Building Life Skills as Primary Prevention for Youth

Research-based primary prevention promotes well-being for all young people and guards against factors that can develop into a crisis.

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US youth are experiencing increased rates of sadness, hopelessness, and suicidality.1 Research-based life skill-building is a component of primary prevention that builds protective factors and supports their well-being.

Access to primary prevention is a wise investment and helps ensure each young person gets support.

Prioritizing primary prevention can:

  • Mitigate social and economic impacts on other health, legal, education, and workforce costs.2
  • Reduce strain on the mental health workforce, which is especially important given current staff shortages and burnout.3, 4 These shortages have made it untenable that every young person in need of mental health services will receive timely care from a professional.

Primary prevention includes helping all students develop essential life skills.

Research-based programs that help young people build personal and interpersonal life skills have been shown to reduce symptoms of externalizing problems, such as aggression and hyperactivity, as well as symptoms of internalizing problems, such as anxiety and depression.5, 6 Life skills also promote resilience and well-being and can lead to improved school success and college and career readiness.7 A majority of parents believe teaching these skills is very important, and that it has become even more important since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.8

Life skills and primary prevention are important because:

  • Building research-based life skills supports primary prevention for youth substance use, bullying, and child sexual abuse.9, 10, 11
  • Teaching personal and interpersonal life skills can also reduce hopelessness and anxiety, which in addition to youth substance use and child sexual abuse are risk factors for youth suicide.12

It’s also important to offer trauma-informed prevention programs and services in schools as young people cope with trauma connected to the COVID-19 pandemic and recent violence in schools and communities.13

What does primary prevention look like in the classroom?

  • Teachers reinforce personal and interpersonal life skills that start in the home, such as learning how to solve problems, manage emotions, set goals, and get along with others.
  • In the classroom, teachers typically explain an essential skills concept using words, pictures, or video. Students then practice the concept in a group discussion, through individual writing tasks, or by working together.
  • Teachers review students’ understanding of the skills and reinforce as needed.
  • Teaching these skills will look different in each school based on the community it serves.

Continuum of Supports*

Tier 3 services are for students experiencing issues, tier 2 services are for early intervention, and tier 3 services are for prevention.
*An effective prevention program can be woven into a tiered continuum of supports for all students. This continuum of supports, which is research-based and composed of three tiers, addresses a whole-school-driven, prevention-based framework that is developmentally, culturally, and linguistically appropriate for students’ needs.

Policy Recommendations

  • Include primary prevention in legislative language related to programs and services for young people.
    • Language should include research-based primary prevention to ensure that programs and services address a full continuum of support.
    • Terms and definitions for primary prevention programs and services should be consistent to improve clarity and connect initiatives.
  • Coordinate efforts that address primary prevention across agencies to ensure they are not implemented in silos and can be leveraged for maximum impact and reach.
  • To the extent possible, streamline funding and promote cross-agency collaboration to help schools and communities.
  • Adequately fund research-based primary prevention programs and services.


  1. US Surgeon General (2021). Protecting youth mental health: The US surgeon general’s advisory.
  2. Schwab, J. (2018). Drugs, health & behavior. Affordable Course Transformation: The Pennsylvania State University.
  3. USA Facts (2021, June 9). Over one-third of Americans live in areas lacking mental health professionals.
  4. Summers, R. F., Gorrindo, T., Hwang, S., Aggarwal, R., & Guille, C. (2020). Well-being, burnout, and depression among North American psychiatrists: The state of our profession. The American Journal of Psychiatry 10(177), 955–964.
  5. Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82, 405–432.
  6. Clarke, A., Sorgenfrei, M., Mulcahy, J., Davie, P., Friedrich, C., & McBride, T. (2021). Adolescent mental health: A systematic review on the effectiveness of school-based interventions. Early Intervention Foundation.
  7. Jones, D., Greenberg, M., & Crowley, M. (2015). Early social-emotional functioning and public health: The relationship between kindergarten social competence and future wellness. American Journal of Public Health, 105(11), 2283–2290.
  8. McGraw Hill. (2021). 2021 social and emotional learning report.
  9. Committee for Children (2020). SEL and substance abuse in young people.
  10. Committee for Children (2020). Social-emotional learning can help prevent bullying.
  11. Committee for Children (2020). Social-emotional learning as a component of child sexual abuse prevention.
  12. Posamentier, J., Seibel, K., & DyTang, N. (2021). Preventing youth suicide: A review of school-based practices and how social-emotional learning fits into comprehensive efforts. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse.
  13. Slomski, A. (2021). Thousands of US youths cope with the trauma of losing parents to COVID-19. JAMA, 326(21), 2117–2119. https://doi:10.1001/jama.2021.20846