It is often said that our job as health educators should be values neutral. We shouldn’t let our personal values and beliefs sway our teaching or be used to get students to see it “our” way.
Is this accurate though? Should we really be values neutral? Should we avoid talking about how values and beliefs influence behavior because we don’t want to run the risk of appearing to impart our personal beliefs and values onto our students? I’m not so sure…
Saying this, I realize, may raise some eyebrows. You may be thinking – “of course it is our job to keep our values out of it. As educators, we cannot persuade our students to our way of thinking.”
I would agree with you.
In fact, I often tell my students that I am not here to tell you whether your beliefs and values are right or wrong. Rather, I will ask you to think critically about how your values form a foundation for the choices you make concerning your health. I will have you reflect on whether or not your values and beliefs align with choosing health enhancing behaviors. I will ask you to determine if your health behaviors align with your values. If your values and beliefs do not align, I may ask you to consider whether you need to rethink your beliefs…but never require you to change them.
I will ask my students to open their minds and be willing to discuss health behaviors in ways that are honest and respectful recognizing that others make health choices for reasons that are very personal to them. I will also ask my students to consider health from multiple perspectives to better understand how values and beliefs do not fit into a box that looks the same in all situations. For example, take the value of safety. Would all of your students think about this in the same way? For some, it may mean physical safety, others it is emotional safety, while others still may think of safety in terms of social settings.
Where I ask you to stretch your thinking is in how we use/teach the concept of values and beliefs in our curriculum. I do believe it is our job as health educators to have our students think critically about the behaviors they engage in, the beliefs and values that guide those behaviors and whether or not those behaviors are a true reflection of how they see themselves (or want to see themselves).
What does this look like in the classroom?
I recently asked my students to complete an assignment to identify their top values. Once the top 5 were identified we discussed how those values shaped their behavior – health and otherwise in various dimensions. They had to identify indicators that demonstrate they are acting in accordance with their values. Finally, students were asked to identify a current health behavior that is out of alignment with their values. This was the hard part for many of them.
Many students initially defaulted to “my behaviors align with my values”, until I had them dig a little further and consider what it means to act in a way that aligns with your personal values. I had them consider the following questions:
- If you were to ask your family or friends, would they know these values are important to you?
- Is there a behavior that you recently engaged in that an outsider might not consider aligned with your values? Would you agree or disagree with their view?
- Think of a health behavior you would like to change or improve, how could your beliefs and values support improving this behavior to enhance your health?
- Are their any health beliefs you need to reconsider in order to live a healthier life?
After asking these questions, many students reflected on the behavior they want to improve and noted that it was this behavior that was most out of alignment with their values. Many gave ideas or strategies they could employ to improve their health in a way that brought them into alignment with what they value most and some even noted that they needed to change their beliefs about what health looks like in that context to become healthier.
So, where do we, the health educators, come in?
Health educators provide the opportunity for this to happen. In order for this to be successful, I knew that I couldn’t jump in day one and ask students to do an activity like this. I needed to create the space and environment for my students to let this happen. I had to allow students to struggle with their personal feelings in order to determine their values. Most of all, I had to put aside my notion of what is important in terms of behavior change. At the end of the day, whether your top value is faith, life, integrity, humor, beauty, etc, a key component of behavior change is a personal desire to make a change…and often a change that aligns with personal beliefs and values.
I encourage you to create that space and be a safe zone for students to explore their values and beliefs. Allow students to consider how those values and beliefs align with their health behaviors and becoming the person they want to be. Encourage your students to share their values and beliefs with trusted adults in their life, help them to embrace what makes them who they are.
While I will still argue that it isn’t appropriate to impart our values on our students, we do have a role to play in supporting our students becoming the best version of themselves – and part of that includes understanding what we value and why.
Do you talk about values or have students consider how values influence their health choices? Let us know and be part of the conversation below.