Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make a man a more clever devil.
Whether your students/children are finally back in “traditional” school or back to learning from home, this school year promises to be just as novel and unprecedented as the last. There are already so many things to worry about – and now I shall bring you one more. (don’t worry, there will be a tidy wrap up at the end).
What happens to soft skills in the time of masks?
As educators, how do we model social behaviors that are important for developing character and just as crucial for acquiring “academic” skills – while adjusting to brand new sensory situations (hello, mask!)?
Furthermore, how can we adjust to these new sensory situations while also trying to aid and acclimate our students to these new sensory situations?
In March 2017, the Association of California School Administrators published an article titled, Learning to Walk in Another’s Shoes. One of the main takeaways from this exemplar is that perspective is: “the motivation and ability to “read” other people, vividly imagining their unique psychological experience, providing the compass by which we navigate our social world.” This takeaway is limited and centers singularly on a prosocial result. However, the implication of not developing perspective is not limited and will affect a child’s social maturity concurrent with that child’s academic maturity.
In fact, in 2004, the Infants and Young Children Journal published an essay titled: Strengthening Social and Emotional Competence in Young Children—The Foundation for Early School Readiness and Success; at the core of the study was the conclusion that:
The ability of young children to manage their emotions and behaviors and to make meaningful friendships is an important prerequisite for school readiness and academic success. Socially competent children are also more academically successful and poor social skills are a strong predictor of academic failure
So now what? How are parents and or educators supposed to adjust to another crucial element in their child’s education and one that while it may seem and be called “soft,” is perhaps the strength and foundation of both character and academic development in a child?
Wait, but also – what if your child is in a small pod with limited social diversity? Or what if your child is learning at home, alone? Or, what if your child is in school, but school is so different and designed now to discourage the social interaction our children have been craving since March? –
How do we ensure the modeling and application of soft skills during a time when we are encouraged and enforced to stay apart?
“Soft” skills, as another unforeseen consequence of Pandemia, may feel very overwhelming right now. But, if we take a step back, I think we might notice that we are actually and acutely capable of rising to this challenge because of this very overwhelming and ever-evolving situation we are currently experiencing.
To be a successful endeavor, school has to present itself as a microcosm of the “real” world. We can capitalize on the character and academic development in school because school is an incredibly social place, with authority figures and multitudes of opportunity to apply social skills in real-time experiences. Along with developing relationships, children also learn to participate as a single member in a larger whole; and children also learn how to respect authority and challenge authority in healthy and productive ways – all critical skills to acquire if one plans on entering adulthood. And at the top of that list of “soft” skills is perspective-taking. Perspective is the direct pipeline to empathy, and empathy bonds us together in our many-layered and complex human relationships.
Since at least the 1970s, educators have come to know and employ the magical use of metacognition or cognition about cognition or thinking about thinking when teaching abstract ideas.
For example, in my classrooms, I would model this by the following scaffold, AKC:
- Awareness: recognizing the idea or challenge,
- Knowing: creating a menu of options to actualize an idea or rise to challenge, and
- Choosing: Picking the strategy or option that will help one reach their desired outcome.
If we marry the microcosm with the metacognition – then, no matter where or how “school” is for our children this year – if we pay attention, we will undoubtedly find opportunities to model and apply the very “soft skills” we are in danger of losing.
Today, what is happening in homeschool pods, traditional school buildings, and even virtually at home is entirely new for us – parents, teachers, and students alike. What better idea to meditate over than this one: this is entirely new for all of us. Applying methodology like AKC out loud and together – as a pod, as a class, or as parent and child, will create a microcosm of the experiences we have daily.
Who amongst us adults hasn’t been so excited to leave home and return to work only to realize that it’s completely different and inherently unnatural as all social interactions have become increasingly limited? Adults and children alike are simultaneously dealing with a “new normal,” and with the genuine effects of social limitations – think on this together – and watch as you create natural avenues for empathy.
Think about it – instead of losing patience with your child’s inability to learn at home or in school, or to keep proper social distance or even to keep their mask on correctly – channel your struggle with these things and use this as the jumping-off point for new ways to model “soft” skills and especially perspective-taking. Teachers, sharing with your students how difficult this adjustment is, lets them understand YOU and what you are going through. Most importantly, if you are a teacher or parent/teacher, model empathy to yourself! Times are hard, and things are frustrating – be kind to yourself and do so out loud so you can inspire those watching you to be kind to themselves too.
Paramount to everything – acknowledge the challenges presented, validate the experiences, and work together to make it work! While you are engaged in this, you’ll notice how organically you evolve systems that help your child/student recognize their feelings of discomfort and frustrations. More importantly, you will begin to develop non-facial cues to express how you are feeling. If anything, masks present us with the perfect opportunity to help our children be brave enough to make eye contact. If we can tune our children and students into each other’s experiences, we can help them anticipate each other’s feelings without them having to hear a word. If we can do this, we can also help our children and students achieve the academic potential and successes we know them capable of – pandemic or no pandemic!
No, it won’t be easy – especially the part about being kind to oneself, but the more you model these behaviors, the more comfortable they will come. Then your child/student won’t be the only one reaping a positive from these entirely new and entirely frustrating circumstances.
See what I did there? I challenged you to create your microcosm and reflect on the metacognitive opportunities at hand. And, in pursuit of this challenge, I know you’ll see how uniquely capable you are to ensure that your children or students won’t lose the chance to develop their soft skills this academic year, and now YOU know that you can do this in whatever “school” looks like for you and yours.
Sima Ackerman Maryles, MA ELL
Educator at A+ Solutions