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Answering the hard questions about soft skills

Corrinna PoleFebruary 3, 2021

In episode 10 of The Great Exchange podcast, host Brian Belardi talks to Dr. Maurice Elias about soft skills, the importance of compassion in moving our world forward, and explains the connection between Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and athletics.

Dr. Elias is the director of the Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab at Rutgers University. He is also a Founding Member of the Leadership Team of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). His primary research interest involves the school-based promotion of social competence, prevention of problem behavior, and the development, implementation, evaluation, and diffusion of innovations designed to build students’ social and emotional skills and the overall “emotional intelligence” of schools.

In episode 10 of The Great Exchange podcast, host Brian Belardi asks Dr. Maurice Elias questions about soft skills, the importance of compassion in moving our world forward, and explains the connection between Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and athletics.

Dr. Elias is the director of the Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab at Rutgers University. He is also a Founding Member of the Leadership Team of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). His primary research interest involves the school-based promotion of social competence, prevention of problem behavior, and the development, implementation, evaluation, and diffusion of innovations designed to build students’ social and emotional skills and the overall “emotional intelligence” of schools.

Soft skills like communicating effectively, having interpersonal skills, and time management, are essential to thrive in the modern world. You don’t want to miss this hard-hitting conversation!

Interview highlights:

At The Great Exchange your talk on “The hard truth about soft skills” lit up attendees. Why do you think people are so inspired by social emotional learning?

We’ve had a lot of things happen to us lately that have put us in tremendous amounts of uncertainty. In so many areas of our life, we’ve had to do things that almost always involve social and emotional skills.

For example, we’re asked to be highly empathic with the family members that we’re sheltering with, with our first responders, all the people who maintain our food chain and other supply chains. Every one of these individuals has been putting themselves at risk and experiencing emotional issues. SEL happens to address all these things. Right now, in so many ways, people realize how important it is. I think the excitement comes because people had an intuitive understanding of this already. They knew this was something, but it didn’t have a name, a location, a face, and now all that is happening.

Educators are being called upon to shift to virtual and hybrid learning. How is SEL essential to making that jump?

Everything we do involves SEL. I don’t mean to think of SEL as a program, because it’s not a program. It is what I have come to call the “skills of everydayship”, as well as leadership. It’s not like it’s a discovery, it is a name that we give to essential human characteristics for how we get along with others and how we deal with situations.

When we are going over remote learning, one of the most important things we have to do and emphasize with, as teachers, is managing stress. You’ve got to be able to have the emotion-regulation skills, to allow yourself to live with the uncertainty and not get thrown off completely by it, even though you’re not going to be able to solve it. That’s one example of how important SEL is.

Another key SEL skill involves problem-solving. What’s going to happen when you go remote? You’re going to try this, it’s not going to work. You’re going to try that, it’s not going to work. You’re going to have to try a third thing and the fourth thing. In other words, you’re going to be in an ongoing problem-solving mode until you figure out what works. Then when it stops working, you’re going to have to try again.

This is a vintage social and emotional learning competency. So it’s implicated in what the adults need to do when they transition.

When the kids on the other side of this have to deal with it, they need the same skills. They need the skills to be able to manage their strong feelings. They can’t be running away from the computer every time things get a little difficult for them. They can’t respond to every distraction in their homeschool environment. When they’re in school, they have to respect social distancing, put on their masks, and wash their hands. In other words, there is a lot of self-regulation, self-awareness, and interpersonal awareness that is necessary for the whole current school environment. It was necessary for the regular school environment, but now it’s so clear that SEL is critical to how we’re going to manage education in the pandemic.

What’s the commonality between social emotional skills being the skills of everydayship and leadership?

Just like the alphabet is the basis of a children’s book and also the basis of advanced theoretical treatises, SEL skills are the essence of everydayship and also leadership. It’s a question of how do we put those skills to use? How do we combine them? How do we stretch them? How do we master them? How do we deal with a complex interaction of those skills?

That’s what leadership demands right now; a very high level of emotional intelligence, social emotional learning. Frankly, I think of teachers as leaders, they are leading their classrooms. Principals are leading their schools. Parents are leading their households. Employers are leading in the workplace, and they’re going to be tapping into their social and emotional competencies to do this effectively. It involves what happens to us every day, and it also involves what happens to us in special leadership situations.

In your talk, you said that “the hardest truth about soft skills is that soft skills hold up the world.” What did you mean by that?

The term “soft skills” is usually a sort of a derogatory term, it’s for things that are not so important. But the hard truth is that without the so-called “soft skills”, without the social emotional competencies, the world wouldn’t work. When they’re impaired, the world doesn’t work. All we have to do is look at our current governmental situation and in every instance of failure, you’ll see a failure of social and emotional competencies to be at work.

What that means is that social and emotional skills are what helps valued outcomes to happen. Every place we turn, we rely on those skills to make things work. You can go into any academic subject area and if you’re going to be successful in language, arts, science, math, visual and performing arts, social studies, etc. you are going to need to have social and emotional competencies. They are built into the curriculum without really being there. That’s another hard truth, that everything we strive to have happen that we value, cherish, and care about, is being held up by social and emotional competencies, and now we are starting to recognize that.

Do social and emotional competencies help us align on the things that we care about as a society?

It can, and this is where we get into one of the key social and emotional skills of compassion. We’re hardwired to be compassionate. Yet, some of us don’t always have our compassion detectors turned on. When we do, when we allow ourselves to experience compassion, empathy, and forgiveness, we find that we develop more common ground. When we stay in our heads, and we stay very technical, we find that we have less common ground.

I feel that social emotional competencies are really important for binding us together and finding commonalities.

Recently CASEL made a big step forward in our understanding of SEL with the release of a new definition that’s focused on elevating identity agency and belonging. One of the most important aspects of that is the idea of equity and making sure that people are more sensitive to people who are different from themselves, with different abilities, strengths, backgrounds, cultures.

This is a very positive step. I refer to it as SEL 1.8 because I don’t feel they’ve gone all the way there. To me “all the way there” involves the integration of social emotional and character development together around a sense of positive purpose. We imply a goal that every child should be supported in their positive purpose. When SEL 2.0 finally arrives, we will say it explicitly. That’s what I think is necessary because this is what we want for our kids, we want them to be using their skills toward a positive purpose.

Teddy Roosevelt once said, “To educate a person in mind, and not in morals, is to create a menace to society,” and I think there’s something to be said for that. Social and emotional skills can be thought of as the propellers, but virtues are the rudder, and the journey of life requires both. We have to have the skills, but we have to also be able to direct them in productive, positive, socially conscious ways.

Sports are often linked to brute strength, speed, athleticism. SEL evokes some very different images. But something you’ve written a lot about is that athletics promote SEL. How do strong SEL skills lead to success in the athletic arena?

When we say that SEL is what helps valued outcomes to happen, it doesn’t exclude sports. Think about clock management, and which teams do clock management well, and which don’t. This translates into which teams are in better control of their emotional stress and tension, better organized around those critical moments, and which are not.

We can watch individual athletes when they’re in high-stress performance situations. And we can help our kids notice when they’re watching stuff: What do athletes do before they go into the batter’s box? What do they do before they shoot a free throw?

Athletes have little rituals that they performto help them manage their stress. If they’re effective, it enables athletes to step into those big moments and perform better. It’s not unique to athletics, it’s in any performance situation, music, theater, all kinds.

The greatest example of this that I’ve seen comes in the context of the Special Olympics. Special Olympics is a sports situation that focuses on kids with varying kinds of abilities. It started with kids that have intellectual disabilities, a population that people thought didn’t enjoy sports, couldn’t like sports, didn’t want to compete. Of course, that was all completely wrong.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver showed that was wrong, and that these kids wanted to participate. What they needed was a certain kind of coaching that was positive, empathic, encouraging, optimistic, and problem-solving.

In other words, how are we going to help this individual who might not have the traditional abilities that the sport requires to be successful regardless? That is a problem-solving situation.

If you’ve got good social and emotional skills, you’ll put yourself in the position of the athlete, be empathic, take their perspective, and continue to persist until you find a successful solution. And, voila, you have unified champion sports, unified champion schools, and a whole structure created by Special Olympics, which amounts to SEL applied to coaching, not to mention embracing the role of volunteers, other students in the school in that process.

Coaching is such a fantastic arena for SEL. It also involves teaching kids how to deal with disappointment, with losing, how to recognize your opponent’s successes, and how to look at your performance and remain determined to create a plan for improvement.

I think that this is something that we have under-examined that’s got a lot of potential.

What are you working on next?

We’ve got a couple of books coming out in 2021. One published by ASCD and it’s about our Students Taking Action Together (STAT) program, which helps prepare our kids to engage in civil discourse and civic engagement.

Another book coming out from Corwin is “Morning Classroom Conversations” where we try to restore the art of civil conversation to all kids in all classrooms, especially at the secondary level, in short, consistent opportunities that can be spread throughout the day.

Those are some of the things that we’ve been working on to prepare our kids better for the roles and responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy.


Listen to more conversations with educators making an impact on student engagement at The Great Exchange podcast. Visit Great-Exchange.com to stream inspiring sessions with leaders across education, tech, and gaming from Classcraft and Google’s student engagement summit. 

Interview edited for clarity.

Social Emotional Learning