Finding a Place for the “Soft Skills”

The “hard skills”.  Math, Language…the Sciences.  These are the things we teach our students, the things they “must” know to get to university, to pass the test, to graduate.  But what about the “soft skills”?  Compassion, perseverance, teamwork, confidence and other social-emotional skills; these are crucial to their success, not only in the long term, but in the short term (to get to university, to pass the test, to graduate!)  

Time.  Time is extremely valuable.  With only about 60-65 thousand minutes in the school year it feels like a bit of an indulgence (perhaps some would say a waste) to take class time to teach things that aren’t actually “on the test” or “in the book”.  I’m willing to challenge that theory though, I believe it is a valuable use of time to ensure that our students receive a balanced education that includes both “hard” and “soft” skills.  The imbalance, one without the other, will lead to imbalanced students who find success in the “hard”, academic skills as difficult.  

If you can take 5-10 minutes now to save you hours later, wouldn’t that be a time investment worth making?  That’s what I’m proposing.  Investing some time to teach students these “soft skills” within the context of your classroom will lead to payoffs down the line.  Less anxious students, organized teenagers, compassionate young adults, and “gritty” learners.  These are the results of teaching and learning the “soft skills”, these should be goals in all classrooms.  

Here are a few areas of focus that will pay dividends for you, should you invest the time:

Start with a Goal:  All of our students have set goals and will revisit these goals in the second semester.  But, how easy is it for these young minds to set their goal and forget it for four months?  Pretty easy.  Take a couple minutes to have students set a goal at the beginning of each class and write it down.  This goal should only be for the next hour or so, just until your class is over.  At the end of class, allow time for students to stop and reflect (and maybe share) on whether they achieved their goal.  I’d recommend having students write a goal on one side of a notecard, then reflecting on the back side.  You can collect these and gain valuable insight, while also holding kids accountable to the process.  

These goals might look like:  “I want to clarify my understanding of the Pythagorean Theorem.”  “Today I will help my classmate practice their scales on the saxophone.”  “Today I will receive feedback on my essay from two peers and my teacher.”

Organize (papers, thinking, lives!):  How do your students organize for your class…is it working?  Many of us use Edmodo.  It’s a great tool for some elements of our classes but does this tool work for everything or just parts of what you’re trying to accomplish.  Would your students benefit from a different organizational system for your class?  What about student thinking?  Graphic organizers, anchor posters, word walls…all of these things are easy and benefit all learners.  How can you help your students get organized?

Mindfulness:  A huge trend in education these days, if you have a lot of Facebook teacher friends you’ve surely at least seen something about Mindfulness.  It can help adolescents more easily navigate the craziness of growing up.  Building skill sets in concentration and impulse control, cultivating empathy and generally helping students become more mindful will all lead to healthier students.  So what is “mindfulness”?  The short explanation is: purposeful and non judgmental awareness of the present, being in the now.  The second part here is key.  Especially with our teens.  They need to understand that they are not constantly being judged, that taking risks and making mistakes is not only okay but expected.  Anxiety is about the future, our worries about all the things that could go wrong if something happens.  Being mindful means that you’re in the moment, you’re in the present and aware.  Mindfulness meditation exercises help focus the mind on the present and get kids ready for the task at hand.

It doesn’t take much, 5 minutes at the beginning of class is all it takes.  Give it a try for yourself first, then give it a try with your students.  I think you’ll enjoy it in both contexts.

Try this basic mindfulness meditation (only 5 minutes).

Then, investigate HeadSpace a little bit.  They have a free trial that is worth the effort and if you see the value there are other options.  Beyond HeadSpace there are lots of other options, if you’re keen let me know and I can share.  

Trying these strategies with your kids is a time investment worth making.  Budget yourself 5-10 minutes over the next few classes to give them a try, you won’t regret it!

[Update] This article was shared with me today.  It’s a great piece from the Wall Street Journal called What Teens Need Most From Their Parents.  It’s all about the soft skills and how tweens/teens develop through the years.  A great read for parents and educators alike!

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