Research has established that school-going children with a positive attitude are more likely to achieve better results in school and in life. They’re also more likely to be goal-oriented and committed to their favourite activities than those peers who have negative attitudes.
Nurturing that positive outlook, especially in children living in economically and socially deprived conditions, is an important responsibility for the adults in their lives, particularly their parents. Parental involvement is key in educating children and reduces their risk of engaging in deviant social behaviour.
The other important adults in children’s lives are their teachers, with whom they spend a great deal of time. It is no accident, then, that the teaching of life skills was envisaged in Kenya’s current school curriculum. Unfortunately, this has not been fully undertaken, partly because teachers are overloaded.
Kenya’s ongoing review of its entire school curriculum provides a momentous opportunity to rethink how life skills are taught. It’s also an open invitation for stakeholders to assess the challenges that will face the actual implementation. Now is the time to consider the options.
What options can be explored?
So what are life skills? They include, but aren’t limited to, self-awareness and self-worth; and communication and decision-making. It’s been repeatedly proven that equipping people with the right life skills reduces gender inequalities. It also improves the quality of parenting and child-rearing in a society. It can eliminate antisocial behaviour and criminal tendencies.
A life-skills course taught as a school subject is one option. But merely tasking teachers with this role offers no guarantee of success – unless the academic and resource pressures in public schools are addressed. Head teachers from schools within the capital, Nairobi, have told me and other researchers that they struggle with perennial staff shortages and their teachers’ heavy workloads.
Added to that is the impact of the “mean score syndrome”. The cut-throat competition for high grades on standardised examinations is prioritised over everything else. This directly affects whether schools would be motivated to deliver life-skills training, as this has no impact on these rankings. Having teachers specialised in life-skills teaching would lessen the burden because each school would have dedicated resources.
The other option is to teach life skills outside the school environment using various techniques. Parents would be relied upon to impart life skills. According to a recent study conducted by Kenya’s African Population and Health Research Center, life-skills courses can be offered successfully outside of the school environment by mentors who understand the context of where children live.
Tried and tested
There are some valuable lessons from the three-year programme designed to improve learning outcomes among early adolescent girls in two of Nairobi’s informal settlements. The African Population and Health Research Center’s life-skills mentorship programme was delivered through a network of community-based mentors. It incorporated practical and theoretical training, using manuals and guides to teach life skills.
This intervention demonstrated that mentoring and parental involvement may help boost confidence. It can also reduce aggressive behaviour and, in some cases, lead to improved results at school. This was measured quantitatively and qualitatively as “aspirations”. This is to say that girls who had previously believed that their chances to go on to secondary school were limited to the point of improbable were now allowing themselves to dream about possibilities.
Girls’ parents in the two communities, Korogocho and Viwandani, were given counselling about the need to support their daughters’ education. This provided them with the tools and language necessary to support their children’s schooling. It helped them to find the right balance between chores and homework for daughters looking to transition to secondary school.
Having the confidence to believe in themselves – bolstered by adult mentors as well as by newly empowered parents – gave the girls cover to keep away from the risky behaviours that lead many in Kenya’s informal settlements away from school and into petty crime, early sexual exploration and other self-limiting activities.
The way forward
Life skills are a necessary and vital complement to basic schooling. Giving girls a sense of self-worth is as important as teaching them to read, write and do math. More investment should be made in delivering life skills so that girls – and boys – are empowered to reject negative peer influence. This would help to internalise values that will keep them on track to achieve their goals, both in school and beyond.
Kenya’s ongoing curriculum reform will be incomplete if the teaching of life skills in schools is not incorporated. The revamped curriculum should provide opportunities for counsellors, mentors or teachers to specialise in life skills and administer the curriculum. It should also open mentoring opportunities in schools, requiring the same standards and certifications as those of teachers in academic subjects.
These teachers should be prepared to serve as community liaisons. They would create and maintain contacts with parents so that every child could have the opportunity to cultivate aspirations and to dream big.