“Soft skills” are skills that employers look for, and they’re the reason many students with STEM degrees are heavily recruited in non-STEM fields.

What exactly are “soft skills?” Hard skills typically constitute a student’s ability to follow through on a specific action. Algebra, writing, and programming are a few examples of hard skills. Soft skills, on the other hand, are strategies that help students translate those hard skills to real-world use.

Soft skills — things like communication, critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity — are largely considered STEM skills because they can be easily developed in STEM classrooms. Although students may not realize it, they’re learning soft skills like time management and critical thinking when they succeed at organizing an experiment or collaborating with their peers. What they might not understand is how to apply the soft skills they develop from STEM projects to other areas of life, like a job interview or internship.

The U.S. Department of Labor has developed a curriculum called Soft Skills to Pay the Bills, which can be viewed here. They define six soft skill areas:

1. Communication
2. Enthusiasm and Attitude
3. Teamwork
4. Networking
5. Problem Solving and Critical Thinking
6. Professionalism

Other references will list a number of other qualities as well, such as creativity and flexibility.

Cultivating Soft Skills

Here are a few tips for developing soft skills in your classroom:

1. Start by making students aware of what soft skills are in the first place.
Just like hard skills, soft skills take time and practice to develop. It’s easy to take politeness or professionalism for granted as an aspect of personality, but many of these attributes are cultivated through experience. Ask students to rate themselves for each of the soft skills and identify areas in which they would like to improve. Periodically set time aside for students to reflect on their development of these skills and site specific examples of activities that helped strengthen their skills.

2. Encourage students to take leadership positions in the classroom, broader school government, and out in the real world.

The ability to handle larger responsibilities and solve problems is difficult to come by without actual practice in those areas. Create a bulletin board in your classroom that is dedicated to sharing leadership opportunities with your students. Things like serving on the board of a club, running for school government, and internship and volunteering openings should be featured. Also save a spot to showcase students who have exhibited leadership in the school and community.

3. Show students that mistakes and setbacks are an important part of learning.
Words like “enthusiasm” and “attitude” sometimes seem a bit vague. How does anyone teach soft skills like those? The truth is that having a “good attitude” can simply refer to an ability to admit and correct one’s mistakes without becoming defensive or angry. That’s easier to do in an environment where mistakes are not just tolerated, but seen as an inevitable and essential part of the learning process.

Outside the Classroom

The Department of Labor suggests that a way for parents in particular to help family members develop soft skills is to encourage real work or volunteer experiences during the high school years. Research indicates that both paid and unpaid work experience during high school leads to higher post-graduation wages. Holding down a minimum-wage, part-time job while worrying about grades, activities, sports, and friends can feel daunting for a lot of teens. Finding a volunteer opportunity that students are passionate about can allow them to gain real-world experience in an area that might lead to a post-graduation career – or at least looks great on a college application or resume.

BY / 08 JUN 2016

Leah Dearborn

Leah Dearborn is a freelance writer based in the Boston area. A graduate of the journalism program at University of Massachusetts–Amherst, she spends her time writing about science, history, and books.