Author Archives: Sarah Benes

Thoughts from ASHA

I got in from ASHA about an hour ago! Wish I could have stayed for the final day . . . what a great conference filled with so many people committed to supporting the health and wellness of students. Conferences are such an amazing opportunity to learn from each other, network and to get reinvigorated about the work we are doing.

Holly and I had the opportunity to facilitate a pre-conference workshop, “All About Those Skills”, on Thursday and to do a brief presentation about skill development today! We know our post is two days late (sorry) but we thought it would be great to share some of the ideas (and hopefully excitement) about SKILLS.

During the two days that we were at the conference, Holly and I kept commenting on how excited and (we admit) pleasantly surprised about the buzz around skills-based health education. There are SO MANY people who are getting onboard and who are enthusiastic and committed to enhancing their current skills-based practice or to make the shift. At our pre-conference workshop we had health educators, but we also had people from community based health programs, from Departments of Education and some school nurses and school staff – it was an amazing group that represented many of the stakeholders involved in educating and support our youth.

There were many awesome ideas discussed and shared, but here are some highlights:

  • At the end of the day, health education aims to help students ACT in order to support or enhance their health. Think of the verbs: avoid, engage, increase, decrease, enhance, maintain, access . . . these are just some of actions we want our students to be able to take. No matter how you look at it, health education is about ACTION – what students can DO!
  • Determining functional information can be difficult but we found that even when looking at different topic areas (avoiding alcohol and e-cigarettes, decreasing stress and increasing physical activity) there were themes that emerged in all of these areas: consequences, effects (short- and long-term, positive and negative), relevance, barriers and resources. Maybe we are on to something . . .
  • There are many data sources that we can use to help inform our decisions about our curriculum. The pictures included here show the groups hard at work and their brainstorm about data sources.
  • Participatory methods requires balancing student engagement with off-task behavior as well as finding methods to support active participation (i.e. how to avoid the crickets we often hear when we try large group discussions). This is not easy! Fostering a positive learning environment is critical for success in a skills-based approach. We included a picture below of some of the ideas the group came up with to support a positive learning environment and participatory teaching/learning.
  • We hope that the “powers that be” will get on board and move toward proficiency based assessment and evaluation for students (yes – as we have been doing in health education). We discussed the challenges of assessment especially in systems that haven’t embraced standards- or proficiency-based assessments.
  • People are ready to take action and make positive changes – whether it was bringing information back to help shape new frameworks or enhancing practice in their classrooms – Holly and I were inspired by the many ways people are planning to affect change.

Attending ASHA reminded me that there are so many of us out there “fighting the fight” and there is no end to what we can accomplish – especially when we support and encourage each other.

THANK YOU for all that you do! And thank you to ASHA for a great conference – looking forward to next year.

Along with the pictures, we are including PDF versions of our PPT presentations. We hope you find these resources useful.

~Sarah and Holly




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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Welcome to!


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


Activities for building self-esteem

Well – its been a while since my last post. We have been snowed in here in Boston but we are finally starting to thaw and I have a bunch of ideas to share! I am going to start with two activities I implemented this week that resonated with students (my students blog reflections about class and everyone talked about the impact of these activities).

The focus of the class was self-esteem and “self” as an influence (we were discussing analyzing influences and the impact of self-esteem/self-confidence as an “influence” on health behaviors). At the beginning of the class, I had students complete two activities:

1) Students had to write 10 positive words about themselves on Post-It notes (one word per Post-It note) but the words could NOT relate to their bodies or their appearance. I informed students that this activity was for them – they would not show it to anyone but I did encourage them to post the words in their rooms (or somewhere else) as a reminder.

2) Students then had to complete either sentence: “I am BEAUTIFUL because I . . . ” or “I am AMAZING because I . . .” Again, the sentence could not be about their bodies or their appearance, After they completed this (I let them decorate the pages), they had their picture taken with the statements. I print out the pictures and write a short note on the back to each student. I also made a video montage of the pictures with theme music of MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This” and Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way”.

Students haven’t gotten the pictures yet or seen the video but the feedback from the activities in class was overwhelmingly positive. Students felt that these activities were valuable for a few reasons:

  • They didn’t realize it would be so hard to write positive statements about themselves. Many commented that they could get to 5 or 6 words and then struggled. They offered some thoughts about why they thought this was the case.
  • They felt GOOD after completing the activities.
  • They appreciated the time to think about themselves and focus on the positives.
  • They felt uncomfortable sharing something positive about themselves at first but felt better since everyone was participating.
  • They realized that we do not often set aside time to help students develop self-esteem or self-confidence.
  • They realizes the impact 15 minutes could have on their feelings about themselves.

In addition to this feedback, our in class discussions included ideas for empowering students, ideas to help students to become more comfortable saying positive things about themselves, how to give and receive compliments and ways that teachers can support self-esteem and self-confidence in the classroom. There were many great ideas generated from this activity!

One of the “take-home” messages was that we need to help students gain confidence in themselves to “be an influence” their own lives and help them take control of aspects of their health (and beyond). These were engaging opening activities that lead to thoughtful discussions about self-esteem.

“Why fit in when you were born to stand out?” ~Dr. Seuss

February is Teen Dating Violence Prevention Month

I often find that I discover a campaign (like teen dating violence prevention month) the day or week before it is occurring and I don’t have time to plan ways to incorporate current events such as this into my teaching. I received this update via the newsletter and thought I would post since this is happening next month (not next week or tomorrow)!

When you sign for the newsletter you receive periodic updates about a variety of topics.  Sometimes it bugs me to have a million emails coming into my inbox but I do appreciate when someone else can do some work for me which is what does! They provide information, include links to other sites/information and links to lesson plans on their site – all in one email. It only takes a minute to review to see if there is anything included that is useful to me. Here is a link to sign up for the newsletter. The latest newsletter included a variety of resources related to teen dating violence (hyperlink to

Connecting your units with these types of advocacy campaigns (awareness months) can help connect students with resources, provide examples of advocacy campaigns as models for students and keeps the curriculum relevant.

You could have your students create their own advocacy projects for the school or the community to heighten awareness beyond the classroom. You could have students create brochures with information and resources for other teens (accessing information/resources and advocacy). You could have students critique the campaigns and make suggestions that could make the campaign more relevant for students. You could create a bulletin board (or have your students do it) with information and resources. Or it could be more “simple” and you could plan to cover dating violence in February (perhaps in an interpersonal communication, advocacy or decision-making unit). is also a good resource both because it is a reliable resource that has information geared toward kids, teens and adults but they also have lesson plans available! It is worth checking out if you haven’t already.

Seeing isn’t always believing

A post today from Education Week, Teens Overestimate Peers’ Involvement in Risky Behaviors, Study Finds, discusses findings that suggest that teens have misconceptions about peers engagement in a variety of health behaviors.

It supports the need for health educators to provide opportunities for students to share their perceptions and understandings of behaviors and to then address any misconceptions. It can be much more powerful for students when you can refute what they think (or knowing teenagers – what they know to be true)  rather than just presenting statistics – it can be very eye-opening and may “stick” better with students.

This would be a great article to use in an analyzing influences unit or a decision-making unit – students could discuss the implications of having these types of misconceptions – how might it affect decisions? How do peers influence our decisions? How does what we think our peers are doing influence our behaviors? What can we do about this? How do labels affect our perceptions? How do labels affect our actions?

This article could also support the need for school/community level data collection – citing national or state data is helpful but if you can have “their” data, it will make it much more meaningful.

Smoking Pot: Bad for the brain or bad research?

Here are two articles both on a recent study published in the Journal of Neuroscience:

Harvard Scientists Studied the Brains of Pot Smokers, and the Results Don’t Look Good

Study of Pot Smokers’ Brains Shows That MRIs Cause Bad Science Reporting

These would be excellent articles to use to help students develop the skill of accessing valid and reliable information. There is a lot here to analyze and it is a topic that is both relevant and timely in light of changes in marijuana use laws across the country.