provided with the training and resources necessary for the successful and effective execution of their duties because if the facilitators are ill-prepared to cater to the needs of the students then the programme will not have the desired results.

The development and implementation of the Life skills programmes to other 'at risk' members of society as an 'out-of-school' programme so that a larger percentage of the population could become self aware and make informed healthy choices.