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How to teach soft skills in afterschool and enrichment programs

Published: July 13, 2023
A member of Work ED staff laughs with a student. Both are seated. The staff member wears a t-shirt that reads "breaking barriers, building futures".

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    Soft skills can’t be learned in a book. Soft skills can’t be learned by sitting in a classroom, copying notes from the whiteboard. Soft skills can’t really even be tested in the same way as other skills.

    And yet, soft skills play such a big role in getting hired, getting promoted, and navigating challenges outside of the workplace.

    So how can educators help young people develop their soft skills to give them a better chance of succeeding after they leave school?

    By investing in afterschool and enrichment programs that specifically help young people develop the soft skills that will lead to a successful career. However, creating such programs from scratch takes careful planning to create the right environment for learning soft skills.

    With that in mind, let’s take a soft skill deep dive and explore how to design programs that educators can use to help their students develop their soft skills from a young age.

    A pair of students dancing and laughing in the middle of a classroom while the teacher encourages them and other students look on.Learning soft skills? That's the fun part! Copyright Work ED.

    What are soft skills?

    “Soft skills” is a misleading name because it makes these skills sound like they don’t make much of an impact or are easy to learn. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

    Soft skills are a set of skills that are useful in any situation. This is different to hard skills (or technical skills), which are the skills or knowledge needed to do a specific job, such as being a doctor or electrician.

    Soft skills can include things that we might commonly call “people skills”, things like the ability to be a good communicator and to easily make connections with others. Qualities like confidence and leadership are also soft skills. 

    Society has taught us to value technical skills over soft skills—school curriculums mostly focus on developing technical skills in a range of subjects without ever teaching young people how to problem solve in new and challenging situations outside of the curriculum. 

    However, companies are putting more emphasis on soft skills when hiring and training staff, especially since the Coronavirus pandemic. So not only are soft skills in demand, they also prepare young people for an uncertain future where adaptability is key to thriving in the job market.

    Next up we’ll look at what soft skills educators can teach young people to help them thrive. 

    Soft skills vs hard skills

    • Soft skills: a range of general, foundational skills that make us better at working with people and adapting to any new situation. Soft skills are hard to measure and can be subjective, so it’s hard to prove you have them without showing that you do.

    • Hard skills (or technical skills): the skills and knowledge needed to do a specific job. Hard skills can be measured and proven using tests that give you qualifications (e.g., a Bachelor degree). Hard skills are usually not transferable to other areas (e.g., just because someone knows about physics, that doesn’t mean they’ll know how to fly a plane). 

    A group of students works together on a project, with one student in the middle looking like he's leading the discussion.Communication and collaboration: more important than technical skills? Copyright Work ED.

    The top soft skills to teach

    Afterschool and enrichment career discovery programs will be more effective if they help students develop the soft skills that help get them hired. But what are the soft skills such programs should target?

    Employable soft skills can be split into 3 main categories: relationship-based, self-based, project-based. Combined, these soft skills will help a young person whatever their career pathway. Let’s take a look at each.

    Relationships-based soft skills are those that help a person connect with others. These are an important set of career soft skills because they help nurture connection. These connections improve outcomes when we collaborate with others: if we can listen with empathy, we can hear what our teammates are saying and work better together. Relationship-based soft skills also help develop professional networks. A healthy professional network helps young people progress through their career faster and more successfully as they learn from others and can receive recommendations and introductions to lucrative opportunities.

    Self-based soft skills are those that help a person understand their own thoughts and feelings, and how their behavior effects outcomes. We all have good days and bad days. An understanding of our own patterns, triggers, and responses helps us navigate challenges whatever kind of day we’re having. This helps people develop a robust mindset where they know how to get things done even they’re feeling distracted, discouraged, or overwhelmed. On the other hand, these soft skills can also help people avoid burnout, by learning when they are going beyond their limits and in need of a break.

    Project-based soft skills are those that help a person be more effective at achieving results. Every business is about getting results, whether that’s a construction company building homes, a retail company making sales, or an app that needs downloads. Getting results doesn’t have to mean working 100-hour weeks though. The soft skills needed to deliver results are the same whatever the workplace: time management, the ability to prioritize, responsibility, and teamwork. However, magic can happen by adding soft skills such as the ability to organize thoughts, critical thinking, and creativity. Those skills are what push companies into new business opportunities and help them stand out.

    Here's a list of soft skills within these three categories, with explainers. Note sometimes that some soft skills apply to multiple categories.

    Soft skill: Emotional regulation

    Examples: Understanding and managing emotions to prevent self-sabotaging behaviors.

    Category: Self

    Soft skill: Energy management

    Examples: Being attuned with your body and knowing when to take breaks, looking after health with exercise and healthy nutrition.

    Category: Self

    Soft skill: Thinking frameworks/how to organize thoughts

    Examples: Developing a system that helps memorize information and put it into practice.

    Category: Self

    Soft skill: Adaptability

    Examples: The ability to be unfazed by new situations.

    Category: Self

    Soft skill: Confidence

    Examples: Being genuinely yourself and not letting thoughts of self-doubt get in your way.

    Category: Self

    Soft skill: Creativity

    Examples: The ability to use imagination to make something original, or make connections others don’t see.

    Category: Self/projects

    Soft skill: Communication

    Examples: The ability to effectively transfer what you know so that your audience understands.

    Category: Relationships

    Soft skill: Empathy

    Examples: The ability to listen to and feel someone else’s story, to understand why they feel the way they do.

    Category: Relationships

    Soft skill: Compassion

    Examples: The ability to act with genuine kindness towards someone.

    Category: Relationships

    Soft skill: The ability to teach

    Examples: Being able to help others improve their own understanding.

    Category: Relationships/Projects

    Soft skill: Teamwork and collaboration

    Examples: The ability to work with others in order to achieve an outcome.

    Category: Relationships/Projects

    Soft skill: Time management

    Examples: Time management isn’t just about meeting deadlines, it involves setting realistic deadlines, being able to prioritize, and finding ways to be more efficient.

    Category: Projects/self

    Soft skill: Responsibility 

    Examples: The ability to take ownership of our words and actions and to stay truthful to our promises, values, and sense of self.

    Category: Projects/self

    Soft skill: Leadership

    Examples: A culmination of the attributes above plus the willingness to take responsibility for the actions of others.

    Category: Projects/relationships

    Here’s an overview of the soft skills listed in the table above:

    • Emotional regulation

    • Energy management

    • Thinking frameworks/how to organize thoughts

    • Adapability

    • Confidence

    • Communication

    • Empathy

    • Compassion

    • The ability to teach

    • Time management

    • Teamwork and collaboration

    • Critical thinking/research skills

    • Creativity

    • Responsibility

    • Leadership

    Identifying soft skills that can help young people succeed is one thing, but can they actually be learned?

    Creativity, collaboration, and communication in action. Copyright Work ED.

    Can soft skills be learned?

    Yes! Soft skills can be learned but they take practice. Soft skills are about “doing” rather than learning though.

    “Doing” soft skills can be tough for young people. If a child has always been shy, working on their communication skills can feel scary. And many young people find it difficult to work with and even relate to others, especially if they’ve had an emotionally-challenging or traumatic childhood.

    So teaching soft skills depends on treating each student as an individual and creating a safe environment for them to explore skills that can feel scary. The earlier these skills are practiced in a child’s life, the more normal they become, but that doesn’t mean there’s ever a point where it’s too late—adults can, and should, also develop their soft skills.

    Let’s explore how to teach young people those soft skills.

    A student stands up at the front of class, gesturing towards their presentation which is up on the whiteboard.Soft skills can be learned BUT only if they're practiced. Copyright Work ED.

    How to teach soft skills

    Think of teaching soft skills the same way you cultivate a garden. It’s about creating the right environment first and then being there to keep everything growing.

    If the environment isn’t right for growth then growth won’t happen.

    So what is the right environment for teaching soft skills?

    That begins with the people teaching the soft skills: the teachers. It’s impossible to teach soft skills if you don’t practice them yourself. A teacher can’t insist that every student manage their time effectively if the teacher is always running late. A teacher that communicates poorly and fails to connect with their students cannot teach them the value of communication and connection.

    Schools or organizations that want to help students develop soft skills need staff that have well developed soft skills. This means an emphasis on soft skills when hiring, continuous training, and, in the case of afterschool and other enrichment programs, partnering with companies that put a strong emphasis on soft skills.

    How to teach soft skills:

    • Hire staff that have well developed soft skills and continue to train them

    • Have a culture that places the emphasis on soft skills

    • Develop mentorship programs

    • Put students at the center of learning rather than teachers

    • Projects over textbooks

    • Presentations over homework

    • Reflection and learning over grades

    Let’s look at each of these points in more detail.

    • Hire staff that have well developed soft skills and continue to train them

    Everyone remembers the teachers that changes their lives. And it was never because that teacher had the top teaching qualifications. It was because they had the capacity to go beyond the curriculum and make a connection with students. That takes soft skills. Hire the teachers who will make a difference in students’ lives—and help train those who lack those skills through workshops.

    • Have a school culture that places the emphasis on soft skills

    Culture can be cultivated. Have a set of frameworks, messaging, mottos, and goals that aim to put soft skills at the core of the school’s identity. This helps everyone in the school, from leadership through teachers to students and parents, focus on soft skill development. Having individual teachers who know the value of soft skills is good. Having a whole community is powerful.

    • Develop mentorship programs

    Mentorship is an amazing tool for soft skill development because it goes both ways. The mentor works to develop their communication and leadership skills, while the mentee learns to ask for help and take control of their own development through guidance. Create a program where older students mentor younger students, for example.

    Read about our Teaching Assistant Internship for high schoolers

    • Put students at the center of learning rather than teachers

    Who is the most important person in the classroom, the teacher or the student? While teachers will always need the ability to manage a classroom and the expertise to offer help, frameworks such as problem-based learning (PBL) put students at the center of the classroom experience. PBL encourages students to find solutions in their own way, helping to develop outside-of-the-box thinking and a sense of agency—both powerful soft skills. 

    • Projects over textbooks

    Projects let students apply their learning, helping them gain confidence, while also providing a more accurate version of what real-world is actually like. Students will learn the value of time management, teamwork, workflow, all skills that will help in the workplace and beyond.

    • Presentations over homework

    Rather than sending students home with a bunch of exercise to complete, have them cement their learning by turning their new knowledge into a presentation. Not only does this help process and memorize new information, it also helps develop public speaking—a major skill for career progression.

    • Reflection and learning over grades

    This is a tricky one because the whole education system is built on grades—and of course it’s useful to measure progress in some way. But grades don’t necessarily encourage a healthy relationship with work—targets can actually become toxic and encourage cheating in the real world. Instead, help students to reflect on their progress, discuss their learning, and set a path for areas they want to improve on. 

    Examples of soft skills teaching

    There are concrete lessons and actions educators can take to help students improve their soft skills. But remember, it’s all about creating a safe environment for young people to express themselves—that’s always going to be challenging for middle schoolers and high schoolers who are at the most vulnerable age a person can be.

    • Develop class rules together

    Give students the opportunity to help set the rules themselves. This encourages a sense of collective responsibility. And by considering how an individual’s behavior can impact someone else, this also helps develop empathy and compassion.

    • Create space for talking

    This can include letting students tell their own story, share what’s important to them, or just speak their mind. Try this in small groups with an adult present at first. Talking creates vulnerability—one of the main reasons why young people don’t like to do it! But by creating a safe space where students are regularly encouraged to share their thoughts with others, they can develop trust.

    • Help students identify emotions and states

    This can involve role playing situations and using visual cues (such as cartoon faces or using different colors to represent moods) to identify how they or another person may feel in a situation.

    This is an exercise in how body and brain can interact to improve how we hear other people. Take students through how listening involves not just our ears, but eye contact, body language, and our intention can help us truly hear what others are saying. Here’s a list of whole body listening exercises for younger students.

    • Mindfulness exercises

    Mindfulness teaches young people to feel their feelings without self-judgment. They learn to take breath, understand their thought processes, and stay present. This helps with emotional regulation and prevents self-sabotaging behaviors.

    • Have fun!

    Fun is the ultimate soft skill delivery system. When we’re having fun, we lose our vulnerability and communicate more easily. It sounds simple but it’s easy to forget that when learning is fun, young people feel better about doing it. Find projects and programs that appeal to things young people find interesting—maybe something like an esports program could help them get out of their shell and speak to new people.

    Edutopia has a great video that demonstrates some of these practices in action. The Think Give Project also has a free list of social-emotional learning lessons to use.

    Read about why esports is a great way to help young people develop soft skills

    A high five shared between a student and a teacher, while other students look on.Effective soft skills teaching means making a connection with students so they feel comfortable enough to express themselves. Copyright Work ED.

    Why we focus on soft skills at Work ED

    We believe that soft skills are foundational for success. But learning soft skills is challenging for a lot of students. It’s also challenging for schools that are already busy and often understaffed. 

    That’s why we offer afterschool and intersession programs that focus on soft skill development.

    Our programs let students explore future-facing topics such as robotics, video game design, and cybersecurity while developing the soft skills that will help them succeed whatever pathway they choose.

    We help students from TK all the way through high school develop employable soft skills by:

    • Creating a safe and supportive environment where students can be themselves and trust staff enough to share where they’re at emotionally.

    • Having a culture of growth and open communication. We only hire staff that have well-developed soft skills and who want to keep pushing themselves to learn.

    • Using a problem-based learning approach that lets students find creative solutions.

    • Centering programs around collaborative projects so that students learn the value of working together while managing deadlines.

    • Focusing on communication: we help students develop their presentation and public-speaking skills, culminating in a presentation to parents on the final day of the program.

    • Helping students develop a sense of emotional and physical regulation by taking regular brain breaks.

    • Hiring high schoolers from the school district as Teaching Assistant Interns, helping them develop their teaching and providing mentorship to younger students.

    If you’re an educator looking for ways to help your students develop their soft skills, get in touch. You can email us at or fill in the form below.

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