In school, students learn how to read and write. They learn about science, mathematics, sports, and history. They even learn about human sexuality and reproduction. Seems strange that they don’t learn basic life skills, doesn’t it? Why are we not teaching kids critical skills such as effective communication, personal decision making, realistic goal setting, conflict resolution, and social responsibility in every school?

Principals and assistant principals want to make sure that their students are receiving every opportunity to succeed in life—that they have the skills to realize their potential and make their dreams a reality, and that students are able to effectively resolve conflicts and solve problems. By implementing comprehensive life skills instruction in their schools, some principals are doing just that.

Overcoming Obstacles is an organization that has been fighting to implement life skills education far and wide since 1992. The big three foundational pillars of life skills education are communication, decision making, and goal setting. Others include academic supplements such as developing teamwork, time management, and study skills. Through Overcoming Obstacles, educators are able to teach these skills to students in a way that is effective, flexible, and engaging. Students work together to solve problems, identify how to break down complex goals into a series of smaller ones, strengthen their citizenship through service learning projects, and more. Another bonus that often results is the emergence of a positive school environment that’s nurturing, supportive, and safe.

Overcoming Bullying

Jill Siegal Chalsty, founder of Overcoming Obstacles, was bullied throughout middle and high school. As an adult, she ran into her grade-school bully and was surprised to find her former tormentor teaching life skills to at-risk youth and helping them develop the behavioral and societal skills necessary to succeed. At that moment, it became clear that with a life skills education, bullying would be reduced. Plus, it was likely that dropout rates would diminish, drug and alcohol abuse would decrease, and grades would improve. While life skills aren’t necessarily “academic,” they give students the tools that pave the way to academic success. Thus, Overcoming Obstacles was born.

Overcoming Obstacles has been used in all 50 states and 100 countries worldwide, with curriculum available in English, Spanish, and French, and selected activity sheets available in Russian, Arabic, and simplified Chinese. The life skills curriculum that Overcoming Obstacles provides—free of charge—focuses on creating active learning experiences for young people through role playing, group and partner activities, reflection assignments, journal prompts, discussions, and the use of technology. The curriculum is flexible and allows for educators to modify and implement it as they see fit for their classrooms.

Better All Around

Recipients of a life skills education learn to be better students, better citizens, better friends, and better family members. There are very few, if any, situations that exist where life skills training and instruction would not prove beneficial. Life skills don’t just affect the way students interact with the world, but also the way they see the world. In order to positively change their personal trajectory, they first need a solid understanding of how to actualize positive change. Goal setting and effective communication are essential.

“Schools that have embedded life skills curriculum into the fabric of what they do see an improvement in school culture and climate. It helps students to be goal-focused, build relationships, create a plan, and realize how school fits into that larger plan that they have for themselves,” says Lois Herrera, CEO of Safety and Youth Development for the New York City Department of Education.

While people of all ages can benefit from life skills training and instruction, it’s important to teach these skills as early as possible. Learning life skills helps our children create better futures for themselves and for the world at large: Young people involved in gangs leave them and become responsible individuals, misdirected youths become positive contributing community members, and students graduate from high school better equipped for college and rewarding careers.

Expressing Themselves

One key life skill is for students to be able to articulate and convey how they feel. It is equally important for them to learn how to be effective listeners and to respect diverse opinions and cultures—to treat every conversation as if the person they are speaking with may have something to teach them. A slight shift in perspective can change someone’s entire life for the better.

Students often work against their own best interests and are their own worst enemies. Goal setting helps avoid this trap by encouraging students to ask themselves what it is they would like to achieve. Then, we help them craft a plan to make their goals a reality. One of the ways this is done in the curricula is through an activity called “On Your Way.” In this activity, a student writes their long-term goal in the top box of the activity sheet and identifies the short-term and medium-range goals they would need to accomplish before achieving their ultimate goal. For example, a student might write “make the basketball team” as their long-term goal. In order to achieve this, they could write the following in descending order: 1) try out for the team, 2) eat a good breakfast the day of tryouts, 3) get a good night’s sleep the night before tryouts, 4) ask members of the team for advice, and 5) practice every day. Students who set goals for themselves are more likely to succeed in the long run, as they are less likely to engage in self-destructive or lazy behavior.

Life-Skills Mastery

While life skills education doesn’t solve every problem, it can be instrumental in addressing many of them. Before attempting to change society at large, students must first bring order and stability into their own lives, which cannot be accomplished without a fundamental mastery of life skills. By fostering a new generation of students who are articulate, compassionate, and responsible citizens, we paint a brighter future for the world at large.

“With the education community’s tight focus on college and career readiness, we sometimes lose sight of the larger purpose of school to prepare students for the future life they will one day lead,” says NASSP Executive Director JoAnn Bartoletti. “Overcoming Obstacles leads the industry in purposeful life skills training that leads to greater success, not just as measured by achievement, graduation, and college attendance, but to greater success in whatever path the student chooses. We are honored to have partnered with Overcoming Obstacles to promote those skills more assertively in schools.”

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Vinny Capone is managing director of Overcoming Obstacles Life Skills Education in New York City.