The Impact of Soft Skills on Postsecondary Success
May 25, 2016
How Teaching Soft Skills Can Help Prepare Students with Disabilities for Employment
This month we have been exploring issues concerning the transition to adulthood that youth with disabilities face upon graduating from high school. We have discussed the need to make vocational rehabilitation and training more accessible to students while still in school and last week we spotlighted a few innovative secondary school programs that make postsecondary employment for individuals with disabilities their chief mission.
This week we will take a more practical look at what it takes to adequately prepare students to navigate this transition. We will focus specifically on the growing importance of possessing what are known as “soft skills” in securing and maintaining employment, but also in improving overall quality of life for individuals with disabilities.
What Are Soft Skills and Why Should We Teach Them?
When we think about preparing students for the workplace, we typically think about teaching them the technical or academic skills they will need to accomplish a specific task at a job. For instance, how to operate a specific machine, how to use a computer or a software program, how to make change or use a cash register. But as our economy continues to move away from the work of production to one comprised of more service-oriented work, preparation for the workplace must go far beyond teaching technical skills. What are known as “soft skills”–social skills and behaviors that students must internalize to help them do things like maintain positive interpersonal relationships, manage emotions, and navigate social politics–are increasingly important, and are critical to adequately preparing anyone for the workplace, whether or not they have a disability.
But for some students with disabilities, learning soft skills can be especially grueling. Students with autism as well as those with ADHD, for example, are much more likely to experience social and communication challenges, both of which can negatively impact their workplace performance as well as other people’s perceptions of them. And while a person with a social or emotional disability may be able to perfectly operate a piece of machinery or solve a complicated math problem, knowing how to deal with workplace stress or ask questions about things they don’t understand may present challenges they are not able to surmount without adequate preparation. This is why making soft skills an integral part of transition curriculum is critical to preparing students with disabilities for success beyond school.
What Are the Most Important Soft Skills to Teach?
There are literally hundreds of soft skills that can and should be taught to students with disabilities. But prioritizing what to teach will largely depend upon the student’s strengths, weaknesses, cognitive abilities, and existing skill set. As in any good teaching, deciding what skills to teach to your students should always begin with assessment. There are many assessments available that can assist in this process, but one of the most common and reliable assessments for identifying areas of need as far as soft skills are concerned is the Brigance Transition Skills Inventory.
Once you have assessed you’ll have a better idea of what skills you should prioritize for your student. But even before assessment occurs it is good to keep in mind that there are some skills that every single person, regardless of whether or not they have a disability, will need in order to be successful in the workplace. Soft Skills tend to fall into general categories and can be taught in different capacities depending upon a student’s skill level and need. Below are a few of the most important Soft Skills to teach to prepare students for success in the workplace:
Self-advocacy is one of the most important skills to teach students with disabilities, and can have an enormous impact on overall quality of life. Being able to tell people what you want and advocate for yourself is important in all aspects of life, from personal relationships to the workplace.
Self-advocacy is important even in the very early stages of transition planning for students with disabilities. For example, students who can self-advocate can tell you what kinds of employment opportunities they want to pursue and what they are not interested in, which can help teachers and parents better support them in pursuing their interests. Within the workplace, the ability to self-advocate can help people with disabilities do things like ask for a raise, let their employers know what they are interested in pursuing at their jobs, and raise concerns and talk about problems, all of which are critical to job satisfaction.
For those of us without disabilities, the meaning of the term “professionalism” may seem obvious. Most of us have some idea of what it means to dress professionally or what is appropriate/inappropriate to discuss at work. This is not always be the case for students with disabilities. What it means to be “professional” must be clearly laid out and the corresponding skills should be explicitly taught. For instance, what kinds of clothes should be worn to work, how to address a boss versus a colleague, how to make a good first impression etc. These skills can go a long way in helping students secure and keep their first jobs.
Working collaboratively with others is expected in nearly all workplace environments these days. Collaboration is more than just getting along with others, but requires students to be able to contribute meaningfully to accomplishing tasks as a group and solving problems. Teaching students skills like how to ask questions, offer and receive feedback, and engage in problem solving behaviors will help make sure they are important assets in any workplace and will benefit them, their employees, and their colleagues.
How to Teach Soft Skills
Once you have identified the soft skills you are going to work on with your students, it is time to start teaching. There are several key methods for teaching students Soft Skills, each with their own benefits and limitations.
- Interactive Teaching
Interactive teaching is the easiest method to implement in the classroom. It involves creating (or finding) a well-designed curriculum that offers students exercises facilitated by the teacher that provide students opportunities to practice Soft Skills and build a repertoire of skills. While this method can be implemented in almost any kind of classroom, it lacks authenticity and it can be difficult for students to generalize skills learned in this kind of setting in the natural environment.
- Workplace Coaching
Workplace coaching involves finding a coach to provide on-the job coaching to a student who is involved in an internship, work-study program or other kind of work program. This method is definitely the most authentic and effective way to teach student Soft Skills, but can be difficult to implement due to the difficulty of securing a place of employment and qualified job coach.
- Workplace Simulation
Simulating the workplace in the classroom can also be an effective way of teaching students soft skills. This typically means modelling the classroom after a real-life workplace, for instance setting up store in the classroom where students can role play with one another and naturally learn the soft skills they will need in a real workplace setting. While it does not provide the same level of authenticity as on-the-job coaching, it goes beyond teaching students through isolated exercises and more closely resembles the natural environment.
Resources for Teaching Soft Skills
The good news is that when it comes to teaching Soft Skills to students with disabilities, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. There are several free curriculums that provide teachers with lesson plans and resources as well as other free resources like reading materials and toolkits available for free on the internet. Below are a few excellent resources to facilitate teaching Soft Skills to your students.
- “Skills to Pay the Bills: Mastering Soft Skills for Workplace Success” is a free curriculum from the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy
- Employment Toolkit from Autism Speaks
- The Hidden Curriculum: Practical Solutions for Understanding Unstated Rules in Social Situations is a curriculum available for purchase that emphasizes teaching students with disabilities about understanding complex social norms and rules that may not be obvious to them.
- Teaching Soft Skills Through Workplace Simulations in Classroom Settings is a free resources released by the Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) about the best ways to teach Soft Skills for employment in classroom settings.