Lessons for a Lifetime of Living Well
How an integrated approach to living skills is setting students up for long-term health & success
What does a game of floor hockey, a lacrosse drill or a yoga lesson have to do with personal development? If you’re a student in an Ontario health and physical education (H&PE) class, the answer is: a lot!
Thanks to the Ministry of Education’s revised Health and Physical Education Curriculum (2010), educators in Ontario school gyms can use nearly every opportunity that comes along—whether it’s an argument over which team went out of bounds, a kid who feels discouraged after missing a shot or a student’s question about managing stress—to talk about conflict resolution, goal-setting and a variety of other skills that can help students to build resilience and interpersonal skills as they move toward adulthood.
What’s new about the approach to teaching living skills?
The learning expectations in the revised Health and Physical Education Curriculum are organized into three distinct but related strands–Active Living, Movement Competence and Healthy Living. A further set of expectations is then linked to all three strands. These are the “living skills” or, in other words, the personal, interpersonal and critical and creative thinking skills that can help students to develop resilience and a secure sense of self as they learn to set goals and solve problems.
- Personal Skills - Skills that help students to understand themselves better and equip them to deal with life’s challenges (e.g., self-awareness, managing stress).
- Interpersonal Skills - The relationship and social skills, as well as the verbal and non-verbal communication skills, that students need to interact positively with others, collaborate effectively in groups and build healthy relationships (e.g., conflict resolution, teamwork).
- Critical and Creative Thinking - The ability to think critically and creatively to make healthier choices in all aspects of life (e.g., planning, reflecting and evaluating).
Learning to work together and to make healthy choices has been part of H&PE for some time... but, in most gyms, these types of lessons have previously taken a backseat to sport and physical fitness. “There was focus on words like ‘fair play’ and terms like ‘sport etiquette,’” says Cindy Merritt, a specialist health and physical education teacher at Lawfield Elementary in Hamilton, Ontario, referring to the 1998 curriculum. “But there wasn’t a big focus on a character development level. It also wasn’t evaluated.” In the current curriculum, not only are these skills evaluated, but, because they are cornerstones of a quality health and physical education program(the skills needed to get, understand and use information to make good decisions for health), they are seen as integral to a student’s success and must be taught in the context of the three strands—never in isolation.
Students explore living skills in a variety of contexts.
This integrated approach is key to student learning. Exploring the skills in a variety of contexts helps them to connect to what they’re learning on a personal level and helps them to see how it can be applied to everyday life. That quick talk about communicating with your teammate before making a pass? The brainstorming session about ways to play safely? The tip the teacher gave about the importance of encouraging your peers? These lessons can—and should—be taken out of the gym and applied in the classroom, on the school yard, at home and out in the community.
As students grow, so will their understanding of the living skills.
The integrated approach also gives students multiple opportunities to advance their knowledge by ensuring that the living skills are taught continually through all strands and across all grades. And while the living skills expectations are the same for all grades, the lessons themselves—as well as the ways students relate to the material—evolve naturally as students mature. This progression of learning is shown through the teacher prompts and sample student responses in the curriculum. For example, when talking about personal skills related to healthy living, the curriculum suggests asking grade 1 students what their body does to tell them it’s hungry or thirsty. Grade 8 students, meanwhile, will likely be prepared to take their thinking several steps forward to consider why paying attention to nutrients is more important than counting calories.
The new approach is responsive to student needs.
Aside from teacher prompts, to further highlight the connection between the living skills and the expectations in each strand, abbreviations for one or more of the three categories of living skills are given in square brackets after the specific expectations. For example, when [PS] appears after an expectation, it suggests that while working toward achieving that expectation, students can also develop relevant personal skills. However, there’s no rule saying a teacher can’t also address the living skills where and when they see fit. In fact, educators are encouraged to do so! After all, teachable moments that arise organically out of student questions or concerns are often the most powerful. “Hearing the messages from the teacher is always important, but there’s a lot to be said for peer involvement and messages coming from your peers,” says Pascale Vandenhaak, an H&PE specialist teacher at École Nouvel Horizon in Welland, Ontario. “In fact, a lot of my best lessons come from my students.”
Students are able to help define success on their own terms.
Similarly, the best success criteria often come from the students themselves. In Merritt’s gym, students begin the process of defining success by focusing on a living skills topic, which she selects weekly. “If we’re learning about interpersonal skills,” she explains, “I might have the students directly focus on what they do when they’re faced with a challenge. Do they give up right away? What does it look like and feel like to be challenged?” Merritt uses the resulting dialogue as a way to generate success criteria, but students’ involvement doesn’t stop once a list has been made. “It’s an ongoing process,” she explains. “I might overhear a student saying to a peer, ‘Good job stepping with the opposite foot.’ Well, that’s great! They were detailed in how they communicated. It made their peer feel good. It was relevant to the skill we were learning. We might then add those things to our communication skills success criteria.” This co-creation of success criteria is an approach Vandenhaak has also seen paying off. She reports levels of student engagement, not to mention enjoyment, increasing. “It involves the students a lot more directly and a lot more intently in their learning,” she says. “You’re not talking to them. You’re talking with them. You’re not telling them to do something. You’re discussing the importance and listening to them present arguments.”
Implementing the integrated approach is easier than you might think.
Although the new approach has many benefits, as with anything new, challenges are to be expected. In most cases, the biggest hurdle teachers will face in this area is simply finding the time. “If I have a thirty-minute class, I want students moving for twenty to twenty-five of those minutes,” says Vandenhaak. “A lot of teachers think they don’t have time to spare for exchanges and discussion.” With a little practice, however, she suggests that educators can find ways to include meaningful dialogues without sacrificing too much in the way of active participation. “It doesn’t have to be a fifteen-minute block of time set aside to work on a living skill,” she says. “Every five minutes you could be making a comment or asking a question to help a child reflect.” Another challenge is simply remembering to make the living skills a priority! “It’s so easy to just focus on the movement skills,” says Vandenhaak. “Like dribbling and passing. It’s the meat and potatoes we grew up on as students.” To keep the living skills top-of-mind, Merritt relies on her topic-of-the-week approach, while Vandenhaak leaves herself visual reminders in her office or on her clipboard. “I use charts or graphs, or some keywords that will trigger me to remember to ask certain types of questions so I’m including all of those living skills.”
Still not sure where to start? Ophea can help!
Luckily, for teachers who find the new approach a little daunting—or who just want to make sure they’ve got all their bases covered—quality support is available! “The Ophea H&PE Curriculum Resources outline the elements of the living skills and highlight where and when they can be integrated in a way that’s connected to students’ real life,” says Heather Gardner, Ophea’s curriculum consultant. “Ophea is always abreast of what’s going on and really tries to help teachers deliver a better program,” comments Vandenhaak. And while she believes that teachers will eventually find the ways to incorporate living skills that work best for them, she strongly advises any educator who’s unsure where to start to give the Ophea H&PE Curriculum Resources a try. “Follow a lesson from A to Z,” she says, “and you won’t miss anything. They include many, many examples of the types of questions you can ask your students. They also give a lot of great evaluation tools and checklists to use.”
Preparing students for whatever lies ahead, one lesson at a time...
Lesson by lesson, and year by year, the new approach to teaching living skills will not only see Ontario’s H&PE educators engaging in important dialogues with their students... it will also see those students taking on increasing levels of responsibility when it comes to their own health and well-being. “Kids are continually becoming more in tune with what their role is in increasing their overall health and wellness,” says Merritt. “They’re getting to know themselves and how they act and react in different situations. They’re also building coping skills for responding to different challenges.” In this way, long after who won the game of floor hockey or whether or not a student finally got a shot into the net has been forgotten, students’ ability to make appropriate decisions, to form healthy relationships and to manage stress should be carried forward into adulthood, helping them to survive and thrive, no matter what the years may bring.