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

Choosing Life Skills - January 1998


In order to make a successful return to family, community, and workplace, individuals who leave correctional facilities need an array of life skills. Most important, of course, are the basic skills-reading, writing and arithmetic-which are usually offered in adult education programs in correctional facilities. However, being literate alone does not ensure a successful transition to independent living and a job.

To get a job, a person must know how to write an application letter and resume, and how to prepare for and participate in a job interview. He or she must have job skills to offer. To keep a job, the person needs a number of social skills: he or she must know how to get along with peers, deal with supervisors and other authority figures, and provide timely, responsible, and consistent work performance. Additionally, providing for a family requires knowledge about budgeting, leases, credit, insurance, taxes, and other daily living areas, all of which used to be called survival skills. Personal relationships, parenting, health, and nutrition are a few examples of other types of skills required for the person to be an effective spouse and parent.

All these skills need to be taught in correctional education programs, which for the most part have traditionally focused solely on basic academic skills, GED programming, and vocational training. Recognizing this, and authorized by the National Literacy Act as amended (P.L. 102-103), the U.S. Department of Education conducted a competition for a discretionary grant program designed to reduce recidivism through the development and improvement of life skills necessary for the integration of adult, state and local prisoners into the community. Nineteen separate grants were awarded nationwide in the fall of 1993.

Each of the 19 grantees began by identifying existing life skills curricula and materials to be used in their programs. This was a time-consuming and often frustrating process. Few of the grantees used a formal evaluation process in selecting specific materials. Many made up their own curricula by culling bits and pieces from various sources. As far as can be ascertained, formal needs assessments were not conducted prior to selecting program components.

During the operation of the grant projects, it became clear that no systematic information was available to correctional specialists and administrators in search of a life skills program. It also became clear that the process of selecting or developing an appropriate life skills curriculum was time-consuming and therefore costly. Even if the time and funds were available for such a project, however, all too often grantees were not satisfied with their original selections and had to change course midstream, sometimes several times.

As these factors became evident, the Department of Education decided to provide additional funding to one of the original life skills grantees—the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government Life Skills Reintegration Program (managed by Eastern Kentucky University)—to provide a systematic search of existing commercial life skills products and to prepare a guide for use by adult and juvenile correctional educators.

Definition of "Life Skills"

In order to establish a scope of the search for such products, it was necessary to determine what the term "life skills" means. In the original request for proposal (RFP), the Department of Education defined "life skills" as including "self-development, communication skills, job and financial skills development, education, interpersonal and family relationships development, and stress and anger management." This broad definition made it possible for grantees to create a wide variety of programs, including one or more of the following: basic academic skills, pre-employment training, computer literacy, and social skills.

For the purposes of this guide, the concept of "life skills" is defined in terms of outcomes, i.e., it is the general purpose of life skills programming to help persons live more successfully and function better in their multiple roles as members of a family, community, and workforce.

Obviously, all education programs and treatment programs contribute toward meeting such outcomes; nevertheless, we see life skills as complementing academic, vocational, and treatment programs rather than being composed of these.

In this guide, the definition of "life skills" has been narrowed in a number of ways. First, we have narrowed the subjects for consideration. In this guide, life skills programs are considered by definition to consist of multiple components drawn primarily from the following four areas:

Using this definition, a life skills program is comprehensive in nature rather than focused on any one specific area such as parenting. This is what sets it apart from such related areas as consumer education, health education, pre-employment training, and cognitive reasoning programs. All of these are areas from which life skills programming may extract materials, and which are specialized rather than comprehensive.

Our definition of life skills as a program subject also includes the intended instructor. As used in this guide, the life skills program is an educational program, to be taught in an educational setting by a teacher. It is cognitive in nature. It is not intended for use by therapists, counselors, unit or cottage personnel, or clinicians. Therefore, we have excluded from this guide programs which, although sometimes labeled "life skills," are in fact treatment or counseling programs. Although we have included drug education components, we have excluded commercial packages which focus exclusively on substance abuse, treatment, and rehabilitation. For the purposes of this guide, then, life skills is an educational program, with multiple components drawn from the four areas listed above: social skills, employment readiness, personal growth and management, and practical living skills.

Organization of This Guide

The publication is organized into three parts. The first part provides guidelines in terms of the process of searching for, evaluating, and making a final selection of products for a life skills program in a correctional setting. The second part provides detailed descriptions of a number of commercial products. The third part consists of a quick reference chart of the products described in the guide.

NOTE: Section 3, Quick Reference Chart to Life Skills Products, is not available in the online (HTML) version of this document.

Principles of inclusion. It should be noted that there is no claim to have identified and included all available life skills materials that could possibly be used in correctional settings. We contacted a large number of publishers and vendors and requested copies of their products that might meet the definitions we had established. Some vendors provided us with products; some did not. For a product to be included in this guide, it must first have met the project definition and must have been examined by project staff. We did not accept vendor catalogues as a substitute for the product itself. Some of the submitted products did not meet the project definition or were found age-inappropriate and hence were not included in the guide.

Therefore, we propose that this publication be used as a starting point, rather than as a definitive account of all appropriate course materials. We also caution readers that some of these products may well have been revised or may have become somewhat dated since their review. New life skills projects have almost certainly been launched as well.

The products included in this report have been reviewed and described, but not evaluated. In other words, there is no quality assurance attached to the descriptions of items in this publication. Where evaluation was indicated, it is noted in the product descriptions.

Using the guide. This publication is intended to assist correctional professionals charged with the development and implementation of life skills programming for their clients. It does so in two ways:

Life skills has in recent years emerged as a much needed but often ignored area of correctional education. Adult inmates and youthful offenders often lack the social, survival, personal management, and employment skills necessary to function in the family, community, and workplace. Without such skills, their academic and vocational training alone will not suffice.

Teaching life skills in a correctional setting offers a number of opportunities to bring the community closer by utilizing local volunteers as an integral part of the curriculum. Volunteers not only bring specific skills to the program through a bank employee presenting a special unit on credit or savings accounts, for example, but they may also help motivate both staff and students:

We hope that this publication will lead to further life skills programming in corrections, to better life skills programs, and to increased post-release success for participants in life skills programs.

[Acknowledgments] [Table of Contents] [Section 1 - How to Select a Life Skills Program]