Holly Alperin, Ed.M, MCHES, has worked for over 20 years in public health and education. Currently she works at the University of New Hampshire preparing health educators within the Department of Kinesiology as a member of the Health and Physical Education faculty. For the 16 years prior, she worked with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, most recently serving as the Nutrition Education and Training Coordinator. Alperin has a strong background in promoting school health programs, skills-based comprehensive health education and providing support to develop and implement quality professional development that leads to behavior change. Alperin also works collaboratively with other school health and child nutrition professionals to ensure that activities meet high standards, are meaningful and relevant to participants.
Sarah Benes, EdD, CHES is a Program Coordinator, Physical and Health Education Programs at Boston University
Take a moment to think back to your health education class (if you even had one). What comes to mind?

For many people, memories of health education involve “just say no,” lots of “don’t do (insert behavior here)” and scare tactics. We also often hear that their health education wasn’t engaging, relevant, or all that useful. 

The good news is, as health educator Andy Milne explains in his Ted Talk, “This is Not Your Parents’ Health Class,” today’s skills-based health education classroom is relevant, engaging, and applicable to students’ lives now and in the future. This is important because when we are teaching health education in a skills-based way, we are helping to ensure that the knowledge and skills students are learning transfer outside of the classroom… into their real life. In fact, if students are not taking what they learn or are not able to use what they learn in ways that make sense in their own life, we have done them a disservice.

We know how we were taught, but what is skills-based health education? How is it different?

The more “academic” definition we have for skills-based health education is that it is: “a planned, sequential, comprehensive, and relevant set of learning experiences implemented through socio-ecological and socio-cultural perspectives and participatory methods, in order to support the development of skills, attitudes, and functional knowledge needed to maintain, enhance or promote health and well-being of self and others across multiple dimensions of well-being” (Benes & Alperin, 2022). Let’s break this down a bit.

First, you may notice the word “relevant” early in the definition. This is critical in today’s health education classroom. The world is changing at a rapid pace and students’ lived experiences vary within classrooms, neighborhoods, communities, states, etc. We can’t have a “one-size fits all” approach. As health educators, we need to be meeting the needs of each of our students in our classrooms. This often means continually reflecting on and evaluating the curriculum to ensure it is meaningful, authentic, and valuable for our students. Students need to be able to “see themselves” in the lessons and learning experiences. Because, when they do, they are more likely to remember what they learned and be able to use it later.

Transferability Outside the Classroom

Another important aspect of skills-based health education that supports its transferability outside the classroom is the focus on socio-ecological and socio-cultural factors that impact health and well-being. Did you know that a majority of our health and well-being are actually influenced by societal characteristics and the environment around us? It is surprising as we often hear about all the ways that people need to change behaviors and lifestyles in order to achieve health and well-being. And yes, the behaviors we engage in do make a difference, but not as much as we might think. After all, we can only make the choices available to us given our own circumstances or context.

For example, it is hard to access mental health care if there are limited resources or services available in my community. Or another example, it is more difficult to select healthier food items if I have limited access to whole foods or fresh fruits and vegetables.

Teaching health education through the lens of socio-ecological and socio-cultural approaches helps students see this bigger picture, helps them to think about how the community impacts our health and well-being and helps them to see how interconnected all of our experiences are. This leads to students having a more informed, broader perspective when it comes to health and well-being that will not only support their ability to address their own health and well-being but that of others as well.

The goals of health education is the development of skills.

The National Health Education Standards, which are standards that many states have adopted or aligned with, have eight standards in total. Seven of those standards are skills: analyzing influences, accessing valid and reliable information, products and services, interpersonal communication, decision-making, self-management, and advocacy. 

Take a look at that list  . . . you can probably think of examples of how you use these skills almost every day. Sometimes we use these skills in relation to our health, and other times we use them for other areas of our life. You might also reflect on where (or if) you learned these skills in a straightforward way. We talk to many educators, both in-service and pre-service, as well as parents, caregivers, and other community members who comment on how helpful it would have been if they had learned skills like this in their health classroom. Not only are these skills that we all need to support our health and the health of others, but these skills are also useful in our daily lives in supporting relationships, on the job, and at the doctor’s office. Skills-based health education programs help all students develop these critical life skills. As one of Andy Milne’s students shared, getting an A in health is like getting an A in life. Sarah often talks to her health education students about how health education is helping students learn skills for being human – what could be more important or useful than that?

Skills & Well-Being Beyond the Classroom

While health class is a platform to engage in meaningful lessons about our health and well-being, when done well it engages students at a level that helps them to take their learning and to use it outside the classroom. It prepares them to transfer their learning in ways that help us to build stronger communities. It provides an opportunity to create a society that values health and well-being and allows us to tackle tough issues in ways that support the health and well-being of all community members. So, while students may learn these skills in the health classroom, we are preparing them to use these skills in far-reaching ways. 

If you don’t find yourself teaching in the health education classroom, you too can support students in what they do learn in health class. We are all interconnected; what a powerful opportunity we have to address youth health and well-being. 

Here are some examples of ways to use these skills beyond the classroom:
  • Encourage young people to find interconnections between their mental health and social media;
  • Open dialogue about characteristics of good friends and partners;
  • Identify local resources to support mental health;
  • Work through a decision-making process for a non-health situation or problem;
  • Think of a topic that is difficult to discuss and come up with 2-3 talking points to make it easier to talk to someone about that issue;
  • Finding some ways to de-stress that are fun and enjoyable and then teaching someone else how to do it;
  • Consider the influences on a book character’s actions and choices. How did those around them influence their actions and behaviors;
  • Examine ways that the built environment makes it easier or harder as a young person – come up with some strategies to tackle inequities. 

As you can see, there are many ways to use and apply these skills!

About us

Erika’s Lighthouse is a non-profit organization founded in 2004 that is dedicated to educating teens and raising awareness surrounding depression and mental health. Our programs are tailored to our mission of making sure no young person feels alone in their depression. Erika’s Lighthouse strives to help teens create an inclusive school culture and eliminate the stigma of mental health. Erika’s Lighthouse evidence-informed programs not only bring awareness to young people about depression and mental health; they build a structure for young people to thrive and survive, even when they might be experiencing depression.