Preschool through IB Middle School
School Leadership

The Rise of Soft Skills

John Suitor, Head of School
Print, online, and social media are awash with stories evaluating the role of SI (social intelligence) and EI (emotional intelligence) in 21st century society. 
Frequently, these skills are described as “soft,” juxtaposed to the value of “hard” sciences or measured against the three Rs of reading, writing, and arithmetic. To be sure, the skills in question have not been at the center of school curricula. Mindful practice, cooperation, and relationship building have long taken a back seat to English, history, math, science, and language instruction. Not anymore. SI and EI skills are increasingly coming to the fore, and school leaders throughout the K-16 educational spectrum are paying close attention to their benefits.

The SI and EI call to action stems from a variety of forces emerging in our economy and society. Hectic schedules at school and at home, 24-hour digital access, and the prevalence of multitasking, are causing higher stress levels in our children, which lead to sleeplessness, anxiety, and an increase in illness and disease. As well, the importance of innovation, partnership, and critical thinking are on the rise. In the world of economics, borders and language differences are no longer barriers, headquarters are referred to as campuses, and workers are increasingly organized into teams. Corporation after corporation continue to hail these skills as necessary to advance the economy into its next century.

Dr. Kristin Race, author of Mindful Parenting, is among the researchers and practitioners who are championing the SI and EI cause. She combines neuroscience and mindfulness practice when working with schools, corporations, and other organizations. An advocate of teaching mindfulness in schools, her research and the work of others shows that mindfulness practice stimulates engagement for students and creates more effective learning environments. Building positive neural connections help our brains bounce back from stress-related events. Many of these events are not life threatening, but – over time – small, stressful, non-life threatening events can raise our baseline stress levels compromising effective decision-making, attention, and performance. Training our brains to be resilient is key to keeping baseline stress levels low.

Rebecca Chopp, Chancellor at the University of Denver, recently spoke to a gathering of Colorado independent school heads about emotional intelligence and its impact on higher education. She argues that colleges and universities need to teach all students conflict management, negotiation, and how to navigate the complexity that makes up our human existence. As we shift into a world where character, leadership, problem solving, and working with diverse populations become more important, we have to teach EI and SI skills at all levels of education. As a result, courses with titles that include social and emotional intelligence are populating more frequently in course catalogs at schools like DU across the country. Even within disciplines in higher education, institutions are shifting rapidly to focus on creativity, interdisciplinary, and collaboration.
At Boulder Country Day, our focus on character education led us to institute a daily morning meeting to reset our social and emotional norms and emphasize the “soft” skills cooperation and human relations. Part of the Responsive Classroom method, we understand now more than ever before that children need to feel safe and welcome in order to learn. Many of our teachers are also adding mindful practice to morning meeting knowing its results will lead to better educational outcomes. Kath Courter, Head of BCD’s preschool, often remarks about the importance of teaching our youngest students how to cooperate with others. She says, “Whether you are 5 years-old and taking turns on the slide in preschool or 45 and not being very nice at a copy machine while at work, the behaviors are the same. We have to be intentional with our instruction in order to teach our students how to navigate their social and emotional worlds.” This is hard work, not soft, and perhaps it’s time we elevate EI and SI education to its rightful place in our schools.

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Boulder Country Day School, where academic distinction meets education with character. BCD is a top rated, accredited private school in Boulder, Colorado where every child has the opportunity to discover his or her own unique excellence. Distinguished by small class sizes, outstanding faculty, engaging academics and a focus on community, our preschool, elementary and IB middle school teachers strive to create a well-rounded educational environment that balances traditional subjects with the arts, world languages, athletics and project-based learning.