• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Thursday 12th March, 2015

How Life Skills Training builds on a lifetime of research

strong>Life Skills Training (LST) is a substance misuse prevention program used by schools in all 50 US States and 35 different countries. What explains its popularity? Thirty years of careful attention to evidence and rigorous evaluation, say its originators.Reflecting on LST’s long-term development and achievements, public health professors Gilbert Botvin and Kenneth Griffin of Cornell University, highlight its grounding in research identifying the most important, alterable factors concerning the use and abuse of tobacco, alcohol and other psychoactive substances.But this, they insist, was not sufficient basis for designing an effective prevention program. It was also crucial to provide a theoretical explanation as to how key factors interacted in young people’s lives to produce negative consequences and how preventive intervention can be expected to succeed. From theory to practiceSocial learning theory was deemed especially helpful, focusing on ways children and young people learn from their environment through observation, imitation, modeling. So too was problem behavior theory, emphasizing the influence of peers and high status role models interacting with the individual’s knowledge, attitudes, skills and personal characteristics.LST, the resulting program, borrowed heavily from research into the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioral therapy for youth with behavior problems, but applied the learning in a universal, preventive context delivered through schools. There were three main components:• Personal competence concerned with self-management skills. This helps students with problem-solving, decision-making skills, critical thinking, and how to regulate their emotions. • Social competence teaching students how to communicate clearly, make friends and develop healthy relationships.• Drug resistance training youth in strategies for resisting peer pressure. Students are, in addition, equipped with information about drug prevalence, the consequences of using psychoactive substances, resisting advertising and other media pressures and ways they can help their peers to resist using tobacco, alcohol and other drugs.LST has evolved into a three-year, ‘manualized’ intervention for use in middle/ junior high schools. It is provided through 15 class periods in the first year and ten sessions in the second year, followed by five periods in the third year. Teachers, peers leaders, health educators or prevention specialists can deliver it successfully, provided they have been trained in its use. Results from 32 studies using randomized controlled trials investigating the effectiveness of LST have been published in peer-reviewed journals. Ranging from small-scale efficacy trials to large-scale evaluations involving thousands of students, these show that LST can halve the rate of psychoactive substance use among participating students when compared with non-participating peers. Long-term follow-up research has shown the impact of LST lasting through the high school years and – in the case of one study – as much as 12 years after 12 and 13-year olds participated in a seventh-grade program. Evaluation has also found LST to be effective with inner-city Hispanic and African-American students as well as white middle-class youth.Outcomes have proved positive whether LST is delivered in weekly or more frequent classroom sessions and with other course leaders as well as teachers. The program has also yielded encouraging results when used with younger and older age groups that usual and in schools serving suburban, urban, and rural neighborhoods. Cross-cutting preventionLST’s originators have discovered – like other experienced prevention scientists – that it delivers cross-cutting benefits beyond the behaviors it specifically targets. These include reductions in violence and delinquency, risky driving, and risky sexual behavior. By helping students to improve their social and emotional skills, while reducing their involvement in problem substance use, it increases the likelihood that students will attend school regularly and increase their attainment. The skills it teaches are also relevant to coping with stress and anxiety and avoiding emotional as well as behavioral difficulties. Not surprisingly, given the strength of its evidence-base, LST’s cost effectiveness has been given a positive rating. According to an estimate by the respected Washington State Institute for Public Policy, the long-term, real-terms return on every dollar invested in the program is $38.In a nutshell, 30 years of research have yielded evidence of LST’s effectiveness under different conditions, with different providers and with different populations and age groups. It reduces young people’s use of psychoactive substances and other unhealthy behavior with attested long-term benefits.However, summarizing a long-term success story risks underplaying the sheer energy and determination as well as academic rigor that has gone into devising and refining an effective intervention over the best part of a working lifetime. Notwithstanding the widespread international use of LST, it also raises the question of why it is not adopted more extensively. As Botvin and Griffin suggest, there is a continuing need for more ‘translational’ research to convince policy makers outside the United States that it is capable of delivering equally positive results in their differing social, cultural and administrative contexts. ************Reference: Botvin, G. J., & Griffin, K. W. (2014). Life skills training: Preventing substance misuse by enhancing individual and social competence. New Directions for Youth Development, 141, 57-65.

Back to Archives