Why and How to Teach Kids Soft Skills

The Problem

We are failing our kids.

We teach children how to solve math problems. But rarely do we teach them how to solve — or even just handle — life problems.

We methodically instruct children on how to sound out letters and identify sight words. But rarely are children instructed on how to intentionally work through feelings or identify emotions.

We show children how to appropriately use and take care of playground and gym equipment so they don’t hurt themselves or others. Yet how often do we provide instruction on how to manage and care for their most valuable asset: their minds?

Yikes. Talk about a mix-up of priorities.

The Solution

The problem is obvious. But what is the solution?

It’s simple: Overt and explicit instruction on soft skills. These are the essential life skills we all need to live successful lives. To make better sense of what soft skills are, I like to group them into three categories: interpersonal (or social) skills, intrapersonal (or self) skills, and cognitive (or brain-based) skills. In short, soft skills help us interact with others, relate to ourselves, and respond to the world around us.

Where to Start

It’s easy to teach traditional academic skills. They’re clearly defined. Tried-and-true algorithms can lead to the predictable and “correct” answer if all the prescribed steps are followed. But not so with soft skills. They’re fuzzy and can be subjective. But that’s exactly where their strengths, challenges — and even opportunities lie.

To effectively teach soft skills, we need to tap into our own humanity — our own challenges, failures, and how we’ve overcome them — and connect with others, those who need to hear our stories of struggles and successes.

In short, soft skills are human skills. And one of the best ways to teach them is (literally) right under our nose: our mouth!

What You Can Do as a Parent, Caregiver, or Mentor

Connect with the children in your life by spending time together — even during times that might ordinarily fill up with chores or just TV. Use time in the car to share stories from your own life about different problems or challenges you’ve faced in the past, how you handled them, what you learned as a result. Take advantage of commercial breaks (or pause a show) to quickly talk about how a character might be feeling, how they’re approaching a particular choice or decision, and how your child would react in the same situation.

It’s not always about having an answer or solution. Life’s not like that. Instead, it’s about showing your child that they’re not alone and providing an opportunity to get them thinking — and talking — about the essential skills they’ll need in the future to work through similar challenges. These kinds of conversations will go a long way toward helping your child practice essential soft skills long before they need them.

What You Can Do as a Teacher

Be intentional about making your classroom a place where children learn how to become successful at life, not just school. Spending even just a few minutes here and there teaching soft skills will pay massive dividends back when it comes time to learn traditional skills, too. That’s because a child who has been taught how to manage his or her anxiety and actively listen will be far more ready to engage in a lesson than one who’s swimming in a sea of worry and low self-confidence.

When conflict arises, take a few minutes to have students act out various different responses and reactions. Then, as a group, discuss which would be the most beneficial way to proceed. When reading a book, stop and point out illustrations and/or ask volunteers what the characters may be feeling and why. When opportunities arise, share some of your own experiences in developmentally appropriate ways.

To Sum It Up

Soft skills development needn’t — nor should it — be left to chance. Instead, with a little creativity and intention, lessons in these essential skills can be naturally woven into children’s daily lives. Thankfully, this is the most impactful way to approach it, too. No matter our age or where we are in life, we all crave human connection. And it’s through these connections — including our own stories — that we can successfully help children learn and practice the essential soft skills they’ll need throughout their lives.