Wednesday / April 24

The Unfulfilled Promise of Education: Students’ Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Skills

Why the “Soft Skills” are the Hard Skills, and Why they are Essential for Students’ Academic Success

Dear Colleagues,

For all of the rhetoric about ensuring that students are “college and career” ready, the reality is that our schools are still focused almost exclusively on students’ academic success and—because of federal legislation pushed even further by the U.S. Department of Education—academic success that is measured largely by a single, high stakes, standards-based tests.

And yet, we know that—despite earning a high school degree—many university freshmen are spending a significant amount of time in remedial courses because they do not have the prerequisite skills to be successful at the college level.

We also know that many students do not complete their college careers—perhaps again, because they lack the academic skills to be successful.

And, finally, we know that many high school graduates—who enter the job market directly from high school—need significant levels of (re)training in order to apply their reading, math, oral, and written skills to their new-found jobs.

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Students’ Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Skills

But today’s discussion is not explicitly about ways to improve students’ academic proficiency. Instead, it is about the importance of also teaching students—from preschool through high school—social, emotional, and behavioral skills. Some call these skills the Soft Skills.

But these are Essential Skills, because they facilitate students’ academic success, as well as their ability to relate and collaborate with others in groups and on project-based teams in high school, college, and once employed.

And yet, for many students, these are the Hard Skills, because our schools are not systematically and progressively teaching these skills in any way or at any level.

The importance of teaching students—from preschool through high school—interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional coping skills is supported both by research and practice.

Relative to the research:

*A recent study reported in the American Journal of Public Health tracked 750 youngsters in four diverse U.S. communities from 1991, when they were in kindergarten, until they were 25 years old. They found that the youngsters with good social skills (sharing materials with others, resolving peer problems on their own, cooperating with peers without prompting, being helpful to others, listening to others’ point of view, understanding other people’s feelings) were more likely to graduate from high school and college, and have full-time jobs; and less likely to drop out of school, commit crimes, or need government assistance.

*This study followed research published in 2011 that pooled data from 213 well-designed studies (involving 270,034 kindergarten through high school students) that compared schools teaching their students social, emotional, and behavioral skills versus schools that were not. The students from the “social skill” schools were more emotionally well-adjusted and exhibited fewer conduct problems, they demonstrated better stress-management and interpersonal problem-solving skills, and they had more positive attitudes toward themselves, others, and school.

But, critically, the students in the social skill schools had an 11 percentile gain in academic achievement over those in the non-social skill schools. And significantly, all of these results occurred at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.

Relative to practice:

*As instruction at the upper elementary and secondary levels becomes more and more dependent on project-based and cooperative learning, students need to know how to interact effectively in group situations. Indeed, they need to be able to listen to each other, plan, discuss, debate, make decisions, agree, disagree, and agree to disagree.

These social skills are almost prerequisite to the academic outcomes that are the focus of these project-based groups. If students are not taught the social skills that relate directly to effective group functioning, the ineffective group functioning will undermine the academic process and results.

*Student teasing, taunting, bullying, harassment, hazing, and physical aggression still are ever-present problems in our schools. Without essential interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution skills, and emotional coping skills, these problems are unlikely to diminish. However, rather than waiting for these problems to occur (and teaching the skills reactively), these skills should be taught proactively—thereby creating the positive and prosocial school and classroom climates that prevent these problems from ever occurring.

*Finally, as alluded to earlier, when students graduate without well-developed social, emotional, and behavioral skills, they are not “college and career” ready. Clearly, when someone causes continual conflicts and is unable to get along with others at work, there typically is a very simple “intervention.” It is called “unemployment.”

Employers spend millions of dollars every year in this county training employees to excel in the technical aspects of their jobs. Very little time or money, however, is invested in teaching them to how to get along with others at the job site so that they can work together as a team.

Employees are expected to have the soft skills mastered before they enter the workforce. Without these skills, their chances for full employment diminishes—as does their productivity, their customer service and collegial interactions, and their job satisfaction and security.

What are these Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Skills?

One of the most fundamental goals for all schools is to help students become independent learners. And while “independent learning” varies from kindergarten to fourth grade to eighth grade through high school, we (and our students) invest at least thirteen (barring dropping out) pre-collegiate years in pursuit of this goal.

Similarly, another fundamental, complementary educational goal should be to help students become independent social, emotional, and behavioral self-managers. And while this will also look different from kindergarten to fourth grade to eighth grade through high school, this is largely an unfulfilled educational goal in most of our schools and districts.

But, what are these social, emotional, and behavioral skills?

From a “competency” perspective, students need to progressively develop—from preschool through high school—at least the following competencies:

  • Social Competencies

Listening, Engagement, and Response Skills

Communication and Collaboration Skills

Social Problem-Solving and Group Process Skills

Conflict Prevention and Resolution Skills

  • Emotional Competencies

Emotional Self-Awareness, Control, and Coping Skills

Awareness and Understanding of Others’ Emotions and Emotional Behavior

Positive Self-Concept, Self-Esteem, and Self-Statement Skills

  • Cognitive-Behavioral Competencies

Self-Scripting, Self-Monitoring, Self-Evaluation, Self-Correction, and Self-Reinforcement Skills

Social, Interactional, and Interpersonal Skills

Classroom and Building Routine Skills

Instructional and Academic Supporting Skills

Drilling this down to a more functional level, below are twelve social, emotional, and behavioral skill clusters that all students should learn and master before they graduate from high school—as individuals, in small project-based group situations, and in large-group instructional settings:

  • Listening, Following Directions, Staying On-Task
  • Accurately Interpreting Non-Verbal Cues and Voice Inflection
  • Being Positive, Motivated, and Persistent
  • Communicating Clearly, Constructively, and Courteously
  • Knowing How to Discuss, Interrupt, Debate, Agree, Compromise, and Disagree
  • Cooperating With and Accepting Others’ Opinions
  • Respecting Others, Being a Team Player, Taking on Different Group Roles
  • Knowing How to Ask for Help, and Accept Frustration or Consequences
  • Knowing How to Accept Failure, Losing, and Being Wrong
  • Showing Confidence, Dealing with Peer Pressure, Standing up for Self/Others
  • Controlling and Expressing Emotions, Responding to Others’ Emotions
  • Demonstrating Goal-oriented Planning and Time Management

How do We Prepare to Teach these Skills?

In order to teach these skills, schools and districts need to recognize that they are an inherent and essential part of school discipline and safety, classroom climate and management, and student self-management and academic engagement.

Teachers, especially those in states where their instructional effectiveness is formally evaluated, might parenthetically recognize that—when students are taught and demonstrate these skills—their teacher evaluations will benefit in both the classroom management and student academic outcome areas.

And students—based on our thirty years of work in this area across the country—will feel safer and more secure in school, will find school more enjoyable, and will find themselves more productive and successful.

And so, as they prepare to teach students these essential skills, districts and schools need to invest a similar level of investment and preparation in this area as in their academic areas. This investment could include the following activities:

  • Develop and implement a preschool through high school “Health, Mental Health, and Wellness” program guided by a scaffolded scope and sequence of courses, curricula, modules, skill, and/or experiences.
  • Systematically teach students social, emotional, and behavioral skills consistent with their developmental levels.
  • Identify classroom and common school area behavioral expectations and standards for all students, and develop and implement a school-wide behavioral accountability system involving incentives and differentiated responses to progressive levels of inappropriate student behavior.
  • Have related service and other staff available to provide consultation to classroom teachers, to complete functional assessments of behaviorally-challenging students, and to help implement strategic or intensive instructional and intervention services, supports, strategies, and programs to underachieving, unresponsive, or unsuccessful students.
  • Reach out to parents and engage community resources in areas and activities that support students’ academic and social, emotional, and behavioral learning, mastery, and proficiency.
  • Evaluate the outcomes of all these activities, especially in the following areas: positive school and classroom climate; high levels of student engagement and achievement; high levels of prosocial student interactions; low levels of school and classroom discipline problems requiring office discipline referrals or school suspensions or expulsions; low levels of student drop-out rates (at the secondary level) or placements in alternative schools or settings; high rates of student high school graduations and post-secondary school successes.

While some educators may say, “Another thing to do!!” please remember, once again, the research and practice results described earlier. These approaches will both enhance students’ academic achievement, and help them to be completely college and career ready.

But let’s also recognize that the recommendations above will also save a significant amount of training and implementation time if schools are engaging in time-consuming and redundant efforts implementing different programs that actually have the same core skills and outcomes.

That is, many schools nationwide are already spending a significant amount of money, time, and training on a number of programs whose “common denominators” are the social, emotional, and behavioral self-management skills that all students need. Some of these programs focus on:

  • School teasing and bully prevention
  • Decreasing office discipline referrals and disproportionate (minority and student with disabilities) school suspensions and expulsions
  • Establishing progressive discipline systems that counter historically-based “zero tolerance” policies and practices
  • Creating “trauma sensitive” classrooms
  • Improving school climate and preventative mental health services
  • Increasing gender, multi-cultural, racial, LGBT, disability, and other awareness, equity, safety, and acceptance
  • Introducing “mindfulness” into the classroom
  • Facilitating students’ “executive functioning”

Critically, many of these programs are not implemented preventatively. Instead, they are reactively implemented after the district or school has a problem. Moreover, many of these programs do not have a sound scientific foundation; they have not been appropriately and independently field-tested in a diversity of schools and settings; they do not teach (from preschool to high school) all students the social, emotional, and behavioral skills discussed above; they often focus on their niche to the exclusion of broader student, staff, and school needs; and some (quite honestly) are more about marketing and sales, than long-term and sustainable student success.

Our evidence-based work (as evaluated and designated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration as far back as 2000) has demonstrated that a science-to-practice focus on consistently teaching, reinforcing, and holding students accountable for demonstrating developmentally-appropriate social, emotional, and behavioral skills results in virtually no need for most of the niche programs above.

As noted, schools do not have the money, time, staff, or wherewithal to implement substantially separate initiatives that are redundant, might actually compete with each other, and wear teachers down. What schools need is a single, integrated, multi-tiered school, grade-level, and classroom blueprint that results in the social, emotional, and behavioral self-management skills that reflect their essential goals and outcomes and that all students need.

What is Needed to Complement the Skill Instruction?

But teaching the social, emotional, and behavioral skills is not enough. In order to facilitate students’ self-management, while supporting effective classroom management and sound school safety processes, the following scientific components are needed (NOTE that the skills instruction is #2):

  • Staff, Student, and Parent Relationships that establish Positive School and Classroom Climates
  • Explicit Classroom and Common School Area Expectations supported by Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Skill/Self-Management Instruction (that—as discussed above—are embedded in preschool through high school “Health, Mental Health, and Wellness” activities)
  • School-wide and Classroom Behavioral Accountability systems that include Motivational Approaches reinforcing “Good Choice” behavior
  • Consistency—in the classroom, across classrooms, and across staff, time, settings, and situations
  • Applications of the above across all Settings in the school, and relative to the Peer Group interactions (specifically targeting teasing, taunting, bullying, harassment, hazing, and physical aggression)

For students exhibiting significant behavioral challenges, or who are not responding to the preventative approaches above, a data-based problem-solving process is used (guided by school psychologists, counselors, and other behavioral assessment and intervention specialists) to determine the underlying reasons for the student’s inappropriate behavior. The assessment results are then linked to strategic or intensive interventions that are focused on eliminating the “problems,” and replacing them with self-management skills.

Watch this YouTube presentation that describes the five components above in more detail, and explains how they were implemented in schools across Arkansas as part of its ten year positive behavioral support initiative.


In order to fulfill the real promise of education—to truly prepare our students to be college and career ready, and to ensure that the next generations of adults are personally, interpersonally, and professionally successful, districts and schools need to systematically invest in integrated approaches that teach students the social, emotional, and behavioral self-management skills that they need.

This needs to be a proactive and planned process for all students; not a reactive and reflexive process for just the inappropriate, challenging, disengaged, or disaffected students.

This can be done. And it has been done successfully in thousands of schools nationwide over the past 30 years.

But it requires school, grade-level, classroom, teacher, and student science-to-practice approaches that focus on consistently teaching, reinforcing, and holding everyone accountable for demonstrating these skills.

As the beginning of your school year continues, I hope that you will reflect on this message’s information and thoughts. As you embark on this year’s educational journey, let’s prepare our students not just academically—but socially, emotionally, and behaviorally.

I appreciate everything that you do as educational leaders in our country. I look forward to your thoughts and comments.



Written by

Dr. Howie Knoff is a national consultant who has spent 30 years working at the school, district, university, and state department of education levels. He has helped thousands of schools in every state across the country implement one or more components of school improvement- – from strategic planning to effective classroom instruction to positive behavioral support systems to multi-tiered strategic and intensive academic and behavioral interventions (see One of his most-recent books was published by Corwin Press: School Discipline, Classroom Management, and Student Self-Management.

You can contact Howie by Twitter (@DrHowieKnoff) or email (

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