Soft Skills: Preparing Kids for Life After School

Colleges and employers emphasize the importance of core skills.

Standards writers, curriculum designers, and classroom teachers have spent the past several years clamoring to find ways to revitalize curriculum and instruction and increase rigor in ways that prepare students for life after school.

We all agree that students need an education that prepares them for college and career. We know the statistics about students who go to college unprepared for the rigors of college coursework, relegated to taking courses for no credit, decreasing the likelihood that they will graduate.

But preparation for college and career success requires much more than exposure to a robust curriculum. While a solid knowledge base in classic literature or advanced levels of math certainly won’t hurt a young person on the precipice of adulthood, the voices of workforce leaders describe a skills gap of a different nature, a gap in competencies rather than content.

Today’s employers perceive a lack of soft skills among recent graduates. Soft skills, sometimes called key skills, core skills, key competencies, or employability skills, are those desirable qualities that apply across a variety of jobs and life situations—traits such as integrity, communication, courtesy, responsibility, professionalism, flexibility, and teamwork.

While these soft skills are cited as integral to workplace success—according to CareerBuilder, 77% of employers say that soft skills are just as important as hard skills— college professors identify the same characteristics as important to college success. Young people who transition successfully from high school to college show an ability to manage their time, meet deadlines, get along with classmates and roommates, and deal with setbacks.

People develop soft skills through socialization, learning the values, attitudes, and actions through interactions with others. Because socialization and relationship-building are a critical part of young adolescents’ lives, middle school is a perfect place to incorporate soft skill development into the school day. By adding this important element to instructional plans and classroom expectations, educators help prepare students for success after graduation.

Where to Begin

Many free soft skills instructional programs offer high-interest, middle grades-appropriate activities that allow students to reflect on and think about their own development of soft skills. However, the most effective way to develop students’ soft skills is to incorporate development into various aspects of the curriculum. Here are some strategies.

Integrity. Foster integrity by incorporating group work into classroom activities. Each member of the group should be responsible for a specific job or outcome. At the end of the group work assignment, ask students to reflect on how they contributed to the work and why they deserve a share of the final grade.

Communication. Develop students’ communication skills in writing for authentic audiences, participating in group discussions, and presenting to the group. They should be able to demonstrate academically productive speech as they move through a class discussion (

Courtesy. Require students to be respectful and courteous to each other in class and when collaborating with others online. Accountable talk is one strategy that promotes respectful and courteous communication.

Responsibility. Don’t rely on giving zeros for late or missing work as a means to promote responsibility. Students who fail to turn in work should be required to explain why the work was not completed and what they will do to remedy the situation in the future. Don’t propose an extension—if they want to turn the work in late, they must request the extension.

Professionalism. Promote professionalism through class expectations, such as being on time and coming prepared, being respectful of others, completing assignments, and adapting writing to the needs of others.

Flexibility. Give students long-term, problem-based projects that must be completed within parameters and interim deadlines as they see fit. These activities will encourage them to be organized and focused, to problem-solve and self-monitor.

Teamwork. Encourage teamwork and collaboration through group work and by assigning diverse students to work together. Emphasize communication, trust, integrity, responsibility, and collaboration.

Outside the classroom, teachers can promote soft skills development by providing opportunities for students to visit job sites or participate in job shadowing activities. However, the easiest and most authentic way to instill soft skills is to model them. When students regularly see adults who demonstrate these skills—by teaming, being respectful toward students and other teachers, communicating clearly, and being on time and prepared, they not only understand the value of soft skills, they know how they apply to real-life situations.

A Brighter Future

President Obama has clearly stated the important link between education and the economy. If educators are to play their part in strengthening that link, they must focus on helping students develop the soft skills that contribute to both college and workplace success.

Teaching Soft Skills

Here are some online resources to help educators integrate soft skills instruction.

Pinterest Soft Skills Education Board

Career Exploration and Employment Skills with Mr. B.

Social Skills Lesson Plans for Middle School Students