Head of School Blog

Fostering Life Skills that Go Beyond the Books

Jill Singleton | Volume: 5 Issue: 6 | Oct. 21, 2015
Last week, a misunderstanding between the Eighth Grade class and the administration about dismissal activities led to loss of the students’ off-campus lunch privileges for the day. It seemed like a logical consequence, and I granted my approval. That evening, however, I received an email from a member of the Eighth Grade class that just about knocked my socks off. The email was respectful and courteous, and what’s more, the students accepted responsibility for their part in the misunderstanding. There was not even a hint of blame-casting, finger-pointing, anger or self-righteousness (and from what I later learned about the misunderstanding, they wouldn’t have been off-base to be a little indignant). The students had a case to make about the misunderstanding, and they approached their problem solving task with confidence and sophistication. Wow– was I impressed!

As I thought about the email, I was struck by the many "soft skills" we teach as an integral part of our academic curriculum. Our spirituality program is a wonderful vehicle for developing these skills. Students and adults alike spend time reflecting on the importance of community, collaboration and respectful communication. Caring for others and participating in our many service projects not only gives children a sense of hopefulness, it gives them a feeling of self-worth and personal value. Our regular practice of an ancient spiritual ritual called the Examen helps even our youngest students develop an appreciation for the many joy-filled moments in our lives, as well as the moments of challenge or disappointment. Finally, teachers are diligent about taking the time to engage students in reflecting on these experiences, helping students to deepen their self-awareness and personal identity.

Research over the past several years has underscored the importance of these "non-academic" skills for personal achievement and professional competence. Called everything from soft skills to emotional intelligence, these critical skills, which have been proven to be a greater predictor of professional success than traditional IQ scores, cannot be captured in a standardized test. Albert Einstein was aware of this concept years ago, as evidenced by his well-known quote, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” While we may not be able to count it, we certainly know it when we see it – that "it factor" – and isn’t that what really counts?

So how does one go about fostering these "it factor" skills? You can’t just buy a program that will lead to an outcome as impressive as the email I received from the Eighth Graders. These skills, in my opinion, emerge from the experience of living in a community where the culture nurtures and expects well developed social skills. Every member of the community is expected to model these, and even the eldest or most experienced members (including adults) are committed to further refining their skills. In the area of social development, we are never really "there," but instead are always growing in our ability to effect meaningful change and to "make our mark" in a way that is consistent with our values.

I asked teachers to share some of the ways in which they design instruction to support the development of these sought-after "soft skills." Here are a few of the thoughts they shared:

"We teach the Third Graders to greet teachers and classmates at the door each morning with a firm handshake and good eye contact. The students are also expected to shake their teacher's hand, and thank them for a great day in the afternoon before being dismissed with their guardians."

-Stephanie Karian, Third Grade Southwest Teacher

"In Third and Fourth Grade we have started a community snack and lunch.  Each day we choose to have the Third Grade or the Fourth Grade greet someone new and ask them to sit with them to eat. We form one large circle and ask students to find something in common to discuss. We thought this was important because it provides students with an opportunity to develop conversational skills and manners, creates a community environment, and is a great way for students to get to know each other."

-Danielle Seubert, Fourth Grade West Teacher

"Working with the Eighth Grade class as they navigate the high school process, I see their kindness and respect for each other and for the adults surrounding them. They actively listen and offer thoughtful, constructive feedback in support of one another."

-Amina O’Kane, High School Placement & Admissions Director

"By focusing on having children develop skills needed to navigate the complex world of interpersonal relationships, our school gives children the toolbox they will need when they see more developed examples of these same scenarios in adult life. All Saints works hard to grow self-aware citizens of the world who will understand how they fit in it and what they can do to better it."

-Laurent S'Chevalier, Middle School Humanities Teacher

"At the end of the day we have our closing meeting that includes announcements, apologies, and acknowledgments. Students are able to clear the air and/or talk about some kindness that someone did for them during the day. Our most frequent acknowledgment is for students who help other students tie their shoes."

-Kathy Ferman, Kindergarten North Teacher

"In Fourth Grade students are expected to collaborate on a variety of small projects each day as they prepare to showcase their capabilities on their larger milestone projects such as the Boardwalk Milestone and Action Research presentation. Fourth Grade students at All Saints are also asked to interact with students from Kindergarten to Middle School as they participate in Reading Buddies, recess and lunch, and Middle School clubs."

-Colleen Nguyen, Fourth Grade East Teacher

"Through collaborative projects in Art, such as Eighth graders creating a sculptural installation, students are learning not only how to make meaning in their art, but to expand their expressions of meaning through teamwork. Students as young as Kindergarten critique each other, learning how to express encouragement to their peers while also giving each other suggestions to make their art even better."

-Rachel Therres, Art & Community Time Teacher

"In Third Grade the students work in small groups to complete many different projects. For example, while studying the regions of North America, the students are asked to work in small groups to create a digital scrapbook of an imaginary trip through their region and present it to their classmates. The students have to use many social skills such as cooperation, listening to other's ideas, patience, and collaboration to successfully complete their project."

-Tatiana Wisniewski, Third Grade Northwest Teacher

"Morning Meetings encourage children to greet and listen to each member of the class. We also do many group activities in all subject areas where students need to work in teams to complete assigned tasks. Social skills are so important to us at All Saints that there is an entire section of our progress reports dedicated to them."

-Rachael Beesley, First Grade West Teacher

Questions? Comments? Ideas? I’d love to hear them! Email me: jsingleton@allsaintshoboken.com