Background. Most school health education programs focus on a single behavioral domain. Integrative programs that address multiple behaviors may be more efficient, but only if the elements of change are similar for these behaviors. The objective of this study was to examine which effective elements of school health education are similar across three particular behavioral domains. Methods. A systematic review of reviews of the effectiveness of school-based health promotion programs was conducted for the domains of substance abuse, sexual behavior, and nutrition. The literature search spanned the time period between 1995 and October 2006 and included three databases, websites of review centers and backward search. Fifty-five reviews and meta-analyses met predetermined relevance and publication criteria and were included. Data was extracted by one reviewer and checked by a second reviewer. A standardized data extraction form was used, with detailed attention to effective elements pertaining to program goals, development, content, methods, facilitator, components and intensity. Two assessors rated the quality of reviews as strong, moderate or weak. We included only strong and moderate reviews in two types of analysis: one based on interpretation of conflicting results, the other on a specific vote-counting rule. Results. Thirty six reviews were rated strong, 6 moderate, and 13 weak. A multitude of effective elements was identified in the included reviews and many elements were similar for two or more domains. In both types of analysis, five elements with evidence from strong reviews were found to be similar for all three domains: use of theory; addressing social influences, especially social norms; addressing cognitive-behavioral skills; training of facilitators; and multiple components. Two additional elements had positive results in all domains with the rule-based method of analysis, but had inconclusive results in at least one domain with the interpretion-based method of analysis: parent involvement and a larger number of sessions. Conclusion. Five effective elements of school health promotion were found to be similar across the three behavioral domains examined (substance abuse, sexual behavior, nutrition). An integrative program that addresses the three domains seems feasible. The five elements are primary candidates to include in programs targeting these behaviors. © 2009 Peters et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.