In this technological age, developing soft skills in children can give them an edge and help them become successful in their professional lives.
By Aruna Raghuram
Fourteen-year-old Mahesh is gauche and awkward in social situations. He slouches while walking, is all elbows, and has the nervous habit of biting his nails. He mumbles to himself staring at the floor instead of making eye contact and answering his teacher. He has few friends as he is poor in communication. He is intelligent but loses out because he is unable to write fluently in English. His low self-confidence does not let him take part in school activities.
If you are a teacher, it would not be difficult for you to point out a Mahesh in your class and identify his problem. He is like a diamond who needs to be polished to shine (read succeed) in life. That is what soft skills do. They smoothen the rough edges of a person and help him succeed in relationships, academics, profession and life in general.
A more rigorous definition of soft skills, offered by Wikipedia is: Soft skills is a sociological term relating to a person's ‘EQ’ (Emotional Intelligence Quotient). They are a cluster of social graces, communication, language, personal habits, friendliness, and optimism that characterize relationships with other people. Soft skills complement hard skills (part of a person’s IQ), which are the occupational requirements of a job and many other activities.
In other words, while hard skills refer to technical and academic skills, soft skills refer to wide-ranging personal and interpersonal skills which are intangible and difficult to define, observe and measure.
In a number of professions (the hospitality industry is just one), soft skills may be more important than hard skills. That’s why soft skills are increasingly sought out by employers in addition to standard qualifications. While soft skills training is quite common in the corporate sector and in college, the need for such training at the school level has not been recognized as important. Even for college students, the training is imparted as a crash course just before they face placement interviews.
While the two terms life skills and soft skills are often used interchangeably, soft skills are in fact a subset of life skills, which is a broader concept.
Kirtanya Krishnamurthy, chief trainer and CEO of MindFresh Training, makes this distinction between both sets of skills: “Soft skills pertain to the outside world and include communication and manners. Along with picking up soft skills, it is important to imbibe life skills that deal with the inner world and shape a healthy mind, relationships and attitudes. For example, if soft skills make up the fancy building that you see on the road, life skills are the necessary foundation for it.”
Success in a global world: In a competitive, globalized world the value of soft skills is further enhanced. Psychologist Pratima Bhattacharjee elaborates, “Today, those who are successful are not only masters in their chosen fields, but also have the skills to communicate their knowledge, translate it into action, lead from the front, listen, understand the other’s point of view and empathize with others.”
Media and social networks: The world has shrunk thanks to social networks and media. Life skills and soft skills gain importance in today's world with our children being bombarded by so many unrealistic messages from films, social networks and peers. Apart from academics, children should be taught how to deal with life, emotions and relationships, and express themselves appropriately, Kirtanya asserts.
Global recommendations: The World Health Organization and UNICEF outline a module of ten skills to be incorporated as part of mainstream academic education in schools worldwide. These include life skills like self-awareness, decision making, problem solving, creative thinking, critical thinking, empathy, coping with emotions and stress; and soft skills like communication and interpersonal skills.
The employability factor: Sumanto Ghosh, vice-president, education and training, International Institute of Training & Management (IITM), Kolkata, feels that confident, balanced human beings are needed in the workforce, not just candidates with a bunch of certificates. He reveals a disturbing reality. “Only about 25% of the total students graduating from the various colleges in India are employable! Students with soft skills turn out to be better performers at jobs and are more employable.”
Dr Nirmala Kannan, CEO of Arrul Jothee, a soft skills training institution, agrees that there is a problem. “I have come across many students who are eliminated in the final round of interviews in spite of good academic scores and domain knowledge. The reason is a lack of soft skills. Even if they are hired, they require rigorous and expensive training before they start functioning in their respective roles.”
Why schools have a responsibility: Life skills being subtle, involve the development of personality, and are often learnt experientially, as the growing child faces certain situations. The school is the child’s second home, owing to the time spent there. Situations need to be ‘created’ in school for the child to experience and learn these life skills. Soft skills on the other hand, are more governed by ‘rules’, involving specific instructions and tools. They can be easily taught to a child.
Formative years: “Embedding behavioural training in the school curriculum enables easy internalisation. It’s easier to teach a child the rules and methods early in the formative years when they are more receptive and get a longer guided coaching,” explains Ghosh.
Academic performance: Soft skills trainer Anuradha Kumar says that it is vital to introduce soft skills at the school level. “When the child learns how to communicate clearly, he not only gains considerable confidence, but his academic performance is also considerably improved,” she says.
Help in adjustment: Moreover, if children pick up soft skills in school itself, it will help them deal with authority figures in school and peers who may sometimes indulge in teasing and bullying. They will also have an easier time navigating college life, which requires independence, confidence and sound interpersonal skills.
Homogeneous environment: Dr Kannan says that while almost all colleges have realized the importance of soft skills and conduct training programs, it will be easier and more effective if training is started at the school level. This is because the environment in schools is more homogeneous than in colleges or in a job situation.
Some basic, yet important soft skills schoolchildren need are:
Knowledge of English: Speaking English in India is considered important for upward mobility in life. High school graduates who are not adequately trained in English are always at a handicap in the world of higher education. “Knowledge of English is very important to give a global edge in the job market, including vocabulary, diction and pronunciation,” says Ghosh.
Social skills: This includes talking and communicating to peers and authority figures in schools and outside, including parents, relatives and friends. It is basically communicating in a social situation.
“Communication has several aspects to it such as speaking, reading, writing, listening, conversing and presenting. The key to success in today’s world lies in skillfully integrating these key components for effective communication,” says Anuradha.
Ghosh enumerates the seven C’s of communication - clarity, courtesy, correctness, concreteness, credibility, consistency and conciseness.
Communication itself is a wide concept that should not be confused with knowledge of English, says soft skills trainer Kalpana Rajiv. “It is all about sending across a message and influencing others irrespective of the language used. It involves listening, asking proper questions and choosing the right words. It may be a written or oral communication, a power point presentation, addressing a group, one-on-one conversation, or phone or email communication.”
Appropriate body language: This basically means how to carry oneself – good posture, how you stand, sit, your gestures, making eye contact. It is human non-verbal communication. Humans send and interpret such signals almost entirely subconsciously. Body language may provide clues as to the attitude or state of mind of a person. For example, it may indicate aggression, attentiveness, boredom, relaxed state, pleasure, amusement, contempt, embarrassment, excitement, guilt, relief or satisfaction. For instance, disbelief is often indicated by averted gaze, or by touching the ear or scratching the chin. Boredom is indicated by the head tilting to one side, or by the eyes looking straight at the speaker but becoming slightly unfocused.
“The non-verbal cues that a child gives and receives are very important,” says Kalpana. By standing straight and tall, and looking the bully in the eye, (acquired soft skills) a child can project a outwardly a confidence when coming face to face with the bully. If the bully turns away, intimidated, the child gains self-confidence in handling the situation - a life skill gained through experience!
The child should also be taught to understand the body language of others. “Understanding the body language of others, proxemics (use of space), gestures and postures and improving listening skills are vital to improve communication skills,” Ghosh says.
Develop activities encouraging communication skills: Soft skills may be developed through various activities. For example communication skills can be developed if children read with understanding (as in the library), convey ideas in writing (by writing short stories or essays) speak so others can understand (through story telling, recitations); listen actively and observe critically, explains Dr Kannan.
Encourage stage presence: Ahmedabad-based soft skills trainer Rama Moondra stresses on specific confidence building activities which would lead to activities having a stage presence. For this, schools should have a soft skills training programme conducted by an external person, she feels.
As part of regular class: When students are asked to read aloud in class, the teacher can highlight aspects of good reading and point out specific features where the child needs to focus and improve, says Anuradha. Another way is to give opportunities to students to stand in front of the class and speak on a regular basis. The topics can be from the subject itself. This will ensure that teaching time is still based on the syllabus. During such sessions, the teacher should explain the key features of a good speech and help children work towards it, she explains.
Why aren’t schools proactive enough to introduce a soft skills programme as part of their curriculum, or even as an after school option? The reasons are not hard to find. Says Ghosh, “Schools focus mainly on academics as exam results are what they are judged on.”
Parents also undervalue the importance of soft skills and hence do not insist upon this in schools or in Parent Teacher Forums. Sometimes lack of awareness among educators may be the reason.
There are many next generation schools that provide holistic education to the children. But they do not use any specific methodology to impart soft skills, nor do they have the tools to measure the output in a non-competitive environment.
Many schools allow children to participate in inter-school debates, quizzes and other talent shows. Often, these opportunities go to students who already have the requisite soft skills. The majority who do not have such skills continue to be disadvantaged. “A true soft skills programme must include every student in its approach and be imparted in an atmosphere which does not induce stress,” says Anuradha.
But the situation is likely to change for the better. CBSE board schools follow the continuous, comprehensive evaluation (CCE) system which has the development and assessment of life skills as an important component. Students are graded in part, on their life skills and soft skills under ‘Co-scholastic skills’. Schools which do not take this seriously will be finding a more stringent monitoring from the CEAR (Centre for Assessment, Evaluation and Research), which is an affiliated body of the board, from 2014. “In order to comply with the board requirements, schools may have to train their teachers anew or even put in a programme by an outside life-skills/soft skills trainer in place. We prefer to train the teachers and keep evaluating the training as this is more cost-effective and long-lasting,” says Sanjay Ranganathan, CEO APT Consulting Services.
Pratima says that parents should act as good role models. “Children learn by imitation, and parents who display these virtues or ‘soft skills’ in their day-to-day behaviour provide an environment where children automatically learn. They grow up to be caring, committed, efficient and effective human beings.”
Says Anuradha, simple things like showing the children how to handle introductions at a social gathering, how to organize their own birthday parties, involving them in organizing family festivals and functions, asking leading questions to help children narrate their school day or field trip in a manner that clearly communicates their experiences, are all different ways to establish an effective communication process.
When parents are unable to impart soft-skills to their children, the least they can do is not to underrate its importance. They can send the child to either a pure-play soft-skills trainer or somebody who imparts both life skills and soft skills.
Arrul Jothee, based in Chennai, teaches soft skills in a personality development course. The methodology used includes games, role plays, group discussions, exercises and other interactive methods. Some of the interesting aspects the institute addresses are motivation, leadership, how to influence others, eating habits, public speaking, public behavior, hygiene, dress code, mannerisms to be avoided, how to kill negative thoughts and developing hobbies. (Contact Dr Nirmala Kannan at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Moondra, based in Ahmedabad, conducts workshops for schoolchildren in the summer on expression through dramatics and grooming. One covers the art of conversing well, art of giving and receiving compliments, greetings, making introductions and telephone manners, social etiquette, restaurant etiquette, dressing up for the occasion and grooming. Another workshop is about how to express and project ourselves. This course deals with inner fears and hidden anger of adolescents. The course takes participants through voice modulation, proper projection and enhanced self-image. (You can contact Rama Moondra at email@example.com)
Kumar, based in Chennai, stresses on communication, especially public speaking and holds classes for 8-14 year-olds on this. “They are taught how to say something depending on who is listening, how to stand while speaking, gauge interest of the audience, how to prepare and when to look at the audience.”
She also uses games to bring out the various aspects of communication. Chinese Whispers highlights the importance of listening and how miscommunication takes place. Here, a message is whispered by one person to another in a group that sits in a circle. The last person has to speak out the message loudly. Sometimes what is conveyed is very different from the original message! (You can contact Anuradha Kumar at 7667738200)
Madurai-based Aparajitha Foundation envisaged Thalir Thiran Thittam (TTT) to provide life skills education to adolescent children. The pilot project was launched in 2008. Now, TTT is being implemented in government high schools and higher secondary schools, many government-aided schools, training schools of NGOs and private training centres all over Tamil Nadu. The Gujarat government has also come forward to introduce it in more than 6000 of its own schools.
TTT was envisioned to support students with consistent and persistent inputs of skills and attitudes which are extremely important in life, but not covered by the regular curriculum, over a period of time with an ideal of creating ‘transformational change through awareness’.
Explaining the term Thalir Thiran Thittam, Ka Ariaravelan, project manager of TTT, says: “Thalir means sapling, thiran means skills and thittam means project. So the term means a project involving imparting skills to saplings (children).”
Highlighting the importance of soft skills he says: “While the regular school curriculum equips children with knowledge and hard skills, it does not cover soft skills relating to both emotional and social intelligence, which become the deciding factors to move ahead in a competitive world.”
The framework of United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child has been used as a basis to develop the curriculum, which spans the formative years, from class VII to class XII over a period of six years. The programme employs active participatory learning methodology rather than the normal instructional methodology with teachers acting as facilitators. There are 20 audiovisual lessons, one a week. The interactive lessons are delivered through fun-filled activities in the classroom. Visually rich DVDs are created and supplied by the foundation, containing music, games, puzzles and songs.
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