Three steps for developing soft skills in youth

How can a young person keep other engaged in what they are saying? What is it that is so engaging when someone is speaking to you, that you are totally vested in what they’re saying? What makes a job reviewer decide to make a job offer to a prospective employee or not? How can youth develop these soft skills?

The answer is vulnerability. Punctum, if you will. In photography, punctum is the wounding, personal detail that connects emotionally with a viewer. While not every interaction with people can be so emotionally profound, it’s possible to develop an appreciation for it when teaching soft skills.

When dealing with youth, it goes without saying that kids, especially pre-teens and teens, do not want to be perceived as emotionally vulnerable. Kids in particularly challenging environments, such as youth corrections, even more so. But creating assessments for kids that emphasize soft skills – the emotional and professional skills that an employee can take with him or herself to any job – can help access those emotional vulnerabilities that can make the difference between making an impression and being forgettable.

According to educator and therapist Daren Dixon, there are three steps to developing and measuring soft skills in youth.

Step one: Social and emotional competencies emerge in the context of relationships.

The ability of anyone, youth or not, to expose vulnerability depends entirely on his or her relationship to the others involved. If there is an environment of safety and trust, there is a better likelihood of a moment of punctum. The emerging field of interpersonal neurobiology posits that better executive functioning can be attained through mindfulness and emotional health, such as learning in a safe and trusted environment.

Step two: Many social and emotional skills are state-based.

Courage and emotional vulnerability are about “taking off armor.” Children and youth are much better at taking off this armor than adults.

Step three: Social and emotional skills can’t be reduced to cognitive skills.

These skills cannot be measured the way that typical cognitive skills can. These soft skills can be measured in the following ways:

  1. Contextual assessments – Is the environment safe and supportive?
  2. Performance assessments – Does the youth successfully convey the elements of soft skills?
  3. Self-reports – How often does the youth open up such vulnerabilities?


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