The Unfulfilled Promise of Education: Students’ Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Skills

Why the “Soft Skills” are the Hard Skills, and Why they are Essential for Students’ Academic Success- - What Outcomes should be Targeted?

Dear Colleagues,

For all of the rhetoric about ensuring that students are “college and career” ready, the reality is that our schools are still focused on students’ academic success and- - because of federal legislation and the U.S. Department of Education- - academic success that is measured largely by a single, high stakes, standards-based test.

And yet, we know that many university freshman are spending a significant amount of time in remedial courses because they do not have the prerequisite skills (regardless of their high school diploma) to be successful at the college level.

We also know that many students do not complete their college careers- - many, perhaps again, because they don’t have the prerequisite academic skills to be successful.

And, we know that many high school graduates- - who enter the job market directly from high school- - need significant levels of (re)training in order to apply their reading, math, oral, and written skills to their new-found jobs.

Students’ Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Skills

But today’s discussion is not about academics. Instead, it is about students’ social, emotional, and behavioral skills (or lack thereof). Because no matter how prepared or unprepared our students are academically, they are substantially more unprepared in the areas of social, emotional, and behavioral interaction and collaboration.

This is largely because our schools are not systematically teaching our students the social, emotional, and behavioral self-management skills that they need for success. . . skills that help them to learn and interact positively and prosocially in the classroom, with their peers, with teachers and other adults in school. . .and eventually in college and the workplace.

Some call these skills the “Soft Skills.” But, I think that these are the hard skills. This is because these interpersonal, social problem solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional coping skills most often occur under challenging, sometimes highly emotional, situations and circumstances. Moreover, when people are unsuccessful in these areas, they damage relationships, alienate colleagues, and sometimes lose the jobs that they are otherwise academically prepared for.

And so, as Congress rethinks our country’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act, our states, districts, and schools need to seriously consider developing a developmentally-sensitive, scaffolded preschool through high school Health, Mental Health, and Wellness curriculum with a specific scope and sequence of content, instruction, and skill development.

While some educators may say, “Another thing to do ??!!” It is important to note that hundreds of research studies over the past 20 years have demonstrated that students who learn and master social, emotional, and behavioral skills in their classrooms, academically outperform students who do not learn these skills- - at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels.

But our schools are already spending a significant amount of money, time, and training on a number of programs whose “common denominator” are the social, emotional, and behavioral skills that all students need. The problem is that many of these programs are being “marketed” (some by the federal government or our state departments of education) in mutually exclusive ways. Moreover, some of these programs have not demonstrated- - empirically and independently- - that they can be successful in different communities with students and staff from different backgrounds and who have different presenting needs, issues, and concerns.

Indeed, over the past decade, schools have been encouraged (or mandated) to have programs and/or strategies for:

  • Implementing school teasing and bully prevention programs
  • Decreasing office discipline referrals and disproportionate (minority and student with disabilities) school suspensions and expulsions
  • Facilitating “ trauma sensitive” classrooms
  • Improving school climate and preventative mental health services
  • Increasing gender, multi-cultural, racial, LGBT, disability, and other awareness, sensitivity, and interactions.

Clearly, schools do not have the money, time, personnel, or wherewithal to implement substantially separate initiatives in each of these areas.

But the reality is: Districts and schools do not need these substantially different programs or initiatives. This is because, once again, they all share the same underlying social, emotional, and behavioral goals and skills that will help all students to be successful. These are the goals and skills that help students to be socially, emotionally, and behaviorally proficient.

The Most Important Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Goals for Schools

To expand on the last statement, I would like to suggest the primary goals for a district-wide social, emotional, and behavioral initiative in the context of a Health, Mental Health, and Wellness preschool through high school “curriculum.” These goals provide a “common denominator”- - whether we are talking about the need to address, for example, teasing, disproportionality, trauma, school climate, or racial insensitivity.

NOTE also that the goals below are designed to reflect a multi-tiered prevention-strategic intervention-and-intensive need continuum where services and supports are available to students who (a) are not responding to effective, classroom-based skill instruction; and/or (b) are presenting with persistent or significant social, emotional, or behavioral challenges.

Student Goals:

Student social, emotional, and behavioral competency and self-management as demonstrated by:

  • High levels of effective interpersonal, social problem solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional coping skills and behaviors by all students;
  • High levels of critical thinking, reasoning, and social-emotional application skills and behaviors by all students; and
  • High levels of academic engagement and academic achievement for all students.

Staff Goals:

  • High levels of effective social, emotional, and behavioral skill instruction and classroom management across all teachers and instructional support staff; and
  • High levels of teacher knowledge, skill, and confidence relative to analyzing why students are academically and behaviorally underachieving, unresponsive, or unsuccessful, and to implementing strategic or intensive academic or behavioral instruction or intervention to address their needs.

School Goals:

  • High levels of positive school and classroom climate, and low levels of school and classroom discipline problems that disrupt the classroom and/or require office discipline referrals, school suspensions or expulsions, or placements in alternative schools or settings;
  • The availability of a well-designed and field-tested social, emotional, and behavioral classroom-based skill instruction program, along with support staff to facilitate its effective implementation.
  • High levels of the consultative resources and capacity needed to provide functional assessment leading to strategic and intensive instructional and intervention services, supports, strategies, and programs to academically and behaviorally underachieving, unresponsive, or unsuccessful students;
  • High levels of parent and community outreach and involvement in areas and activities that support students’ academic and social, emotional, and behavioral learning, mastery, and proficiency; and
  • High levels of student success that eventually result in high school graduation and post-secondary academic, interpersonal, and vocational school success.

Some Important Skill Targets for Schools

Critically, from a student skill perspective, the student self-management goals exist along a continuum from social-emotional competency (i.e., how students feel) to cognitive-behavioral competency (i.e., what they think and then what they do).

Using this cognitive-behavioral perspective, students’ positive feelings, thoughts, beliefs, attributions, and ability to emotionally cope with different situations represent important emotional and cognitive goals. Students’ positive interpersonal, social problem solving, and conflict prevention and resolution skills represent important behavioral goals.

More functionally, below are 12 behavioral skill clusters that students should learn and master before high school graduation:

Listening, Following Directions, Staying On-Task

Accurately interpreting Non-Verbal Cues and Voice Inflection

Being Positive, Motivated, and Persistent

Communicating Clearly, Constructively, and Courteously

Knowing how to Discuss, Interrupt, Debate, Agree, Compromise, and Disagree

Cooperating with and Accepting Others’ Opinions

Respecting Others, Being a Team Player, Taking on Different Group Roles

Knowing how to Ask for Help, and Accept Frustration or Consequences

Knowing how to Accept Failure, Losing, and Being Wrong

Showing Confidence, Dealing with Peer Pressure, Standing up for Self/Others

Controlling and Expressing Emotions, Responding to Others’ Emotions

Demonstrating Goal-oriented Planning and Time Management


Schools across the country are split between ignoring the social, emotional, and behavioral skills that our students need to be fully successful; and chasing (or being encouraged to chase) another generation of “band-wagons” that are unproven, over-specialized, unrealistic, and unsustainable.

In the middle of this dichotomy are a set of common goals and skills that will help all students to learn, master, and apply essential social, emotional, and behavioral skills.

But if our schools do not systematically teach these skills, we will not fulfill the real promise of education- - to truly prepare our students to be college and career ready- - such that the next generations of adults are personally, professionally, and collectively successful.

It is time to stop selling solutions, and begin investing in them.

It is time to stop trying to corner the market, and to begin investing in super-markets where everyone can choose the corner that works for them.

It is time to balance our schools’ investment in “getting smart,” with the need for our students and staff to be “getting along.”

This will require approaches that are proactive and planned; not reactive and reflexive.

As Congress again tries to frame our country’s educational policy, I hope they consider these thoughts.

As educators across the country begin to re-frame what they want their schools to be in the coming new year, I hope that these thoughts are helpful.

If you are “on vacation,” I hope that you are enjoying the break. As always, if I can help your school(s) or district in any of the areas related to these discussions, please do not hesitate to contact me.