The world may describe what we do as teaching employability skills. I call it social-emotional learning (SEL). Having social-emotional skills – skills such as self-management, forming positive relationships, and responsible decision-making – are critical to becoming “career-ready.”

When you look at the top 10 skills required in any sector, at least 7 out of 10 have to do with these types of skills. Employers use the term “employability skills” and some in education and policy use “soft skills.”

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Regardless of what sector a person is going into, skills such as getting along with peers and handling conflict, or managing emotions when under a stressful deadline, are what employers say they want in a potential employee. An essential part of being college and career ready means understanding and being able to demonstrate these skills in addition to the technical skills required to do the job.

How do K-12 schools help their students learn these SEL skills before they graduate? By adding it to their curriculum and giving students authentic opportunities for practice.

I’m the Director of Career Readiness at the Urban Assembly, a network of 23 career-themed public middle and high schools in New York City. My department creates external partnerships and internships – programs that can be delivered during the course of the day, to give students experience working with real companies and on real-world projects. We’ve also enhanced the existing curriculum in collaboration with our schools and industry partners to include more practical life and career navigation skills.

For example, we don’t want students to graduate understanding math formulas, but not their credit score. Or being able to write a five-paragraph essay about Shakespeare, but struggling to write a cover letter. Our career readiness team redesigns the existing courses and curriculum to make sure these skills are addressed. We might develop a unit on financial literacy to add to an economics class. Or add digital literacy to a technology class. Or add business communications to an English class. We help teachers develop the course or find something out in the market that helps teach an in-demand skill.

I also spend a lot of time working with industry partners to get feedback about what kinds of skills they are looking for in new graduates and they repeatedly say they want SEL skills. So we incorporate those lessons into our curriculum to teach students how to problem-solve, how to manage their emotions, and how to work on diverse teams, among other skills.

Our goal is to set students up to be competitive and successful after they graduate by going beyond the minimum requirements for a high school diploma or even a high-stakes test that often doesn’t match the demands of the real world.

Here are some ways to get started in incorporating SEL into your high school or CTE program.

1. Find people and groups that can help you. Start with a talent analysis. Look around for internal talent in teachers and parents to teach workshops. For instance, there might be a drama teacher who could help students act out conflicts or other real-world scenarios, or a parent who could lead workshops on banking and financial literacy with attention to the key SEL skill of responsible decision-making.

2. Start small. Start with one class. Train one teacher. Take one grade level and have them complete the Devereux Student Strengths Assessment (DESSA) – an evidence-based SEL assessment. Just start. Don’t wait for all the perfect conditions. Start by measuring students’ current SEL skills and career competencies. Once you have the data, you can plan accordingly.

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3. Create a team. Find out who in your school also cares about promoting SEL and career readiness for students. It could be the principal or a passionate team member or a guidance counselor. Create a team that can spearhead the work. When you’re trying to match and prepare students for the best postsecondary opportunity for them, it’s impossible if you’re not doing it as a team.

4. Find good partners. There are many people who will be able to give advice and join your advisory board. Lean on businesses and local organizations that are interested in improving the future workforce for advice and suggestions.

5. Revise your curriculum. Adopt or create a curriculum that includes teaching social-emotional and career development skills. For us, we either find one or we build it ourselves–sometimes with the help of outside partners.

6. Use data. Every program needs accountability. That’s how you determine if the program is working. Our SEL Team uses the DESSA to measure students’ social-emotional competence. That data can help determine if our programs are working. The skills measured in the DESSA very closely match those measured in the national exams that students in CTE programs take before they graduate, so the DESSA is an incredibly insightful tool to rate the implementation of an SEL program and how students are doing.

7. Offer real-world projects. Having students engage in projects that address real-world problems is a great way for them to practice SEL skills in an authentic context. For example, one of our high schools recently worked with Facebook on a project involving the product development lifecycle. We built curriculum that teaches specifically to those skills most in-demand for product developers and technology teams. In addition to technical skills and content knowledge, students learned skills such as how to manage their emotions when dealing with tight deadlines and how to make collaborative decisions at a critical moment.

Teaching SEL skills is a huge win-win. It supports students’ academics and prepares them for future jobs and careers, meaning that companies can tap into the talent pipelines they need and communities can benefit from increased economic opportunity. It’s one of the best things schools can do to help set their students up for success.

About the Author:

Lindsey Dixon is the Director of Career Readiness for the Urban Assembly.


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