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Planning and Implementing an Effective Health Education Curriculum

This is an excerpt from Lesson Planning for Skills-Based Health Education With Web Resource by Sarah Benes & Holly Alperin.

To ensure that your students develop the skills and knowledge needed to lead healthy lives, you must plan and implement an effective health education curriculum. This takes, among other things, planning for and consideration of developmental levels, student and community needs, and where your curriculum fits within the bigger picture of the district. (That is, have students had health education before your class? Will they have it after?) As discussed in chapter 1, a skills-based approach uses the skills of the National Health Education Standards as the foundation of the curriculum and integrates topic areas such as nutrition, alcohol and other drugs, and interpersonal relationships to help students develop the skills and acquire the knowledge necessary for maintaining or enhancing their health. This chapter provides strategies and tools for designing a skills-based health education curriculum.


Before we dive into specifics of curriculum design, let’s take a moment to think about how well-designed learning experiences influence student outcomes. We will explore two scenarios that could play out in your classroom. In the first, you go into class having an idea of what you would like students to learn (although you have no specifically designed behavioral outcomes). You have thought about the information you want students to know and you design and teach your lessons in an engaging way to make sure they learn this new information. You create an assessment (near the end of the unit) to measure whether or not students can restate what they’ve just learned based on what you were able to cover in the lessons. Perhaps the assessment asks students to create a poster, make a presentation, or take a test. When students turn in their projects or their tests, you notice that they were able to include a lot of information on the topics discussed and their test scores reflect knowledge acquisition. Based on this information, you feel that students have retained information from the unit, and you hope that they will be able to use that information to make healthy choices.


Now we want you to consider a second scenario and notice the differences in both student output and transferability of learning. In this scenario, your curriculum and student learning experiences are predetermined. The learning experiences are created to support skill development while integrating the functional information and topics necessary for developing skills. You begin your unit by considering what your students need to know and be able to do. You consider the needs of your school, district, and community using data from a variety of resources - from state standards to school-based surveys. For example, suppose you have outlined your scope and sequence and are brainstorming topics to cover in the Analyzing Influences unit. While looking at Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) data, you notice an increase in alcohol use among high school students. Based on a local survey conducted by guidance counselors, you also know that students are experiencing high levels of stress and are using alcohol as a way to deal with their stress. Finally, you know from conversations with the parent - teacher organization that parents are concerned about the online activity of students. Using all of these data, you find it important to focus your unit on analyzing the influences of stress in students’ lives by identifying stressors, including technology, and discussing healthy ways of managing stress without turning to alcohol or other unhealthy options. You use this information to develop your unit objectives.


Next, you create an assessment that will provide an opportunity for students to demonstrate their skill proficiency and the extent to which they have met the unit objectives. After creating the assessment, you design your lessons in such a way that students will acquire the knowledge and develop the ability to apply the skill in a health-enhancing way and demonstrate their learning through the assessment. All the while, you make sure that you are teaching in a way that is both engaging and meaningful to students. By the end of the unit, students are able to demonstrate to you how to apply the skill while also using the information taught to them. You now have greater levels of confidence in your students’ ability to use the information learned and apply the skill developed in a health-enhancing way. You also feel confident that students will be able to analyze other influences in their lives that might lead to unhealthy behaviors.


These two scenarios have fundamental differences. In the first, students are able to tell you what they have learned and have built up a knowledge base of health-related information. While some of the information will resonate with students, behavior change theory suggests that they are unlikely to retain that information over the long term, nor will they necessarily use that information in their daily lives to make health-enhancing choices. Knowledge is a precondition for behavior change; it sets the stage, but on its own will not lead to change (Bandura, 2004). Initially, the information might become a topic of conversation and even spark interest in learning about something else, but the information alone does not ensure that students have the ability to apply that information in ways that support or maintain their health.


In contrast, in the second scenario, the unit is designed to give students opportunities to develop the skill and apply the information learned during the unit. Through this experience, the students must use health-related information to support their application of the skill, with the information itself secondary to skill development. The assessment designed before the lesson planning and implementation helps to ensure that learning activities included in the unit align with and contribute to students’ ability to meet the unit objectives. Not only does this help guide your teaching, but also it helps to set clear expectations for students - they know where they will end up before they even start! Also, as students progress through the lessons, they build on their ability to apply the skill so as they approach the assessment they are prepared to demonstrate the skill and apply the information in a meaningful way. After completing the unit, students have the ability to perform the skill, apply the newly learned information, and transfer learning to their daily lives.


This chapter provides you with strategies and ideas to set up your health education classroom (and curriculum) in a way that more closely mirrors the second scenario. We believe that students who participate in meaningful, well-designed learning experiences that focus on skill development are more likely to leave their health classrooms prepared to handle the challenges they will experience in everyday life.