Many skills sets, particularly in the social-emotional category, are not explicit aspects of our academic curricula. As educators, our ultimate goal involves preparing young people for all facets of the real world. Yes, we primarily stick to our content areas; however, certain skill sets are not only cross-curricular, they are also essential to success in adulthood. Whether teaching in the primary, middle, or secondary school setting, we can each play a crucial role when it comes to these non-academic features of college and career readiness.
The focus for learning in the primary grades has shifted in the last decade or so. It used to be that those early years in the classroom circled around creativity, imaginative play, relationship building, and simply grasping what it means to learn. While these qualities are still present, academic skills have clearly become more prominent. Yet learning at the elementary level still teaches more than academic rigor and content-specific information.
Early elementary grades teach children how to share and get along with others. These basic social skills and manners are an essential part of development and socialization. For adults, social acuity, or the ability read others’ behavior and act accordingly, is a life skill that many believe to be directly linked to success in adulthood. The ability to understand and relate to others involves critical thinking—and just not in the conscious way that we usually see it in the academic realm. In the same way that students will discuss how a character feels and why they know, children learn to read others’ behavior, body language, facial expressions, and tone. While they may not know that they are performing this sort of analysis, it is arguably one of the more important life skills to acquire to become a successful adult.
Can this vital life skill be evaluated on a standard grading scale? No, but a child that struggles to relate to and get along with others is very apparent and at a distinct disadvantage in school.
The sharing, caring, getting along mentality of the primary grades continues to build and develop during middle school years. In addition to these essential social skills, middle schoolers also begin to develop autonomy, self-advocacy, and accountability. Parents still maintain a significant role in a child’s education; however, more of the responsibility should be shouldered by the student himself. A new level of self-reliance is essential when navigating these transformative years in middle school.
In elementary school, parents typically act as the liaison between child and teacher. At a certain point, it is time to take off the training wheels, so to speak. The age or grade level can vary from child to child, but somewhere around 7th grade, a student should begin to act on her own behalf at school. She forgot to do her homework? She should be the one to explain it to her teacher. He left his project on the kitchen table? He will have to take responsibility and discuss late credit with his teacher. These are difficult life lessons, especially for parents. It is instinctual for parents to want the best for their children and to ease any stress or burden; however, endlessly coming to your child’s rescue does nothing to help him or her develop a sense of responsibility. A child who knows she can always rely on mom or dad to metaphorically “clean up her messes” will struggle to problem solve, take ownership of mistakes, and develop independence.
An extreme example of this lack of culpability is seen at the university level, where professors are now fielding emails and calls from parents asking for clarity on a student’s recent grade. Of course, professors are scoffing at the absurdity of parents’ requests to take another look at a paper, or to offer extra credit for the course. Creating the expectation for self-reliance early will better prepare students down the road.
Once students reach high school, GPA, extracurricular activities, and future plans become the focus. The life skills that best support students at this stage of their education include multi-tasking and grit. Adult life, as students will soon discover, involves a great deal of juggling. The ability to evaluate multiple tasks, prioritize, and execute them is essential for students entering the workforce. This level of executive functioning occurs throughout a child’s entire education; however, the stakes are higher in high school—no pun intended. Organization is a key when it comes to multitasking. Grit involves the ability to act with resolve and determination even after a failure or setback. The concept of mind over matter applies here—high schoolers need to be able to maintain focus on the end goal, no matter the distractions or obstacles involved.