Skip to main content
Ed. Magazine

There's Nothing Soft About These Skills

Soft Skills

Illustrations by Marc Rosenthal

Soft Skills
The North Carolina morning sunlight is peeking through the classroom window as the students assemble. It's the beginning of the school day at Bruns Academy in Charlotte, and the children are gathering on a rug, just as they always do at 9:15 a.m. They sit in a circle and begin taking turns talking, their carry-on baggage of thoughts and feelings coaxed out of them by receptive ears. Observing this scene might harken you back to your kindergarten days, but these are not 5-year-olds. This is Morning Meeting in an eighth-grade classroom.

"The value of taking this time at the start of the middle school day is no different than for a kindergarten," says Jordy Sparks, who served as principal at Bruns, which encompasses preK through grade 8, as well as elsewhere in the Charlotte- Mecklenburg school district, before entering the Ed School's Doctor of Education Leadership Program this year. "The matters brought to the circle might sound different, depending on the ages of the students, but for all of them it's an opportunity to learn how to manage an emotion that could be an impediment to what they're trying to accomplish during the school day."

You'll notice that Sparks used the word "learn" there. These top-of-the-morning meetings, which under his initiative came to take up the first 45 minutes of each school day at Bruns and later at Newell Elementary, are a central feature of a revamped curriculum that puts an emphasis on social-emotional learning — that is, development of character, empathy, selfmanagement, and other life skills that lie outside the domain of the three R's. In a time when standardized tests are being criticized by some for being educational cookie cutters, there's growing interest in this individualized and broadened approach to preparing children for challenges that their textbooks don't address.

At Newell, for instance, the stated mission is "to develop young people to know their potential, grow their appreciation of learning, hard work, and effort, and empower them to go into the world and lead lives of impact." To that end, the K–5 school's website quotes an influential educator as saying, "You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. And you are the one who'll decide where to go." Those words might sound familiar if you have young children or remember your childhood. They're from Oh, the Places You'll Go! by Dr. Seuss.

That children's classic was published in 1990, the last book of the whimsical author's lifetime, but Seuss was spreading the message long before that. Likewise, educators have known for decades that skills not measured by standardized testing are important to children's development.

"Tests do provide us with important information about how schools are doing and how well-prepared students will be for what comes next, but they certainly don't tell us everything that we need to know," says Associate Professor Martin West, who has written extensively on the issue, including a recent paper with Brookings on measuring students’ related skills. "A lot of the current interest among researchers in the policymaking community, and among practitioners, is centered on an attempt to be more specific about what it is that is not directly captured by standardized tests yet contributes to students' success. Which are the important skills? How do we measure them?"

He could very well have added one other fundamental question: Once we've identified these essential skills, what do we call them? Research is under way in various disciplines, each operating in its own silo, each group speaking its own language.

"I am a developmental psychologist, and we tend to talk about social and emotional skills," Associate Professor Stephanie Jones says. "But economists talk about noncognitive skills, and neuroscientists talk about executive function and sometimes self-regulation." So there's term confusion — a lot of sameness using different words and a lot of differentness using the same words. That complicates matters when you're talking about policy and putting research findings into practice.

Jones views this not so much as an impediment, however, as an opportunity. That there's such broad interest, so much research in so many different sectors, is a good thing, she says, "representing an important moment in the field." (Among the burgeoning initiatives out there is Making Caring Common, an Ed School project co-directed by Jones and Richard Weissbourd, Ed.D.’87, a psychologist and senior lecturer at the Ed School. It promotes kindness in children, which among other personal and community benefits helps make their schools positive learning environments.) Jones doesn't envision the field organizing around a single concept or set of terms but says, "Still, we now have a huge opportunity to build coordination."

To that end, last spring Jones launched a course, Beyond Grit: Noncognitive Factors in School Success, which seeks to synthesize the varied research and practices. "I didn't want to teach a course in my own wheelhouse," she says. "I could have taught about social-emotional learning, which is the term we developmentalists use, typically. But the course would have missed a lot of important and interesting stuff that's coming out of the world of character and personality, out of the world of social psychology." So the course is designed to take a crossdisciplinary view at high-quality, rigorous research from all of these disciplines. "How can we bring it together," she asks, "in a way that tells a cohesive story over the course of a semester?"

Soft skills
A vital element of that story involves an area of study that might seem far afield from child development: economics. But economics is integral to any shift in approaches to education. "It's expensive to educate people in a way that relies on more interaction," says economist and Associate Professor David Deming, who recently published a paper, "The Growing Importance of Social Skills in the Labor Market." "You need smaller class sizes. You need more faculty time with students. And the cost pressures we see in higher education push against making changes even when we believe they would be beneficial."

The fact that stacks of rigorous research do not yet back the effectiveness of social-emotional learning also plays a role in stagnation. "There's a bias toward things we can measure and understand better, so the fact that IQ tests and achievement tests have been psychometrically evaluated, systematically, for years means we have a pretty good way to measure developments related to academic skill," Deming says. "We don't yet have as many high-quality measures for social-emotional skills. We just intuitively understand that they're important."

That isn't enough for some with sway over school policy and budgets. When Sparks and his team in Charlotte were revamping their curriculum to focus more deeply on socialemotional learning, abandoning lip-service measures such as the Character Trait Word of the Month and other window dressing in favor of devoting a full 45 minutes to Morning Meeting, they were questioned by some in the school district. Can you afford that much time each day? Will you still be able to turn around proficiency test results? "I had to do some convincing," Sparks says. "My theory was, if we get the student culture right, then academic achievement will be a byproduct."

Student culture at Bruns took a noticeable upswing, but what really turned heads came two years later, after Sparks had moved on to take over Newell Elementary, a school facing significant disciplinary concerns. In the very first year on his watch, with a social-emotional curriculum in place, suspensions dropped by 45 percent schoolwide and overall discipline referrals went down by 32 percent. Sparks attributes that to a change in culture not simply among students but also among teachers. For the high-poverty population of students, having three-quarters of an hour to unload whatever baggage they brought into the classroom and leave it at the circle "allowed them to go about their business of being a student for the rest of the day." And for teachers, Sparks adds, "being able to spend some protected time making intentional connections with the students was invaluable to their understanding of these young people." Plus, the lessons taught during these meetings — on problem solving, on self-management, on responsible decision-making — would frame the school day and be referenced throughout.

Still, there's resistance everywhere, from financially strapped public school districts to the most storied educational outposts for the affluent. In the case of the latter, asking parents to pay big bucks for tuition can lead them to have tunnel vision about what's important. If the only reasonable return on their hefty investment is an acceptance letter addressed to their child from an elite university's admissions department, they're going to question any veering away from a proven road map for academic success.

At the Shipley School in Philadelphia, where yearly tuition for the upper grades amounts to around $35,000, head of school Steven Piltch, Ed.M.'84, Ed.M.'88, Ed.D.'91, acknowledges having to do some parental persuading. "If they're invested in their children going to a certain university, they sometimes think only the numbers and grades are what matter," he says. "I have to convince them that the nonacademic skills we teach are no less important. Those are the skills that allow someone to function as a person."

Piltch has been in his position for 23 years. Back when he first started, "we used to talk about education of the whole person. We use different language today, but we're still talking about the same thing. The difference is that we've made it a higher priority."

One thing that hasn't changed is the amount of effort that goes into approaching a student as a whole person. "The easier part of our job is preparing students academically," Piltch says. "No one leaves Shipley for college and reports back to us, saying, 'Couldn't read. Couldn't write. Couldn't do the math.' They leave here prepared for the academic challenges ahead." But the social challenges? And the integration of the two? "We're committed to working hard at that," he says. "You want your students to know who they are. You want them to be willing to take risks, to slip, to fall, to get back up. If they can develop resilience and compassion and understanding, and can combine that with the ability to think in a critical fashion and express themselves in spoken and written word, I think they're going to do pretty well."

Senior Lecturer Mandy Savitz-Romer, co-author of the book Ready, Willing, and Able: A Developmental Approach to College Access and Success, believes the conversation with traditional educators and those who hold the purse strings — from public school district officials to private school parents — needs to be reframed. For one thing, she shudders whenever she hears someone lump together all of what a student gains via social-emotional learning under the leaky umbrella term "soft skills." She's not alone there. Everyone interviewed for this article expressed some degree of disdain for a term that seems to relegate the skills it's describing to the backseat. On the contrary, Savitz-Romer insists, these are skills that drive education. "They're foundational," she says. "They are the building blocks for more academic skills."

For example, a student's ability to do well in math class, Savitz-Romer argues, is based in part on the degree to which that student believes he or she can do well. Beyond self-belief, she says, another factor is the student's desire to do well in math, also known as motivational disposition. Then there is the student's ability to self-regulate — that is, to remain focused, follow through with homework, and prepare for tests. In this view, social-emotional learning is not a detour from a pursuit of academics. It's an on-ramp.

Skills quote
When the conversation turns to the future, specifically college, the message to kids often is misdirected. This is especially true for lower-income children. "Often they're told the reason they should go to college is so they can make more money and better their standing in life," says Savitz-Romer. "But if you look at developmental psychology, at the concepts of extrinsic motivators and intrinsic motivators, you'll find that using money as a motivator is not a very successful strategy, especially for kids who face formidable obstacles — financial, academic, social, or emotional." What would be a better way to convey that same message? "Well, you could ask a student, who do you want to be? What kind of footprint do you want to leave in this world?" she says. "Identity development is a better first step toward supporting motivation. With some students, we have to spend time helping them believe that it's even possible for them to go to college."

Teachers benefit from the social-emotional focus as well. When they participate in direct professional development, they add new tools to their classroom toolbox. And when they participate in class activities that are aimed at developing skills in students, they doubly benefit. They learn those skills themselves, and they see their students in a new light. That's especially helpful when teachers are working with students far different from themselves.

"If you're a teacher and you're going through your class' exercise in empathy, it's less about determining how much empathy you have and more about seeing whom you have empathy for," says Weissbourd. "If you're a teacher who is at all mindful and self-aware, you ask yourself who is in your circle of concern. You think more deeply, and more individually, about the students in your class. And good data supports that teacher–student relationships matter. When students are connected to their teacher, they learn more. And when teachers develop social-emotional skills, the chances are higher that students are going to learn them as well."

Teachers also use these skills for their own well-being. "It's hard to be an effective teacher when you're as frantic and stressed as many are right now," says Weissbourd, noting significant rates of low-level depression among childcare providers and teachers, a feeling of being helpless and hopeless owing to increasing demands and diminishing resources. "When you're feeling like that," he says, "it's hard to express empathy. It's hard to be self-aware. It's hard to self-regulate. We have to relieve the stresses on teachers if we want them to help our students develop these skills. You can't make progress with kids if you're not simultaneously making progress with the adults around them."

Once students have made their way through the educational system and have entered the workforce, social-emotional skills become paramount. Anyone who has ever spent 9 to 5 in an office environment understands the importance of being able to fit in, to work as part of a team, to listen actively, to navigate through that culture. These are not skills taught in math class. And even in today's high-tech work world, with more people than ever before telecommuting and seldom experiencing faceto- face contact with co-workers, social-emotional skills are still front and center. A study of collective intelligence published last year found that when undergoing the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test, which tests one's ability to read another person's mental state by looking at his or her eyes, the subjects' scores on the test predict their ability to work in a group — even when that group is online, working remotely.

"It's an interesting puzzle," Deming says. "How can it be that as technology allows us to work remotely more easily, social skills are becoming more important rather than less? I think the answer is that you don't necessarily need to be in person with people for these skills to matter. For example, think about the way people communicate by email or by text. Think about all the subtle cues people send. So yes, my ability to read emotions in someone's eyes makes me a better collaborator even when I don't see the people I'm working with. It has to do with the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes."

And this isn't necessarily new. "People have always known that there are things other than academics that matter," West says. "Many schools have given kids grades for academic performance and grades for effort, and there are lots of practices that reflect a recognition of the importance of skills not directly measured by tests. But I think what's happening now is that people are trying to be more specific about what exactly those skills are."

That's a first step, which logically would be followed by developing ways of measuring skills and their effectiveness. West believes we're still at a very early stage of that, and he's not disappointed that we're not further along. "When you think about it," he says, "we've had essentially a century worth of experience in developing tests to measure basic literacy and numeracy skills, and at this point we have a solid understanding how best to do that. I think we're decades behind when it comes to approaching these soft skills with the same degree of rigor."

— Jeff Wagenheim is a columnist at Sports Illustrated, founding editor of Wondertime magazine, and a former editor at The Boston Globe. In school, he says, his social-emotional skills veered between underappreciated and undeveloped.


Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

Related Articles