A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Choosing Life Skills - January 1998

Section 1
How to Select a Life Skills Program

This section is intended to assist educators working in juvenile or adult correctional education programs in selecting the most appropriate materials for their current or prospective life skills program. It suggests a step-by-step method for making a responsible and informed choice. It also provides instruments that can be used in the selection process.

A further goal of this section is to provide tools and information that will facilitate the process of identifying life skills materials and programs for review and will involve staff in the product evaluation and final selection. We recommend a selection process based on identification of the clients to be served, their life skills needs, the time they have available for life skills programming, and currently available resources in terms of staff, money, space, and equipment (such as computers, VCRs). It includes identification of commercially available life skills products, a staff review and evaluation phase, followed by a final selection that matches products to identified client needs and available resources.

The selection process outlined in this guide will also help you avoid some common pitfalls. For example, it will prevent you from making a premature selection—by quick choice from a catalog or from a vendor exhibiting at a convention—before having examined a number of alternatives. We also strongly suggest that you and your staff not consider developing your own materials before having carefully reviewed what is available commercially. Making your own materials is often more costly (if you calculate staff time and reproduction), and the products are seldom as professional or attractive as those developed by educational publishing houses. Finally, following the information and guidelines in this publication will make sure that you do not break any copyright laws, however inadvertently. Each item in Section 2 includes information as to which materials are copyrighted, which are in the public domain, and which may be legally reproduced.

The time and effort you invest in the selection process will be well worth while when the end product is considered—a life skills program that is appropriate for your specific population and your students' needs, one that your staff is comfortable with and capable of instructing, and one that is a good buy for your program dollars. This process enables program staff to make wise use of resources; it also provides a base for accountability, since you can show how and why a certain product was chosen over another, what the alternatives were, and how the allocated monies were used.

Step 1: Identifying the Target Population and Its Needs

The process should start with an analysis of the population targeted for your life skills program and an assessment of their specific needs. The purpose is to search for the life skills programs and materials that will constitute the best match for your specific population. The following discussion is based on conducting this identification and assessment on a facility rather than system-wide basis. This process may be formal (based on records, tests, or research) or informal (based on observations and recommendations of teachers, other facility staff, and potential clients). We propose a combination of both.

The first task is to identify the number of potential life skills students and the length of time possible for such a program, ranging perhaps from a few weeks only in a jail or detention center, to 12 months or more in a longer term facility. In general, a life skills program should be delivered to clients who have no more than 12 months before reentering the community.

The second task is to draw a profile of the potential life skills students in terms of gender, age, race, length of stay at the facility, education, and work history. The data you need for these tasks are usually readily available in the facility's data base. Appendix I includes a form that you can use to collect the needed data and to draw conclusions for your search for an appropriate life skills program.

To start identifying the types of components to be included in your life skills program (pre-employment training, social skills, health, finances, parenting), you need additional information. There are several good sources for this information. One is to test a group of representative potential life skills students with a formal life skills measure. A few of the products described in this guide include such instruments. The information can, however, also be gained by asking facility staff who are in a position to have observed their client's needs—teachers, counselors, and work supervisors. This could be done by a simple survey, informal interviews, or in focus groups. Similarly, potential clients could be asked how they perceive their needs.

By combining the information culled from institutional records and from staff and clients, you should be able to define rather precisely what kind of life skills program (or possibly more than one kind, if you have significant subpopulations with varying needs) and materials you need, and to focus your search from the start. We suggest that you document your findings and share them with other staff for discussion and revision as necessary. The following is an example:

Our current population is 450. The typical stay is 18 months, but we have a sizable population of short termers (six months or less). This suggests that we might need both a longer and shorter version of Life Skills, or versions which are intense (daily for six weeks) and less intense (twice a week for fifteen weeks). If we schedule Life Skills for a client's last six months at the facility, we would have a maximum of 150 inmates per year to serve.
All our inmates are male, with a median age of 27, and a median reading level on the Test of Adult Basic Education of 7.2. Only 12 percent have passed the GED or graduated from high school. Forty percent are African-American and 23 percent Hispanic. Half of the Hispanics do not know English and need ESL materials. Most of our inmates were unemployed or had worked as temporary labor in unskilled jobs at the time of arrest. Most are unmarried; 10 percent are fathers.
Staff surveyed felt that social and job-keeping skills are the highest priorities. Inmates surveyed more often mentioned a need for skills in job-finding, how to manage their lives, and how to get along with others. It was clear from a simple test on family finances, budgeting, and consumer skills that our inmates are very ignorant in these areas.
Based on the above, we should be looking for a multi-component life skills program, including at a minimum social, job-finding, job-keeping, and family survival skills. The reading level needs to be fairly low. Materials must appeal to a multi-ethnic audience and preferably include an ESL or Spanish version. Since we have computers and VCRs already, we could handle programs including computer software and/or videos.
At this time, we do not have funding for additional computers. The total money allocated for life skills materials and equipment is $50,000. We should still keep our eyes open for the "best" program, even if it exceeds our current costs, since we could ask for more money next year.

Step 2: Determine Sources for Life Skills Programs and Materials

The next step is to identify for future contact the publishers and vendors of life skills materials and the specific products available commercially. The goal here is to cast the widest net possible and get the best professional advice in locating publishers and programs. There are a number of sources to be used: 

  1. Section 2 of this Guide. It identifies major publishers that have entered the life skills market. Since this type of information becomes outdated quickly, we suggest that you contact individual publishers to receive an update on the listed materials and to identify new products.

  2. Vendors at professional conferences. These include the conferences of the national as well as regional chapters of the Correctional Education Association, the American Correctional Association, the Vocational Education Association, the Adult and Continuing Education Association, the National Education Association, and the American Federation of Teachers. You can review materials at the vendors' booths, sign up for, or get, catalogues and complimentary copies, and request further contacts and information. You can usually ask to be included on the vendor's mailing list to receive new catalogues in the future. 

  3. Internet. Many vendors have established websites with descriptions of their products.

  4. State Education Agency. Some states already have life skills curriculums developed for secondary education, which may, with some adaptation, suit your purposes. State education personnel may also be able to tell you which local education agencies, Job Corps centers, or vocational training schools have life skills programs and curricula and whom to contact.

  5. Media/Curriculum Resource Centers. Use federal, regional, and state media/curriculum resource centers. Your state education agency could help you identify where these are located in your area.

  6. Local colleges and universities. Postsecondary institutions are a good resource, especially if they have an education department. You may be able to obtain both advice from their resource people as well as access to their library/media center services.

  7. ERIC. The ERIC (Educational Research Information Center) system can be accessed through most university libraries. It will identify papers, articles, and reports by subject. It may provide information on life skills programs found effective in specific settings.

  8. Professional journals. Use the professional literature, especially the journals published by the various professional associations listed above. You may find articles pertaining to life skills programming as well as advertisements of new products.

Keep a card or computer file on the various life skills programs, curricula, and materials you have identified, including the titles, names and addresses of publishers, and a brief note about content and medium (computer, video, print), to allow you to determine later whether the value of the product justifies contacting the publisher for further information and a copy for review.

Step 3: Contact Publishers/Vendors for Sample for Review

Based on your records, select the most likely sources and contact these by telephone, letter, FAX, or e-mail. Ask for the name of a contact person for future reference. The following are reasonable requests from vendors: 

  1. Review copies. Most vendors will provide you with a copy of their materials for review. In some cases (usually with relatively inexpensive print materials such as workbooks and readers), the vendor may give you a copy. Often they will forward a copy for review, to be returned later. Ask for at least 30 days, preferably 60 days, so that all members of your review team have a chance to examine the materials.

  2. If the vendor is unwilling to provide a free copy, and if the product seems a strong possibility for your life skills program, buy one copy for your review. It is a good rule never to order anything in bulk that you have not examined in its entirety.

  3. Demonstrations. If you are considering investing in an expensive multi-unit, computer- and/or video based program, ask the vendor for a demonstration. Preferably the vendor will provide an on-site demonstration at your facility or agency for all staff on your review committee and for potential life skills instructors. If the vendor is unable to do so, ask where in your state or region you could see the program in use, either at a working site or at a conference.

Step 4: Develop Your Review Process and Protocols

This step includes the following:

  1. Develop an Advisory Review Committee. We suggest that you carefully select three to five people to serve as a review committee. Do not limit the membership to academic staff but include staff from other relevant disciplines (vocational education, counseling, job placement or transition). You may consider having a potential user involved. Be sure that all members understand that their role is advisory only. The final selection should be left to the person in charge of developing the life skills program.

  2. Screen Materials to Be Reviewed. The person in charge should screen the incoming materials and eliminate those which are obviously not appropriate for your population. The committee should review only products with real potential and within the realm of available resources. The person in charge should make these judgment calls. Ideally, no more than six to 10 products should be referred to the committee as a whole, or the process will be too cumbersome and time-consuming.

  3. Prepare Product Descriptions. For each product to be reviewed by the committee, prepare a "Product Data Form." (This form is included in this guide as Appendix II.) You may have to contact the vendor or publisher for additional information after having received the product. The more information you are able to provide the committee, the better they will be able to evaluate the product and the more informed your final selection. In filling in the product data forms, use the entries in Section 2 of this guide as your model.

  4. Hold Initial Review Committee Meeting. At the initial committee meeting, the following should be accomplished:

    1. Describe the process.

    2. Hand out the "Product Evaluation Form" and go through its use. (See Appendix III.)

    3. Hand out the products to be reviewed and the accompanying "Product Data Forms." Since publishers rarely provide more than one examination copy, you need to circulate the products according to a pre-established order and time schedule.

    4. If there are products to be demonstrated by a vendor and/or require special equipment (computer, TV monitor, or VCR), discuss scheduling such demonstrations and access to equipment.

    5. Set an agreed-upon target date for completing all reviews and handing in all product review forms to the person designated to receive them.

Step 5: Conduct the Reviews and Demonstrations

The next step is simply to have the individual members of your review committee conduct their individual reviews and submit their evaluation forms on schedule. This is also the time to schedule and conduct vendor demonstrations. If you consider a multi-component, computer-based program requiring a considerable investment, be sure that you and/or your staff have opportunity to review the entire program, not just a sample. If the program includes videotapes, be sure to review all of them.

Step 6: Making the Final Decision—Considerations

Making the final decision includes two phases. First, have the review committee meet and discuss their findings and solicit their recommendations. If possible, reach consensus, since that will facilitate the future course of your life skills program. Second, as the person in charge, you need to make the final choice, write a justification, and proceed to the purchasing stage.

In making that final selection, the following questions should be considered:

  1. Is there a good match between our assessed needs and what this product offers?

  2. Is the product appropriate considering the age, ethnic composition, gender, and reading level of our targeted clients?

  3. Is one product meeting all our needs, or do we have to assemble our life skills program from various products? If so, which should be chosen?

  4. If we buy this product, what additional equipment and materials do we need? Can our current budget handle that?

  5. Can we staff a life skills program using this product? What preliminary and ongoing staff training would be needed?

As part of making a final selection, the question may arise: Would it be cheaper and easier to make up our own life skills curriculum and materials? There may be some advantages to doing so, but experience has shown that the disadvantages usually outweigh those.

On the plus side, staff are going to be comfortable and vested in materials they have developed themselves. Furthermore, you may create the closest match possible between your clients' needs and the curriculum and materials this way. Making your own products may be cheaper if you consider writing your own materials and reproducing them on your copier. Producing your own videotapes, on the other hand, can become far more costly than buying tapes, if you do more than videotaping a speaker or something like a mock interview. Developing your own materials is not necessarily cost efficient. You should calculate the cost of staff time; production costs; possible royalty fees; consulting fees; and travel, studio, and equipment costs that may be involved to arrive at the true cost to your program.

On the minus side, however, disadvantages are many. First, you must consider the quality, professionalism, and attractiveness of "home-grown" products. Unillustrated, photocopied materials are seldom inspiring for students. Color, illustrations, videotapes, computer software—these are more likely to hold students' interest. A great deal of time and expertise are needed to develop effective and attractive educational materials, and usually only professional publishers have the resources to do it well. Your question should be: Could we do it as well as or better than a publisher and at less cost? If your answer is "no," don't do it.

A common way of making up your own program is to "borrow" from a number of sources and then continue to reproduce the materials as needed. You can do so legally only if you reproduce from materials in the public domain (such as this guide) or with the written permission of the publisher; however, as you will see in section 2 of this publication, most life skills materials are copyrighted, and not in the public domain. In some cases, a publisher will permit you to copy certain parts of a product with the purchase of an original. Most products available from publishers can be reproduced in their entirety or in part only with the written permission of the publisher. Without that permission you would be breaking the law.

It is our belief, therefore, that you are better off examining all possible commercially available life skills materials—and there are many—before deciding to make up your own. If you cannot afford a multi-component, computer based life skills program, consider one of the lower cost options on the market, many of them listed in the section that follows.


[Introduction] [Table of Contents] [Section 2 - Product Descriptions]