Looking beyond academic success—why soft skills are crucial for kids
Why soft skills like social-emotional skills are critical for kids' success, and how innovative school models are working to bolster them.
The future for today’s students is complex. We’re witnessing constant innovation and technological advancement, but more automation means routine task-oriented jobs are disappearing.
The result is that the tools needed for success have changed. There’s an increasing need to equip learners with the academic and social capabilities critical for success in work and life.
This blog article will help parents and educators understand the importance of soft skills to help their kids succeed in life, how new innovative school models are working to bolster them, and how you can help your kids grow their soft skills.
What are soft skills (or social-emotional skills), and why do they matter?
In 2019/2020, I had the opportunity to delve into the need for soft skills, often called social-emotional skills, while I was writing about ongoing work being done by the Kansas State Department of Education (“KSDE”) to transform its K-12 schools.
In this work, I learned about the growing consensus that American students lack the academic and “soft skills” necessary for success.
The soft-skills deficit is a problem because our graduates are unprepared to face the most common and difficult workplace challenges, like collaborating and acting as conscientious team members.
The KSDE created a new initiative, the Kansas Can School Redesign Project.
The goal of the project was to design new practices that would develop social-emotional skills. Schools applied to be part of the project, outlining their proposed plan to personalize the learning experience and increase student engagement.
For example, one participating elementary school had its students do a hot chocolate project. Students learned how to budget for, and run, a hot chocolate stand. This strategy helped students learn to collaborate and improve their communication skills. It also offered equitable opportunities for engagement.
The research that formed the basis of the Kansas Can work was performed by a team at Kansas State University. This research stressed the importance of social-emotional skills. Several of the key findings included:
The #1 factor for achieving success was not academic skills. The data overwhelmingly pointed to concern among all stakeholders about students' lack of social/emotional and employability skills. They wanted employees and community members who can self-regulate, be self-directed, and be collaborative team members.
Kansans understood that the world has changed how we interact, and these changes require our students to graduate with new skills that were not as necessary in earlier times.
Conscientiousness was identified as the most critical characteristic among community and business leaders. In other words, young people who work carefully and thoroughly and have self-discipline and self-efficacy. Perseverance was another cited key skill students lacked.
The KSDE took these concerning findings and suggestions from the families, communities, and employers and decided something had to change. So they created the Kansans Can School Redesign Project.
A key success outcome of the project was a compelling redefinition of what a successful graduate looks like:
"A successful Kansas high school graduate has the academic preparation, cognitive preparation, technical skills, employability skills and civic engagement to be successful in postsecondary education, in the attainment of an industry-recognized certification or the workforce, without the need for remediation.”
Simply put, the experiment concluded that a successful graduate has self-reliance, self-regulation, and solid social-emotional skills.
Focus on your children’s social skills matters
In one participating Kansas district, the school leaders report tremendous growth in both their students and staff.
They’ve seen a significant decrease in behavior referrals and a large increase in student engagement, with more excitement around progressing toward individual learning goals.
Their most positive outcome has been in the area of social-emotional growth, where they have sustained focus and energy toward the well-being and needs of their students.
While we know there's tremendous pressure around academic achievement and test scores, parents must remember that social-emotional skills truly matter.
Research continues to demonstrate that strong social skills are a major factor in success. The Kansas research I was involved with has similar results as the national research on the importance of EQ (emotional quotient) and future success.
According to research from Norwich University, EQ is 400% more powerful in predicting career success than IQ. EQ is generally defined as skills like empathy, stress management, and active listening.
Tips for building your children’s social-emotional skills
The data clearly shows that solid EQ and social-emotional skills are crucial.
So we need to think creatively about how we can help kids build these skills to thrive and succeed in today’s evolving environment.
For example, efforts are underway nationwide to help build students’ social-emotional skills. The work of CASEL (The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) is incredible.
CASEL envisions all children and adults as self-aware, caring, responsible, engaged, and lifelong learners who work together to achieve their goals and create a more inclusive, just world. CASEL works with Confident Parents Confident Kids to develop resources for parents who want to learn more about social-emotional skills, including a great set of recommended books.
Another wonderful group focused on building independence in children is Let Grow. Let Grow helps caregivers find practical ways to “give kids the independence they need to grow into capable, confident, and happy adults.”
I believe Outschool is another vital lever to help students build these skills. One of the many things I love about working with Outschool is the learner-led approach, which helps students take ownership of their learning. At Outschool, we are helping transform educational systems with our focus on social-emotional skill building.
Outschool also allows kids to engage with other learners interested in similar topics through its groups, our wonderful Learner Community, and ongoing classes. Resources like these bolster your kids' soft skills–and their confidence.
The bottom line for parents and educators is that academics are only part of the picture. Helping your kids develop their EQ, empathy, independence, collaboration, self-direction, and self-awareness skills is one of the best things you can do to ensure their future success.