The traditional teaching context sets itself outside the main stream of life, outside the hustle and bustle of the local community. Some of the underlying premises of ‘institutionally based’ teaching are that it can best take place in a specifically designed place, at specific times, with experts specialized in teaching, using carefully selected material and according to a predetermined path. The result of this perspective with respect to learning is that the context created for teaching bears little resemblance to life in the rest of the world. In the real world, ignoring soft skills is the equivalent of sending kids into the woods without camping gear-or at least with nothing but a sleeping bag. There is a clear lack of soft skills among a large portion of students; that the problem is rooted in our existing educational system-which is primarily focused on imparting/acquiring ‘hard skills’, and that it must be tackled at student as well as faculty level.
Over the past few years there has been a growing awareness for the need for soft skills development among the academia and the corporate. Indeed, many institutes have also introduced a component of soft skills in the curricula. But these initiatives are the proverbial drop in the ocean. Most have not had the desired impact. There is a need to review the situation and develop strategies to overcome these problems without undermining the importance of hard skills. The plight of today’s children can be seen at subtle levels, in day-to-day problems that have not yet blossomed into major crises. Based on parents’ and teachers’ assessments, children on average were doing poorly in these specific ways: withdrawal or social problems, anxious and depressed, attention or thinking problems, delinquent or aggressive. This is a new kind of toxicity seeping into and poisoning the very experience of childhood. This malaise seems to be a universal price of modern life for children. No children, rich or poor are exempt from these risks. These problems are universal, occurring in all ethnic, racial and income groups. Learning soft skills is not just about learning manners, etiquette and English as is commonly perceived. Therefore, the indignant refrain from parents/educators of the middle class and wealthy that their children did not need such learning is totally miss-placed.
In the absence of good support systems, external stresses have become so great that even strong families are falling apart. The hectic-ness, instability and inconsistency of daily family life are rampant in all segments of our society, including the well-educated and well-to-do. If families no longer function effectively to put our children on a firm footing for life, what are we to do? As family life no longer offers growing numbers of children a sure footing in life, schools are left as the one place communities can turn to for correcting children’s deficiencies in soft skills, emotional and social competence. That is not to say that schools alone can stand in for all the social institutions that too often are in or nearing collapse. But since virtually every child goes to school (at least at the outset), it offers a place to reach children with basic lessons of living that they may never get otherwise. Soft skill literacy implies an extended mandate for schools, taking up the slack for failing families in socializing children. This daunting task requires that teachers go beyond their traditional mission.
As children change and grow the preoccupation of the hour changes accordingly. To be most effective soft skill and emotional literacy must be pegged to the development of the child, and repeated at different ages in ways that fit a child’s changing understanding and challenges. The timetable is intertwined with allied lines of development, particularly for cognition, on the one hand, and brain and biological maturation, on the other. The 5-year old, on entering the wider social world of school, enters to the world of social comparisons – being able to compare oneself to others on particular qualities, whether popularity, attractiveness, or skateboarding talents. From ages from six to eleven school is a crucible and a defining experience that will heavily influence children’s indolence and beyond. A child’s sense of self-worth depends substantially on his or her ability to achieve in school. A child who fails in school sets in motion the self-defeating attitudes that can dim prospects for an entire lifespan.
Puberty-because it is the time of extraordinary change in the child’s biology, thinking capacities, and brain functioning-is also crucial time for soft skills and emotional literacy lessons. Teen years-most of the adolescents are ten to fifteen years old when they are exposed to sexuality, alcohol and drugs, smoking and other temptations. The transition to middle school or junior high marks an end to childhood, and is itself a formidable emotional challenge. It is that this juncture that it helps to buttress boys’ and girls’ abilities to build close relationships and navigate crises in friendship, and to nurture their self-confidence. Those that have had their literacy classes find the new pressures of peer politics, the upping of academic demands and the temptations to smoke and use drugs less troubling than do their peers.
Soft skills and emotional literacy expands our vision of the task of schools themselves, making them more explicitly society’s agent for seeing that children learn these essential lessons for life-a return to the classic role of education. It also works best when the lessons at school are coordinated with what goes on in the children’s homes. That way children get consistent messages about soft skill and emotional competencies in all parts of there lives. In short, the optimal design of such programs is to begin early, be age-appropriate, run through out the school years and intertwine efforts at school, at home and in the community. It increases the likelihood that what children learned will not stay behind at school, but will be tested, practiced, and sharpened in the actual challenges of life. Another way in which this focus re-shapes schools is in building a campus culture that makes it a “caring community”, a place where students feel respected, cared about, and bonded to classmates, teachers and the school itself.
It would be nave not to anticipate hurdles in getting such programs into schools. Many parents may feel that the topic itself is too personal a domain for the schools that such things are best left to parents. Teachers may be reluctant to yield yet another part of the school day to topics that seemed unrelated to the academic basics, some teachers may be too uncomfortable with the topics to teach them, and all will need special training to do so. Some children too, will resist, especially to the extent that these classes are out of synch with their actual concerns, or feel like intrusive impositions on their privacy. And then there is then dilemma of maintaining high quality, and ensuring that slick education marketers do not peddle ineptly designed emotionally-competent programs that repeat the disasters of say, ill-conceived courses on drugs or teen pregnancy.
Soft Skills and Emotional Literacy improve academic achievement. This is not an isolated finding; it recurs again and again in such studies. In a time when too many children lack the capacity to handle their upsets, to listen or focus, to rein in impulse, to feel responsible for their work or care about learning, anything that will buttress these skills will help in their education. Soft skills and emotional literacy courses seem to help children better fulfil their roles in life, becoming better friends, students, sons and daughters- and in the future are more likely to be better husbands and wives, workers and bosses, parents, and citizens. A rising tide lifts all boats. It’s not just the kids with problems, but all kids who can benefit from these skills; these are an inoculation for life.
Children today have poor soft skills and emotional literacy because we as a society have not bothered to make sure every child is taught the essentials of handling anger or resolving conflicts in a positive manner. Nor have we bothered to teach empathy, impulse control, or any of the other fundamentals of soft skills and emotional competence. By leaving these issues children learn to chance, we risk largely wasting the window of opportunity presented by the slow maturation of the brain to help children cultivate a healthy emotional repertoire. Despite high interest in emotional literacy among some educators, these courses are yet rare; most teachers, principal and parents simply do not know they exist. The best models are largely outside the educational mainstream, in a handful of private schools and a few hundred public schools. Shouldn’t we be teaching these most essential skills for life to every child-now more than ever?
And if not now, when?
Considering the fact that during the last decades in society the perceived importance of soft skills has increased significantly, it is of high importance for everyone to acquire adequate skills beyond academic or technical knowledge. This is not particularly difficult. Once a shortcoming in a certain area of soft skills has been identified at oneself, there are numerous ways of rectifying such a deficiency. Educators have a special responsibility regarding soft skills, because during students’ school time they have major impact on the development of their students’ soft skills. Besides raising awareness regarding the importance of soft skills and encouraging students to improve their skills, lecturers should actively practice soft skills with their students. As a positive side effect the lessons will become more attractive, which in turn will increase the success rate of learners. Soft skills fulfill an important role in shaping an individual’s personality by complementing his/her hard skills. However, over emphasizing it to such an extent should not taint the importance of soft skills, that hard skills, i.e. expert knowledge in certain fields, are demoted to secondary importance.