Want More Kids to Be Ready? Help them Name and Appreciate the Skills They Already Have.

Lots of people are talking about the importance of ensuring that students have social and emotional skills needed to be college and career ready.  Too often, however, the focus is on what it takes to teach young people these skills. These skills, however, are often learned in the context of doing other things – playing, studying, socializing, working, even getting out of bad situations.  We often don’t know what we’ve learned until the skill is named or know that it is important.  This is especially true of students who are black, brown or poor.

Here’s a quick summary of a research study that got me thinking about the downsides of the term social and emotional learning.

An evaluator [i]was asked to design a study to demonstrate that low-income, minority students who had completed well-designed apprenticeships with trained and motivated volunteer professionals helped them build job skills.  Not wanting to rely on employment rates, he asked a group of local HR professionals to design an entry-level interview suitable for high school students.  The program graduates were then interviewed by HR professionals.  Surprisingly, only 27 percent were given scores that would have netted employment.  When asked why the students were rated so low, the HR professionals explained that they were not expecting them to have specific content knowledge related to the jobs, but they were expecting them to be able to offer  specific instances in which they demonstrated teamwork, problem-solving, persistence, initiative, conflict resolution and other skills deemed critical for success in the workforce.

The researcher, believing that the students had these skills, designed a simple intervention.  He created six short modules in which students paired up and followed cues designed to help them identify and describe examples from their lives (apprenticeship or beyond) in which they had effectively demonstrated  each of these six named skillsets.

The intervention worked.  When re-interviewed by different HR staff, the percentage of students who were rated employable doubled.  Moreover, the correlation between those who got the highest employability ratings and those who had the best grades was quite low (0.18).

The moral of this story?

  • Low-income, minority students can, when provided with school and community-based opportunities to see what professionals in their interest areas do, strengthen the skills needed to be college and career ready.
  • These students, however, need to be explicitly told that these skills are important – that it is not only the job-specific knowledge and skills that are useful, but a broader set of social and emotional skills.
  • These students, given this information, can quickly translate their lived experiences into social capital.
  • These students are not the students that the school system, based on grades, may deem “ready” for college and work.
  • Broadening the definition of what readiness means, and providing students with opportunities to name the skills, reflect on their abilities, and work to improve them can potentially double the number of young people who are actually ready for what the future holds.

Readiness is defined as being 1) willing to tackle something and 2) being prepared to tackle something.  Young people’s willingness to tackle the opportunities and obstacles they encounter can be substantially improved if we, as adults, help them name and appreciate the ways their lived experiences have alreadyprepared them.

Building on students’ strengths is what great teachers, great parents, great youth workers and great mentors do.  They create environments in which young people feel comfortable owning and bringing in the skills and values they have and working on the skills they still need.   When we let young people reflect on their lived experiences (including those with us), we ensure that more young people not only complete high school and college, but move forward ready.

[i] Bart Hirsch.  Job Skills for Minority Youth, 2015.