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Best Practices in Health Education Curricula Building

Originated by: Christopher Kelly

Submitted: 10 Mar 2011

Last updated on: 10 Mar 2011

Related Health Topics:


Effective health education curricula can significantly impact an individuals health-related behavior. Utilization of best practices for health education lesson development include teaching functional health information, developing essential health skills necessary to adopt, practice, and maintain health-enhancing behaviors; and shaping group and personal norms that value a healthy lifestyle (Beaverton, 2005). Note that a curriculum that focuses on providing information only for improving content knowledge is not sufficient to change health behaviors.

Best practices for developing health education curricula include (Beaverton, 2005; CDC, 2011):

Focuses on specific behavioral outcomes.

Curricula have a clear health related goals. Instructional strategies and learning experiences focus exclusively on these outcomes.

Is research-based and theory-driven.

Instructional strategies and learning experiences build on theoretical approaches (e.g., social cognitive theory, social inoculation theory) demonstrated to be effective in influencing health-related risky behaviors in youth. Effective curricula go beyond the cognitive level and address the social influences, values, norms, and skills that influence health-related behaviors of school-aged youth. A should curriculum build on factors that promote healthy behaviors as well as recognize and reduce risk factors that contribute to unhealthy behaviors.

Addresses individual values and group norms that support health-enhancing behaviors.

Instructional strategies and learning experiences help students accurately assess the level of risk-taking behavior among their peers (e.g., how many of their peers use illegal drugs), correct misperceptions of peer and social norms, and reinforce health-enhancing values and beliefs.

Focuses on increasing the personal perception of risk and harmfulness of engaging in specific health risk behaviors and reinforcing protective factors.

Curricula provide opportunities for students to assess their actual vulnerability to health problems, risk of engaging in harmful health behaviors, and exposure to unhealthy situations. Curricula also provide opportunities for students to affirm health-promoting behaviors.

Addresses social pressures and influences.

Curricula provide opportunities for students to address personal and social pressures for engaging in risky behaviors (e.g., media influences, peer pressure, social barriers).

Builds personal and social competence.

Curricula build essential skills (e.g., communication, refusal, accessing accuracy of information, decision-making, planning/goal-setting, self-management) that enable students to deal with social pressures and avoid or reduce risk-taking behaviors. For each skill, students are guided through a series of developmental steps:

  1. Discussing the importance of the skill, its relevance, and relationship to other learned skills
  2. Presenting steps for developing the skill
  3. Modeling the skill
  4. Practicing and rehearsing the skill using real-life scenarios
  5. Providing feedback and reinforcement

Provides functional health knowledge that is basic, accurate, and directly contributes to health-promoting decisions and behaviors.

Curricula provide accurate, reliable, and credible information so that students can assess risk, correct misperceptions about social norms, identify ways to avoid or minimize risky situations, examine internal and external influences, make behaviorally relevant decisions, and build personal and social competence.

Uses strategies designed to personalize information and engage students.

Instructional strategies and learning experiences are student-centered, interactive, and experiential (e.g., group discussions, cooperative learning, problem solving, role playing, and peer-led activities). These strategies help students personalize information and maintain their interest and motivation while accommodating diverse capabilities and learning styles. Such instructional strategies include methods for:

  1. Addressing key health-related concepts
  2. Encouraging creative expression
  3. Sharing personal thoughts, feelings, and opinions
  4. Developing critical thinking skills

Provides age-and developmentally-appropriate information, learning strategies, teaching methods, and materials.

Curricula address students’ needs, interests, concerns, developmental and maturity level, and current knowledge and skill levels. Learning should be relevant and applicable to students’ daily lives.

Incorporates learning strategies, teaching methods, and materials that are culturally inclusive.

Curricular materials are free of culturally biased information, but also include information, activities, and examples that are inclusive of diverse cultures and lifestyles (e.g., gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, age, physical/mental ability, and appearance). Strategies promote values, attitudes, and behaviors that support the cultural diversity of students; optimize relevance to students from multiple cultures in the school community; strengthen students’ skills necessary to engage in intercultural interactions; and build on the cultural resources of families and communities.

Provides adequate time for instruction.

Curricula utilize adequate time to promote understanding of key health concepts and to practice skills. Short-term or “one shot” curricula (e.g., a few hours at one grade level) are generally insufficient to support the adoption and maintenance of healthy behaviors.

Provides opportunities to reinforce skills and positive health behaviors.

Curricula build on previously learned concepts and skills and provide opportunities to reinforce health promoting skills across health content areas and grade levels (e.g., more than one practice application of a skill, skill “booster” sessions at subsequent grade levels or in other academic subject areas).

Provides opportunities to make connections with influential others.

Curricula link students to other influential persons who affirm and reinforce health-promoting norms, beliefs, and behaviors. Instructional strategies build on protective factors that promote healthy behaviors and enable students to avoid or reduce health risk behaviors by engaging peers, parents, families, and other positive adult role models in student learning.

Includes teacher information and plans for professional development/training that enhances effectiveness of instruction and student learning.

Curricula are implemented by teachers who believe in what they are teaching, are knowledgeable about the curriculum content, and are comfortable and skilled in implementing expected instructional strategies. Ongoing professional development and training is critical for helping teachers implement a new curriculum or implement strategies that require new skills in teaching or assessment.

Assessment and evaluation tools

Health Education Curriculum Analysis Tool (HECAT)

The Health Education Curriculum Analysis Tool (HECAT) can help school districts, schools, and others conduct a clear, complete, and consistent analysis of health education curricula based on the National Health Education Standards and CDC’s Characteristics of Effective Health Education Curricula.

The following HECAT health topic modules are currently available:

  • Alcohol and Other Drugs
  • Healthy Eating
  • Mental and Emotional Health
  • Personal Health and Wellness
  • Physical Activity
  • Safety
  • Sexual Health
  • Tobacco
  • Violence Prevention


Beaverton School District Best Practices in Health: Characteristics of Effective Health Education Curricula. ins_Health Best Practices.pdf

Center for Disease Control. Characteristics of an Effective Health Education Curriculum. http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/sher/characteristics/index.htm


American School Health Association (ASHA)

ASHA provides comprehensive information on health programming for school-aged students and recognizes the CDC best practices for health education curriculum

Centers for Disease Control

The CDC publishes and makes publically available recommended health education best practices for curriculum development

National Institute of Justice. Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn’t, What’s Promising

Research in Brief. July 1998. A dated, yet informational publication from the NIJ offering suggestions for education to prevent crime

Teen-Risk Taking: Promising Prevention Programs and Approaches

Provides a list of common elements of successful programming in regards to teen-risk taking.
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