LifeSkills Training and educational performance

Kenneth Griffin and Gilbert Botvin describe how a school-based programme proven to prevent teenage substance abuse and violence can also promote educational performance

MOST PARENTS AND EDUCATORS recognise that school performance suffers when pupils engage in substance abuse, violence, or a variety of other problem behaviours. Several problem behaviours, including the use of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs (ATOD), often begin during early adolescence. Considerable progress has been made, however, in developing and testing theory-driven classroom programmes for pupils that effectively prevent these and other problem behaviours. Because substance abuse and other similar behaviours often play a detrimental role in educational attainment, prevention programmes that reduce these behaviours may also help to promote academic performance. In addition, prevention programmes that teach pupils a broad range of life skills not only can prevent problems, but also may promote educational success.

What we know
● LifeSkills Training is an evidence-based approach, proven to prevent substance abuse and violence by addressing key risk and protective factors within a positive youth development framework.
● LifeSkills Training addresses key risk and protective factors that research shows are associated with multiple problem behaviours and poor academic outcomes. Thus, the LST approach offers the potential to promote academic success, as well as to prevent ATOD use and other problem behaviours.

The LifeSkills Training approach

LifeSkills Training (LST) is a classroom-based ATOD and violence prevention programme that teaches personal and social skills to help young people build resilience, navigate developmental tasks, and resist negative social influences. LST provides information relevant to the important life challenges that young people face, using culturally sensitive and developmentally appropriate language and content. Trained classroom teachers use facilitated discussion, structured small-group activities, and behavioural rehearsal scenarios to stimulate participation and promote the acquisition of skills.

Effects on substance abuse and other problem behaviours

The LST programme has been tested extensively and proven effective in more than 30 published scientific studies involving different types of pupils and programme providers. Initial studies found that LST reduced cigarette smoking and alcohol use among white, middle-class populations, and that the programme was effective when taught by a variety of providers, including classroom teachers, peer leaders, and health educators. In a large-scale study of almost 6,000 predominantly white pupils from 56 US junior high schools (years 8 and 9), findings indicated that pupils who received the LST programme in year 8, and booster sessions in years 9 and 10, reported less cigarette smoking, marijuana use, and heavy alcohol use in year 10. A follow-up study also determined that there were significantly fewer smokers, heavy drinkers, marijuana users, and polydrug users among these same pupils once they reached year 13, relative to control group pupils who did not receive the programme. Other research has shown that LST can decrease the use of illicit drugs (including hallucinogens, heroin, and other narcotics) among pupils who receive the programme compared to those who do not.

LST is also effective with inner-city, minority youth. In a large-scale randomised study, LST was tested with minority teenagers in 29 New York City schools. When assessed one year after the intervention, the pupils who received LST reported less smoking, drinking, drunkenness, inhalant use, and polydrug use, relative to those in the control group who did not receive LST. The LST programme also cut binge drinking in half for up to two years after the programme.

LST is also effective with high-risk youth, defined as pupils with poor academic performance and friends who use drugs. High-risk pupils who received LST were less likely to smoke, drink, use inhalants, or use multiple drugs compared to similarly matched control pupils. Another study showed that LST reduced verbal and physical aggression, delinquency behaviour, and fighting among participants when compared to controls. Additional studies have tested LST among teenagers living in rural areas of the US, and these have also showed lower rates of substance abuse initiation through secondary school among LST pupils, compared to pupils who did not receive the programme. LST pupils reported significantly less methamphetamine use in secondary school as well.

Taken together, more than 30 published studies provide powerful evidence that LST is highly effective with a broad range of young people, and for multiple problem behaviours.

Components of LifeSkills Training

The LST programme consists of three major components that cover the critical areas found to promote substance abuse and violence. Pupils who develop skills in these areas may benefit academically through a variety of mechanisms.

  • Resistance skills Learning these skills helps young people to recognise and challenge common misconceptions about substance abuse and violence. Through coaching and practice, young people learn information and practical skills for dealing with peers and with media pressure to engage in risky behaviour.
  • Personal self-management skills Pupils learn to: examine their self-image and its effects on their behaviour; set goals and keep track of personal progress; identify how they may be influenced by others in their everyday decisions; analyse problem situations and consider the consequences of each alternative solution before making decisions; reduce stress and anxiety; and look at personal challenges in a positive light.
  • General social skills Young people receiving LST learn how to: develop the necessary skills to overcome shyness; communicate effectively and avoid misunderstandings; start and sustain conversations; handle social requests; utilise both verbal and nonverbal assertiveness skills to make or refuse requests; and recognise that they have choices other than aggression or passivity when faced with tough situations.

Promoting positive educational outcomes

Findings drawn from the fields of health, psychology, and education indicate that LST also has the potential for producing a positive impact on several important educational outcomes.

  • School attendance, engagement, and commitment By preventing problem behaviours and providing pupils with the skills they need to remain resilient and succeed in the face of new challenges, LST can contribute to a sense of mastery that enhances school bonding.
  • Safe, supportive learning environment When pupils feel safe, they can learn better and thrive. LST can help create and reinforce a safe and accepting school environment where pupils are treated fairly, regardless of ability, appearance, background, or beliefs.
  • Ability to handle academic pressures Pupils with high self-esteem and selfconfidence, and those who can handle stress in adaptive ways, are likely to try harder and persist in the face of challenges, which can translate into better academic performance. LST can promote these outcomes by helping pupils to develop higher self-esteem and self-confidence through goal setting and self-monitoring, and by helping pupils to cope effectively with stress and anxiety through relaxation skills training.
  • Prosocial engagement with teachers and peers Pupils do not learn alone, but rather in collaboration with their teachers and other pupils. Young people with good social skills are better prepared for learning, are able to ask their teachers for assistance with academic and personal problems, and can elicit and provide social support from peers. By promoting social skills and abilities, LST can enhance a pupil’s ability to interact with others in the process of learning, increasing academic competence over time.
  • Promotion of social and emotional learning Schools play an important role, not only in teaching cognitive and academic skills, but also in fostering social and emotional development in pupils. However, schools have limited resources and are increasingly concerned with academic outcomes. LST can enhance social and emotional skills, in addition to preventing several problem behaviours. It is therefore an efficient way to teach pupils a variety of important skills.
  • Better choices in and out of the classroom LST teaches pupils the necessary skills to resist peer and media pressure to smoke, drink, and use drugs. Through in-class activities and homework assignments, LST can give pupils the skills to make better decisions and solve problems. Young people who learn these skills are likely to make more appropriate choices in and out of the school setting, which in turn supports academic success.

About the authors

Kenneth W Griffin is a professor of public health in the division of prevention and health behaviour at Weill Cornell Medical College, Cornell University. Dr Griffin is a consultant to National Health Promotion Associates, which develops health education materials and markets the LifeSkills Training programme.

Gilbert J Botvin is a professor of psychology in public health, a professor of psychology in psychiatry, and chief of the division of prevention and health behaviour at Weill Cornell Medical College, Cornell University. Dr Botvin is also the founder and president of National Health Promotion Associates, which develops health education materials and markets the LifeSkills Training programme.

Further reading

Botvin GJ et al (1995), Long-term Follow-up Results of a Randomized Drug Abuse Prevention Trial in a White Middle-class Population. Journal of the American Medical Association, 273, 1106–1112.

Durlak JA et al (2011), The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-analysis of School-based Universal Interventions. Child Development, 82, 405–432.

LifeSkills Training website: www.lifeskillstraining.com

Published

June 2012