Monthly Archives: September 2016

Functional Information – What do students REALLY need to know?

In a skills-based health ed program a lot of emphasis is placed on making sure that students are able to apply the skills of the National Health Education Standards (and rightly so!) but in order to do that, we also have to think about the context in which our students develop and apply the skill.

Functional information is defined as:

Information that is useable, applicable, and relevant. It is not arbitrary, traditional, or extensive. Functional information is the context in which the skills will be taught and the base for students’ developing functional knowledge. (Benes & Alperin, 2016)

In fact, making sure that students have the most appropriate information is so important that CDC included it in the Characteristics of Effective Health Education. Specifically, CDC states that health education curriculum should include “functional knowledge that is basic, accurate, and directly contributes to health-promoting decisions and behaviors”. Given this the above definition, it seems simple enough to determine functional information – right? I mean, if we teach students what they need to know and how to use that information while applying any of the skills, then it should be a fairly straight forward task of determining what is functional (or essential to know) and what is “nice to know”.

Unfortunately, things get muddled once we start thinking about what students really NEED to know in order to apply a skill in real-world situations. The reality is that the idea of “need to know” is subjective. For example, if you are a person who has been impacted by a sexually transmitted infection, has a severe food allergy, or has a loved one with diabetes you may believe that students need to know how to prevent contracting an infection, how to ensure you (or your loved one) doesn’t go into anaphylaxis, or how to eat healthy and exercise to ward off diabetes. You may be right – and the big question to ask is – What is the specific information to be taught and how will that information help my students to achieve skill proficiency?

Do students need to know all of the signs and symptoms of potential infections? How about the body’s response to anaphylaxis? What about target heart rate and portion sizes? Suddenly, the task becomes more challenging than originally thought…and these are just a few examples.

To bring this conversation into the real world, I have been talking with my undergrad students (who are mostly nutrition majors and health/PE majors) about this concept and how we need to include information as a frame and a context for learning, and at the same time be sure that it is the skill that we are keeping as our primary focus. They struggle. My students have had to work really hard to understand not only what each skill is and what is required of it in order to demonstrate proficiency, but also how to fit in enough (but not too much) information to ensure their students walk away with a good foundation.

Unfortunately, their struggle is a common struggle among educators – we all know far more than we can (or should) pass onto our students. So, what can you do about it? One thing I tell my students pre-service teachers is that there isn’t a perfect combination of information, rather it is the information that is relevant and most likely to help them their students effectively apply the skill that is most relevant that should be included. The information should be data driven and fill any gaps in knowledge that students may have. For example, when teaching students about goal-setting and specifically setting a goal to reduce their sugar intake, knowing about the sugar content in beverages or how sugars can be hidden on food labels may be important to know. Whereas if they are charged with analyzing the internal and external influences on their sugar intake they might not need to how to read a food label but will rather need to consider how their home environment impacts their food choices, how media ads play a role in our behavior, or alternatives when we are in a situation where we are feeling pressured.

I am happy to report, they are getting it. It will take some practice and we have set up a “quick check” for them to consider if the information they want to include is functional – they ask themselves:

  • Is it necessary for my students to learn?
  • Will the student be able to use this information to demonstrate skill application?
  • If I had to teach this topic in a shorter amount of time, would this information make the cut?

How about you? What strategies have you used to determine what functional information you include in your curriculum? Also, in a changing world, how often do you review the information you are teaching to ensure it remains current?

We would love to hear from you – feel free to post below!


The Power of a Positive Learning Environment

Creating a safe, positive and inclusive learning environment is one of the most critical aspects for supporting learning and to build a classroom community. This is particularly important in a skills-based health education classroom where participatory methods (the use of modeling, observation and social interactions) are the primary instructional strategy. There are many ways to achieve a positive learning environment. Throughout this post we provide suggestions for activities that can be implemented in the classroom and we encourage you to start integrating participatory methods from the very beginning of the year or term so that expectations are set from the moment students enter the classroom.

This is more than the beginning of the year name games and “get to know ya” activities. Creating a positive learning environment is an ongoing process that requires investment from you and your students. You need to continue to work on creating and supporting the classroom community throughout your time with students. Here are some ideas to get you started!

Do you have activities that you use in your classroom? If so, please share in the comments and we will include in future posts!


Getting to Know You/Team Building Activities:

Getting to Know You Survey: I always send out a survey at the beginning of a class. I ask a number of questions but I make sure to always include a space for their preferred name (as it may be different than what is on an official class list) and their preferred pronouns (to provide an opportunity for students to share their gender identity in a way that does not single them out in front of class). I also include questions such as what they are nervous about for the school year, what they are looking forward to, something they are proud of that they have done and a song that makes them happy (that is appropriate for class). I end by asking them what they want to tell me that will help them be successful in my class; I often share some of the ideas to help establish commonalities among the group. I also use the “happy songs” during the year at transitions, during group work, etc. It always lightens the mood in the room and I know that at least one person is happier having heard it!


Group Juggling: This is an activity that I have used for years – I don’t remember where it came from but it is by far one of the best ways for me to learn names (and have a some fun and provide a safe space for students to be a little uncomfortable).

Here’s how to play:

  • Have students stand in a circle (you should be in the circle too).
  • Toss a beanbag around the circle so that everyone gets the beanbag. Make sure that students remember whom they throw to.
  • When the person catches the beanbag, they say their name. Then the WHOLE group repeats that person’s name.
  • Repeat as necessary before proceeding to the next step. Make sure that students are always throwing to the same person.
  • Continue to toss the beanbag around (to the same people) but this time, when the person catches the beanbag everyone says their name (without waiting).
  • Repeat as necessary.
  • The final part of this activity is the “juggling.” Add beanbags to the circle. People still throw to the same people that they have been the whole time but in this round, the beanbags will start at the same time. The goal is to have the beanbags make their way all the way around the circle without being dropped, crashing in the air, etc. Names do not need to be included (except as needed to make a successful catch).



Cult of Pedagogy has some great resources for “Ice Breakers that Rock”. Concentric Circles is a great format not only for getting to know you activities, but any time that you want to engage the entire class, at the same time in discussions. I have used it as a review strategy and for general discussions.


If you have the time, I have had success with The Marshmallow Challenge. It is a great way to have students working together right from the start and when they see spaghetti and marshmallows within the first few lessons – they are intrigued about what they will doing. I also inevitably have groups that take pictures of their successful designs (of their own accord because they are proud of their work!).


Setting Expectations:

 Creating classroom expectations or norms (as opposed to rules – students will tell you that rules feel like they are imposed upon you. Norms/expectations are agreed upon as a class) as a group. Allow students to brainstorm and create norms for their classroom. Create a document or visual that has the agreed upon norms. You may want to have students sign or “formally” agree to meet these expectations. It can be helpful to have these displayed so that they can be referred to throughout the year.


Establishing classroom routines is also important in supporting a positive learning environment – students benefit from routine and can also benefit from understanding why certain activities are included. For example, I have begun to include 1-2 minutes of meditation at the start of every class. I explained to students that I am on my own mindfulness journey and I will be integrating activities during the year, including the start of class meditation to provide them opportunities to explore this practice as well. The meditation ends up being one of the activities that students comment on at the end of the term – they love it! They tell me that they enjoy it not only for the time to focus but also because it shows them that I care about them and their wellness beyond just what I teach in the classroom.

We look forward to hearing your ideas and your feedback!

Have a great start to the year.


“I have always been delighted at the prospect of a new day, a fresh try, one more start, with perhaps a bit of magic waiting somewhere behind the morning.” J. B. Priestley


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Thank you for your interest in learning more about skills-based health education! We are excited to re-launch our blog with the start of the school year. Posts will happen every other Wednesday and will include ideas for the classroom, posts to deepen your knowledge of skills-based instruction in health education, current events/articles and questions to you, the reader to help us provide you with the information you are looking for. We want to hear from you. Thank you for being on this journey with us and we look forward to supporting conversations about skills-based health education!


Happy back to school!


~Sarah and Holly