QUESTION: What are ‘soft skills’ really?

ANSWER: Soft skills have been an increasing concern in schools since at least 2019. However, since the pandemic began to have a significant impact on children’s education, and especially post-lockdown, the importance of soft skills has become a hot topic for getting children back on track at school.

Previously, we might have associated the idea with adulthood and the ‘world of work’, but now, talk about soft skills spans education and employment. There is a growing recognition that these are the skills that can dictate success in school, as well as in most, if not all, employment circumstances. Undoubtedly, strength of soft skills can have a profound impact on lifelong outcomes, and it’s really important that we provide the opportunities and support necessary so that all children can develop these skills.

However, soft skills are a nebulous concept. It’s an umbrella term, which are often very hard to define. We might find that they are so hard to define that they lose meaning. If we are to have a real impact, it’s important that we are clear and specific about goals so that we can find a way forward. To bring the concept into focus, we need to find the features that we can agree are associated with soft skills, and then find the common ground.

So, what are some soft skills that we can agree on:

  • Collaboration?
  • Emotional intelligence?
  • Empathy?
  • Time-management?
  • Organisation and planning?
  • Critical thinking?
  • Reasoning and resilience?

All of the above could apply.

This may seem very broad, but as a speech and language therapist, I can see a common thread. Every one of these attributes and strengths which form part of the broader concept of ‘soft skills’ is underpinned by our speech, language, and communication skills.

In pursuit of developing soft skills, the Department for Education has suggested that pupils should have more opportunities and support to engage with extra-curricular activities, such as music lessons and sports clubs. But does this suggestion go far enough? All children, especially those with SLCN and those with ‘hidden’ or unidentified language and communication difficulties, can benefit from more explicit, targeted support to develop their speech, language and communication skills in addition to accessing a broad range of extra-curricular activities (and within them!).

If we want to develop children’s soft skills, we need to look to the underlying foundation of their communication needs. This would represent an evidence-based strategy for targeting soft skills that leaves no child behind.

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