The Five Essential Soft Skills Your Students Need

 By Andrew McPeak


Today’s blog is an excerpt from the upcoming book, “Ready for Real Life.” You can order “Ready for Real Life” by clicking here


In the summer of 2021, a young man named Norris was “caught” by local police in his Louisiana town—though “caught” means something different in Norris’ town. Several years before, the local police started a “Caught You” program where they would give away vouchers for free SnoCones from the local shop, Frozen Rayne, to local kids doing good deeds in the community. Norris was the perfect recipient. 


For four years, Norris had been working toward the goal of being an honorary recipient of the “50 Yard Challenge,” an initiative started by Rodney Smith Jr. in Huntsville, AL. Smith Jr. got the idea back in 2015 when he saw an elderly gentleman in his community struggling to mow his own lawn. Rodney stepped in help, and an idea began to grow in his mind. What if he could meet a real need and develop the next generation of kids to care for their community at the same time? 


The idea became a start-up: Raising Men and Raising Women Lawn Care Service, a not-for-profit initiative that challenges young men and women around the country to take on the goal of mowing fifty yards in their community for those who are unable to: the elderly, persons with disabilities, single parents, and veterans. Thousands of kids have now taken on the challenge since Rodney began. Once a young man or woman achieves the goal, they get a visit from Rodney himself, as well as a special certificate and a black t-shirt signifying the occasion. That’s not all, though. Each recipient is also given brand-new lawn equipment so they can keep on serving. 


Two weeks after receiving his “Caught You” certificate from local police, Norris was visited by someone else: Rodney Smith Jr. Norris had just completed the 50-Yard Challenge. Along with his certificate and brand-new equipment, Norris was also able to share his dream: he desired to start his own lawn business one day so he could keep serving his community. 


How Soft Skills Are Built

It’s easy to smile as you hear a story like this and be encouraged about the future of our world. If you miss what is really happening when adults invest in young people to give them the skills they need to thrive, however, then you are liable to think that all that really happened was that a few lawns got mowed. Case in point: grass grows back. The real change in this story is not what happened on the lawn, but what happened inside of Norris. 


When Norris was challenged to mow fifty lawns for free and accepted, he was effectively choosing to take on a personal long-term goal. His goal had benefits (community recognition and new lawn care equipment) and costs (time and effort) as all good goals do. Setting long-term goals and working toward them has been proven to provide young people with all kinds of positive effects. In his four years of work, Norris learned about delayed gratification, grit, discipline, responsibility, and character. As he interacted with those in his community, he built social skills. He developed empathy. He learned to recognize when someone was in need, and, over time, he began to reframe his role in his local community. 


Which leads us to the most important change of all: Norris has also altered his identity. Taking on and completing this challenge taught Norris a few things about himself: he is resilient, he is kind and caring, and he is in control of his own attitude and destination in life. 


Decades ago, these kinds of experiences would have just been par for the course — a natural part of growing up as part of a community. Today, the skills Norris received during the “50 Yard Challenge” have been categorized, measured, tested, and named. The set of soft skills that includes things like grit, resilience, discipline, empathy, and social awareness is now called Social and Emotional Learning. Without even knowing it, I’d guess that Norris did quite a lot of social and emotional learning over the last few summers. 


As the evidence has mounted showing the value of building soft skills in students, more and more schools are embracing the need to expand the development of their students beyond just the traditional hard skills associated with general intelligence. For years now, Growing Leaders has been addressing the difference between what schools teach and what students need with this simple statement:


“Success in school is 75% IQ and 25% EQ. Success in life is 75% EQ and 25% IQ.”


Fully adopting a process of building these soft skills at your school will reorient your vision for what education could be. It will create a culture of individuals (both staff and students) who are growing together and making their community better. This change will transform stressed out, worn out, acting out, and checked out students and teachers into leaders who choose to say no to self-indulgence and yes to positively transforming the world around them.


In my newest book, I practically connect each competency of social and emotional learning to a simple metaphor which can help us remember and utilize the skill. Each of these metaphors is a different tool that your students will need to thrive on the journey they are about to take. With these five soft skills in their pack, they will be ready to face both the opportunities and challenges of adulthood. Here are the five tools and skills that we will explore:


    1. A Mirror: The Skill of Self-Awareness
    2. A Map: The Skill of Self-Management
    3. A Compass: The Skill of Responsible Decision-Making
    4. A Two-Way Radio: The Skill of Relationship Management
    5. A Passport: The Skill of Social Awareness


These metaphors are a practical and engaging way to help students understand and apply social and emotional skills in their lives. By using these tools, students like Norris can develop the competencies they need to navigate the complexities of the world around them.


This blog was an excerpt from Andrew McPeak’s upcoming book: “Ready for Real Life.” “Ready for Real Life” defines the five core soft skills all students need. Using compelling stories and practical ideas, this book shows how these five skills, though timeless in human history, are still relevant in the 21st century. Order your copy today!


The Five Essential Soft Skills Your Students Need