Teen Life Skills Curriculum Guide

From making a meal to balancing a budget, here’s how to help teens learn to thrive in the real world.

Prisma Staff
February 9, 2023

Prisma is the world’s most engaging virtual school that combines a fun, real-world curriculum with powerful mentorship from experienced coaches and a supportive peer community.

From making a meal to balancing a budget, here’s how to help teens learn to thrive in the real world.

Creating a meal plan. Running a washing machine. Knowing how to manage money. The list of basic life skills every teen needs to master to become a fully self-sufficient adult is  endless.

It’s also a highly dynamic list: young people don’t need to learn to balance a checkbook anymore, but adult life does demand the occasional phone call — something that older generations observed and practiced plenty from a young age, and that a tween today might have to sit down and learn.

What’s considered a critical skill also changes with context: an adolescent living in a rural area might not prioritize learning to ride public transportation, whereas an urban kid can’t get very far without that life lesson.

Regardless of the specific essential life skills you and your child hope to tackle, keep in mind that the purpose runs deeper than mastering any series of tasks: teaching life skills helps young adults develop the empowered and optimistic mindset they need to engage in fulfilling work, foster emotional well-being, form positive relationships and make positive change.

In our weekly Life Skills high school course at Prisma, we favor teaching broadly applicable skills that can be practiced over time (how to balance a budget) rather than narrow knowledge or skills that will be made obsolete (balancing a checkbook). They may very well forget specific details long before it’s time to step up to the plate (or washing machine), but if they learn the underlying principles, they’ll be well equipped with problem solving skills for when the time comes.


Adulting 101: The essential skills teens need to thrive

Our course focuses on two foundational areas: knowing yourself (i.e. emotional skills) and interpersonal skills (i.e. social skills). How do we overcome obstacles? How do we take care of our mental health? What does it mean to find a community and lead others? What is the meaning of friendship? How do we deal with peer pressure?

These big-picture questions lay the groundwork for all the secondary topics that follow:

  1. Media & Information Literacy: How do we select and analyze diverse sources of information? How do we know what sources to trust? How do we use sources convincingly to make our own arguments?
  2. Work Skills: What are professional environments like? How do we get internships and jobs? How do we grow professionally, through goal setting and self-advocacy?
  3. Finance: How do we make a budget? How do we shop strategically? How do we spot a scam? How do loans, mortgages, and insurance policies work? What’s the difference between a debit or credit card?
  4. Health care: How do we know when we’re sick (and what to do)? How do we care for our physical and mental health?
  5. Legal: What are your rights in different contexts (criminal justice, housing)? What do you do when you get pulled over by a cop?
  6. College Preparation: How do we choose which college(s) to apply to? What does a successful application look like? How do social media accounts impact college applications? What do we do on a college visit? How do we choose a major?
  7. Adulting: How do we navigate a grocery store? How do we plan a trip or an event? How do we do basic household chores and maintenance
  8. Safety: How do we prepare for an emergency? How do we perform basic First Aid? How do we keep younger kids safe when babysitting?

How to teach life skills so teens want to learn them

You can watch all the youtube tutorials you want, but to absorb the lessons in a lasting way learners need an opportunity to practice in a hands-on, judgment-free environment. Here are ways to shape the experience so that it’s a positive one.

Make it fun

No one claimed that it’s a laugh to pay bills, but there’s no reason it can’t be fun to learn how. We turn our life skills class into a goosechase, using an interactive app that allows us to set challenges and award points for their successful completion.

And while you’ll want to make sure they get through all the major skill areas — even if they aren’t excited about laundry — we find that giving kids choice can make the process enjoyable. Let them set goals, and alternate areas of challenge with areas of strength, so they have a chance to score wins and build self-esteem, all while filling their adulting toolkit.

Make it incremental

We use a tiered point system to structure our life skills “missions,” so that learners gain self-confidence as they build up to a big, final project.

Small tasks under the “money management” umbrella might include earning $5, using an ATM, or opening a bank account. Larger projects might include building a business or developing a family budget based on the median salary and cost of living in your area.

Small tasks under the “food” umbrella might include identifying basic kitchen tools or a source of recipes; medium tasks could include cooking a simple dish or calculating the calories in a meal; a big project might be to plan a day’s worth of meals or compete in a bake-off with other members of the family.

As you design these smaller missions, think about the skills they need to make it  through a bigger project. They’ll need to familiarize themselves with kitchen tools or financial products, but also practice decision making, time management and more.

Make it community-centric

Encourage learners to ask you and other adults about what they consider important life skills, so they get a diverse cross-section of perspectives about why this all matters. Talk to your kids about how you learned these skills — tell them which skills were “natural” for you when growing up and which were hard earned. Then have them interview other family and community members to see how experiences vary.

Whenever possible, encourage them to learn and practice these new skills in a community setting, like a free bike repair workshop, a volunteer garden, or a babysitting class. These settings offer great opportunities to hone collaboration and communication skills, all while socializing.

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