Why do ‘soft’ skills deserve ‘hard’ work? Learn about the long-term significance of teaching interpersonal skills, with Sophie Brown.

It’s widely recognised that the education sector is not doing enough to help young people to develop the key life skills, or ‘soft’ skills, needed to thrive in and out of the classroom. “91% of teachers think that schools should be doing more to help students to develop soft skills, but only one in five young people thinks that their school is currently helping them ‘a lot’ with the development of these skills.”1 2

But why exactly are soft skills so important, and how can teachers help students to develop them?

Why are soft skills important for students’ wellbeing and development?

Soft skills, such as communication, confidence and resilience, have a proven impact on students’ motivation and engagement at school, their wellbeing and their aspirations. It’s clear that young people who come out of education with a well-rounded set of both academic and soft skills are more likely to find employment, contribute positively to society and lead fulfilling adult lives.

Research shows that with increased resilience and wellbeing, young people are more likely to achieve academically, “while 94% of employers say that soft skills are as, or more important, than academic qualifications.” 2 3 It’s therefore unsurprising that experts believe schools should take a greater role to help their students understand the importance employers give to soft skills and support them to develop the skills needed to thrive after leaving school. 4

The importance of soft skills for students’ wellbeing is also recognised in Ofsted’s new personal development inspection framework. Inspectors will now be looking at how schools support students to develop the key soft skills of ‘confidence and resilience,’ so they have the skills needed to ‘keep themselves mentally healthy.’5

How can I get started?

We recommend focusing on soft skills development over several short sessions, over the course of several weeks (for example, once a week for a term). This way, students are more likely to engage with the topic. Additionally, some exercises require students to practise goal setting (a crucial soft skill technique), so it’s important to leave enough time between the sessions for them to put their goals into action. Individual students will feel more confident in different soft skill areas. Repeating techniques with a range of different soft skills (for example, teamwork or problem solving), enables students to recognise where their strengths and areas of improvement lie, gives them the opportunity to improve in a range of skills and to understand how each one is relevant to them.

Techniques to encourage students to take ownership of their soft skills development

1. Encourage group discussions

When teaching your class or tutor group about soft skills, it’s important to encourage all students to actively participate. Break your students into small groups and give them a few minutes to discuss a specific soft skill. Give them prompts: e.g., ‘What do you think this skill means?’ ‘Why is it important?’ ‘How will this skill help you at school/ in the workplace?’ Ask students to regroup and nominate one student from each group to share their answers. By including everyone in these conversations, you can ensure they are engaging with the topic, thereby helping them to understand the relevance of each soft skill.

2. Identify personal examples

Ask students to independently think of and write down at least one example of when they have demonstrated this specific skill, over the last week, month or term. Ask students to be as specific as possible, e.g., “I demonstrated strong communication skills in Maths last Thursday by presenting my answer to the class.” If you have time, you could also ask students to consider how their examples link to other soft skills – ideally those previously discussed in class, e.g., “By presenting my answer to the class, even though I was really nervous, I demonstrated resilience.” By encouraging students to identify how they are already practising soft skills, students will start to recognise how they have helped them to succeed in and out of school, and how they can improve these further.

3. Practise goal setting

Now that students have considered how they’re already demonstrating this skill, ask them to set themselves a goal for the next week or month. Students should make their goals as specific as possible – ideally using a SMART goal setting framework – to ensure their goals are achievable and can be easily measured. To help students remember their goal, encourage them to place it somewhere where they will see it frequently, such as their planner, or their drawer or locker. If students are regularly reminded of their goal, this will increase the likelihood of them achieving it.

4. Reflect on progress

After the week or month is over, ask students to reflect on their goal. Did they meet it? If so, how did it make them feel? If they weren’t able to achieve it, what could they have done differently? Do they need to adapt their goal to make it more achievable? Asking students to reflect on their successes and consider what they could have done differently promotes self-awareness and encourages them to take ownership over their personal development.

5. Praise for purpose

When you see one of your students demonstrating a soft skill particularly well, make sure you praise them for this. Be specific about what they have done well, the skills they have shown, and (if appropriate) how this makes a change from their previous behaviour. It’s also important to be personal with praise; make sure you acknowledge something that is a particular achievement for a specific student. It’s also worth remembering that, while some students will enjoy receiving praise in front of their peers, private or written praise can work better for others.

6. Explore resources

There are several free resources to help you to embed the development of soft skills within your classroom. Our free ‘Character Scheme of Work’ resources include a range of lesson plans, PowerPoints and worksheets to help you embed soft skills development into your curriculum.

References

  1. The Prince’s Trust, 2017, Results for Life. Available from: https://www.princes-trust.org.uk/about-the-trust/research-policies-reports/research
  2. The Sutton Trust, 2017, Life Lessons. Available from: https://www.suttontrust.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Life-Lessons-Report_FINAL.pdf
  3. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pennsylvania State University, 2017, Improving Social Emotional Skills in Childhood Enhances Long-Term Well-Being and Economic Outcomes. Available from: https://www.rwjf.org/en/library/research/2017/07/improving-social-emotional-skills-in-childhoodenhances-long-term-well-being.html
  4. Development Economics, The Value of Soft Skills to the UK Economy, 2015. Available from: https://pacelearning.com/wpcontent/uploads/2017/10/The-Value-of-Soft-Skills-to-the-UK-Economy.pdf
  5. Ofsted, 2021, Education inspection framework. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/education-inspectionframework/education-inspection-framework#provision-inspected

Author

  • Sophie Brown

    Sophie is a communications and marketing officer at Yes Futures; an award-winning charity which aims to empower young people to believe in themselves and discover their personal potential.
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