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  • Writer's pictureKjell Fenn, M.Ed., M.A.

Jimmy's a Jerk, but He Knows Algebra: The Need for Teaching Soft Skills in K-12 Schools

by Kjell Fenn, M.Ed., M.A.

The need for our students to learn and apply soft skills is critical. Employers lament the sad state of their young workforce. No, not that the young people lack the skills or the know-how. The employer understands on-the-job training and technical skills development. I have heard employers complain that half their employees don't show up to work, they're late, they grumble and complain about doing their jobs, and more. I've heard similar comments from college and university personnel. The students don't go to class, they don't do assignments and expect the profs to understand their life crises, they arrive late, and more. It's not that the students are unprepared academically as much as it is their poor attitudes.

All of these comments by employers and university folks have made me ask an odd question: who cares if Jimmy knows algebra if he's a jerk? We all want to graduate students who are collaborative and kind, who can critically think and solve problems, show initiative and integrity, all while being good at math. It’s often at the Prek-12 school that we don’t have to choose between the two. We can have intelligent and kind students. But we have to create them.

The history of education demonstrates that schools were created to instill community values and ethics, the morality of the people, and how to be useful citizens. To produce students who are collaborative, community-oriented, responsible, respectful, and show initiative and integrity, we must teach them. Just like when a child does not know how to add, we teach; when a child does not know how to write, we teach; when a child does not know how to swim, we teach; when a child does not know how to analyze text, we teach; and when a child does not know how to collaborate. . .? We need to teach, not reprimand or scold. We need to teach what it means to be community-oriented.

Executive Skills

This is a term that is a combination of executive functioning and soft skills. Executive skills are associated with "EQ" (Emotional Intelligence Quotient), the personality traits, social graces, communication, language, personal habits, interpersonal skills, managing people, leadership, etc., that characterize relationships with other people. Our executive skills come from our core values as a school: respect, responsibility, community, collaboration, integrity, and initiative.

Research About Soft Skills

It is no secret that our world has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. When we entered the 21st century, there was a demand for schools to teach 21st-century skills. Multiple organizations and educational think tanks produced what they believed to be the most essential skills needed for the next generations to be successful. 21st-century skills accentuate the focus on executive skills including critical thinking and problem-solving, collaboration, adaptability, initiative and entrepreneurialism, curiosity, and imagination.[1]

The National Bureau of Economic Research states: “Achievement tests miss, or perhaps more accurately, do not adequately capture, [executive] skills—personality traits, goals, motivations, and preferences—that are valued in the labor market, in school, and in many other domains... soft skills predict success in life [and] causally produce that success.”[2]

Patrick C. Kyllonen[3] found that personality was shown to predict getting a job, managerial success, leadership effectiveness, job performance, absenteeism, & team performance. Some studies showed that conscientiousness (i.e., the trait of striving, being organized, and working hard) predicted both workplace and academic success. Other research suggests that grades and retention were predicted by having academic goals, institutional commitment, conscientiousness, time management skills, and persistence.

Paul Tough, in his 2012 book How Children Succeed asserts that students’ scores of self-discipline were better predictors of their final GPAs than their IQ scores. He continues by reporting that the “test that most reliably predicted a high-school student’s future didn’t measure IQ; it measured how a student’s peers rated him on ‘strength of character,’ which included being ‘conscientious, responsible, insistently orderly, not prone to daydreaming, determined, persevering.’ This measure was three times more successful in predicting college performance than any combination of cognitive ratings, including SAT scores and class rank.”

What Colleges and Businesses Say About Soft Skills

A 2012 paper entitled Lifelong Soft Skills Framework: Creating a Workforce that Works[4] asserts that regardless of sector, industry, occupation, or level, the vast majority of employers consider executive skills to be an essential component of workplace success. Many employers lament the lack of such skills in many of their employees. A lack of soft skills is correlated with a lack of productivity, higher staff turnover, lower customer satisfaction, and the inability for one to improve his/her situation.

In an article published by Education Week[5], Caralee Adams states that while students entering the university need academic skills, they also need to ”be able to manage their own time, get along with roommates, and deal with setbacks. Resiliency and grit, along with the ability to communicate and advocate, are all crucial life skills.” She continues with a profound assertion: the lack of soft skills in students damages their chances of completing college.

What We Can Do

What schools can do is teach soft skills just like the content. We can embed soft skills in the existing curricular framework, into the standards. There are 6 approaches to teaching these skills: isolated, integrated, mini-lesson, essential questions, biographical, and informal or natural.

The isolated lesson approach is one in which the teacher teaches the soft skill in a full lesson that doesn’t necessarily connect to the content. The integrated lesson approach differs significantly in that the teacher teaches the skill directly connected to the content. The mini-lesson is a partial lesson (15-20 minutes) that connects with the current lesson. The essential question approach embeds the soft skill(s) within the essential question itself. The biographical approach studies a character within the curriculum. And the informal or natural approach teaches the skill as situations arise.

In the teaching of soft skills, we must give our students the vocabulary and frames. Vocabulary consists of the key terms that are found in our definitions of the soft skills themselves, plus synonyms. These terms are taught just like subject vocabulary. Develop a rubric that includes those key terms, as well. For example, a key term in collaboration is “team member” which can be defined as “a person who participates in and contributes to a group” and has synonyms such as participant, partner, and contributor.

The frames are phrases that are used when a person or group is demonstrating or manifesting the soft skills. The frames are rooted in Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory which states that managing language creates culture[6]. For example, frames of collaboration are “Do you want to play?” “I’m glad you’re in our group,” and “Did you get a turn to speak?” As kids use these frames they shape their behavior to align with the skills which create the culture of the classroom.

Teaching and assessing soft skills is no longer a luxury for certain schools only. We must all be intentional in fully developing every child. We must strive to shape and mold young people’s minds and hearts. We must prepare them, not for college or the workforce only, but for life.


[1] Johnson, B. (2015). College and Career Ready: Soft Skills are Crucial. Retrieved at

[2] Heckman, J.J. & Kautz, T.D. (2012). Hard evidence on soft skills. National Bureau of Economic Research: Cambridge, MA.

[3] Kyllonen, P.C. (2013). Soft Skills for the Workplace. Retrieved from Issues/2013/NovemberDecember2013/soft_skills_full.html

[4] Southeast Michigan Council of Governments

[5] Adams, C.J. (2012). ‘Soft Skills’ Pushed as Part of College Readiness. Retrieved from

[6] Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Eds. Michael Cole, Vera John-Steiner, Sylvia Scribner, and Ellen Souberman. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Authored by Kjell Fenn © SchoolRIGHT, LLC., unless otherwise specified. All rights reserved.


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