Are Soft Skills Important to be Successful? Kansans Say Yes!

Dr. Randy Watson, Kansas Commissioner of Education, presents findings in an eye-opening report based on a survey of a thousand community and business persons across Kansas. Participants were asked to write about what makes a successful young adult; researchers at K-State analyzed results.

Kansans Say Non-Academic Skills Matter Most

Surprisingly, academic skills were not the most important items on anyone’s list. Over 70% of the community, and over 80% of business owners cited non-academics, such as being on time and showing perseverance. See Dr. Watson discuss these findings.

In working with young adults with disabilities, the emphasis is for them to increase in independence. Does it require intense instruction on academic skills or the more non-academic soft skills?

It depends on the individual. Many need to increase in self-confidence, which might mean learning to speak up, interact with unfamiliar people, or persevere when a task is difficult. Academic skills are important, such as being able to read a menu and count out money, but if the person freezes up in a real life situation due to fear or lack of experience in the community, those skills don’t really matter. It looks like the rest of Kansas thinks the same way!

How Should We Prepare Students With Disabilities?

How, then, do we best prepare teens for their adult life?  High school graduates, disabled or not, need to handle finances, manage time, complete forms, build a resume or portfolio, and use reasoning to approach life. They need good work habits and the perseverance to deal with challenges. Independence includes handling unexpected situations, so new experiences is key.

Community-Based Instruction Provides Variety and Challenge

Students may go to the grocery store, library, or out to eat with their families, but it’s a different experience to go with peers, staff, or on their own. First of all, they often have habits of leaning on family members when ordering or paying for purchases. Many have not started carrying a wallet with money. Community-based instruction is a valuable part of students’ high school experience. Exposing students to a variety of experiences is simple: Get into the community, vary the daily or weekly schedule, and set up tasks that require talking to people and sharing community spaces.

Getting into the community is challenging, but in a good way. Many students with disabilities need to practice making purchases because it involves so many skills. Interacting with the cashier to place a food order is a juggling act; to apply functional academic skills, an individual has to think about how much money they have to spend, read the menu, make choices based on personal health needs and preferences, add item amounts, and keep the amount within budget (including tax and tip if applicable). When paying, they need to manage a debit card or count out the correct amount of cash. Communication skills include asking questions and speaking clearly.

Non-academic skills when making a purchase include managing a backpack, purchased items, money, and receipt without leaving anything behind and while moving away from the cash register in a timely manner. It’s hard, and it takes repetition to master. Even better is to vary the type of food and retail establishments visited. This challenges the individual to figure out the system by reading signage or watching other customers. It also gives the individual confidence when they return with friends or family.

Variety in the schedule helps the student reduce reliance on routine. Work and college schedules often vary from day to day, so having a varied schedule pushes the individual to use a calendar and develop organizational skills. “What time will I come home tomorrow? Do I need money today? What should I wear today?” Having a varied and interesting schedule means that students are highly motivated to be prepared, and using a calendar becomes a necessary part of daily life. Providing these experiences in the community helps build confidence and flexibility.

How Will Kansas Respond?

Kansas is on the right track in thinking about non-academic skills as an indicator of success. How are educators addressing this? Dr. Watson suggests that it requires partnerships with business and the community. Strategies commonly used in special education, such as personalization and real life experiences targeted toward career goals, are good for all learners. Building soft skills enables students to gain independence needed for success in adulthood.

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View Kansas Commissioner of Education Dr. Randy Watson’s “Kansans Can” Speech.