Helping Students Cultivate Soft Skills

By Aricia E. LaFrance

Schools do a good job of teaching reading, writing, science, math and other "hard" skills that are both essential and valuable to performing well on the job. They also help students acquire the practical skills needed to find jobs. Schools also provide assistance for students in learning how to write a resume, how to interview for jobs and may even provide internships so students can learn more about various fields of work. However, with all of these highly skilled, knowledgeable adults, many come to career counseling because they are unable to find work. Many have an impressive resumes, flawless cover letters - and they interview well. However, they are uncertain about why they can't hold on to a job. What these career seekers often lack are soft skills. 

Soft Skills Defined

"Soft skills" is a simple term for a complex system of traits and habits commonly sought by employers. Examples include confidence, flexibility, honesty, and integrity, the ability to see things from different perspectives, optimism and common sense. The most sought after and popular soft skills include problem solving, thinking inventively, the ability to compromise, negotiate and persuade, the ability to mentor, teach, communicate, network and perform public speaking. Other skills include the ability to follow directions - even when they are unspoken; understanding what needs to be done and doing it, having good manners and being courteous, seeking out opportunities for continuing education, doing a job thoroughly and correctly and an ability to admit and correct mistakes.

Certain soft skills appeal to employers across the board and are often more critical to finding (and maintaining) employment than hard skills.  Employers often admit, "I can teach my employees how to do just about anything but I can't teach them to have a good attitude or common sense." The problem with soft skills is that there is a basic assumption that they are inborn skills. But a closer examination of these skills would suggest otherwise. While some individuals exhibit these skills naturally, they can also be acquired and nurtured over time. 

Soft Skills Preferred by Employers

Soft skills are habits that have been cultivated over time more than they are innate traits.

Students who possess these skills have the potential of performing well at work while paving the way to good relationships in all areas of their life.  When compared to hard skills, soft skills are highly valued by employers because they are hard to find. The soft skills most often sought by employers include:

  • The ability to compromise, negotiate and persuade
  • Doing a job thoroughly and correctly
  • An ability to admit and correct mistakes
  • Good manners, courteous
  • Honesty and integrity
  • Flexibility and adaptability
  • Problem solving - ability to see things from a different perspective
  • Enjoys mentoring and teaching and is also open to learning and loves to learn
  • Confident but humble
  • Ability to lead but also work as part of a diverse team
  • Common sense
  • Ability to understand and follow directions as well as the ability to think intuitively should problems arise
  • Ability to analyze a problem and implement a solution
  • Optimism

Specific Strategies to Help Students Cultivate Soft Skills

Because soft skills are developed over time, it is important for teachers, counselors, and parents to work together to help students acquire these skills early. Through modeling, the use of puzzles, books, and other resources, students can learn soft skills. The easiest and most valuable way to instill these skills is to model them. When students see their parents, counselors, teachers and other adults demonstrate these skills they not only understand the value and feel inspired to adopt them, they see how and when to apply them. For example, when teachers work through an issue together with students in their classroom, students see how compromise and negotiation work. On the other hand, teachers can demonstrate the soft skill of optimism, by acknowledging a problem while at the same time identifying the silver lining in the situation and sharing it with the class.

In addition, schools may provide programs to actively teach these skills to students.  For example, the Conflict Managers program helps 5th and 6th grade students learn how to negotiate and compromise so that fights on the playground are prevented. Puzzles can be a useful tool to help students think more cooperatively in the classroom. Students that are raised in a competitive environment can learn that there are solutions where everyone gains. Using puzzle stories in the classroom can help illustrate this. One puzzle story that could be helpful is the story of the orange. It goes as follows:

A brother and sister are fighting over the last orange. The teacher/counselor can ask the class, "What is a solution to this problem?" Time for discussion is allowed and after a few minutes, the teacher/counselor encourages the class to present their solutions. The solution that comes out of the process is this; if the brother and sister took a moment to stop fighting and discuss the issue, they soon learn that the brother needs the juice to fight off a cold while the sister needs the rind to bake a cake. Puzzles with examples to work through can help children understand others' perspective and reframe their thinking to move from a competitive mindset to a cooperative one.

Books can also be useful guides and resources in the classroom. For instance, high school students in particular may enjoy using a book such as the "Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High" by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Granny, Ron McMillan, and AL Switzer (2002). As students discuss, analyze and apply the book's message, they begin to learn strong communication skills as well as have the opportunity to practice them in class. Younger students might enjoy the story "The Three Questions," by Jon Muth (2003). By using these resources and modeling specific behavior, teachers and counselors can help their students learn soft skills, which in turn will make them more competitive job seekers in the future. Students who develop these skills early have more opportunities to be successful in the workplace and they become an asset to any employer. In a difficult economy, people with strong soft skills find good jobs - often with a higher salary. Students who are able to acquire these skills not only find work in the career of their choice but they also experience stronger and happier relationships in their personal lives. 


Aricia E. LaFrance, MSE, is a professional parenting and career coach. To read her expanded series on helping children cultivate soft skills, please visit her web site at www.aricialafrance.com 


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