Veteran health and safety educator Juanita Allen Kingsley spent three years Googling one phrase, “social skills training,” in an attempt to curb a trend she saw in her classes.
“In working with children, teens and adults in the past 15 years, I’ve seen a marked decrease in attention span and a marked increase in discomfort being in groups where they couldn’t hide behind screens,” she says. “In all of the courses that I teach, whether it’s home alone safety for children, babysitting for older children, first aid for teens, or even the adult classes, what came back to me over and over again is that the children and the adults who were best suited for learning the most and getting the most out of every opportunity where those who had the most highly evolved social skills. The children who could talk with each other in a class and learn from each other, the children who had the confidence to ask questions, the adults who could walk into a first aid course and feel confident asking questions and feeling engaged with a group were ultimately the ones who benefited the most from the materials being presented.”
Keen to help close the gap for those who needed more confidence and improvement, she kept searching, yet never found quite what she was looking for.
“I would come up with etiquette courses that were, in my view, archaic, revolving around a tea party or a cotillion model. I was really looking for something that was far more current and would address those deficits that were probably going to become greater because of our digital generation,” she says.
Kingsley’s persistence finally paid off this year when a search yielded “socialsklz:-)” — “I felt like my divining rod had found water.”
The six-year-old Manhattan-based program is the brainchild of Faye de Muyshondt, a PR and marketing expert who developed the curriculum after her experience teaching college students.
“As I was teaching I was noticing that a lot of my students — and these were smart kids — that they were often missing the soft skills, social skills, for life success,” she says. “I went from teaching at Fordham, where I was looking at a lecture hall full of eyes, to New York University five years later and I was looking at the backs of computer screens.”
While teaching NYU students how to train their future clients on how to appear on television or give media interviews, de Muyshondt realized her students could use the same skills they were being trained to teach others. That, combined with requests from seniors on job-interviewing skills, led her to create a course, “The Brand Called You,” which she taught to seniors.
“I saw how self-confidence boosting and self-esteem boosting these skills were for my students and realized they really enjoyed the class,” she says. “The university asked me to give it to outgoing seniors in the school of communications, then I thought, ‘Gosh, we should be teaching these skills so much younger in life.’”
Demand for the course and a love of teaching led de Muyshondt to close her PR firm and leave higher ed to found and pursue socialsklz:-) (socialsklz.com) full time. Divided into three programs, “kidz” (4-7), “tweenz” (8-12) and “teenz” (13-17), the courses teach children everything from how to make a good first impression, shake hands and dine out or as a guest in someone’s home, to how to engage in conversation, stay safe online and more, all geared for their age group. The two- to four-hour programs lay the foundation, skills, and opportunities for children to practice in the class setting. They’re then sent home with their new abilities and given a guide for parents, who can help their children continue to practice and strengthen their skills.
Branching out from New York, de Muyshondt, a regular contributor to The Today Show, has certified socialsklz:-) educators in a handful of states and overseas. Kingsley is bringing the courses to Massachusetts cities and towns via Natick-based Century Health Systems (centuryhealth.org).
“There’s no child who can’t benefit from this,” Kingsley says. “The kids who are great at those skills can become even stronger and even teach other children during these workshops by just doing what they do well. The kids who are average can become good. The children who are still searching for confidence can gain that confidence.”
“We’re so focused on kids’ academic lives in term of education, but never really teach kids social skills,” de Muyshondt adds. “We don’t teach our students about first impressions, conversational skills, identifying and expressing feelings — these skills that impact your life tremendously, more than your academics. I’m not teaching rocket science, but what I am doing is teaching vital day-to-day skills that are necessary for success, that are necessary for a competitive edge. I see first-hand in the classroom: increased self-confidence, increased self-esteem. You see immediate impacts on how a child can learn that eye contact, facial gestures and body language change the way they come across.”
While some might balk at sending their child to a program to learn skills they traditionally learned at home, de Muyshondt notes: “It’s easier to teach these skills when you’re a non-parental figure. I don’t teach my daughter these skills in a formal setting because I prefer to have instructors teach her. We send our kids to soccer camp to have the experts teach them. For a skill set your kid is going to use every single day of their lives, why wouldn’t you send them to an expert? I can argue they probably won’t become a pro soccer player, but they will use their social skills for the rest of their lives.”
Keith Rollag, associate professor and chair of the Management Division at Babson College, says solid interpersonal skills will yield myriad benefits for a person, now and in their future.
“It’s clearly something schools are looking for because they realize that impacts to a degree how they contribute in class, it impacts group work and how they interact with others in student project teams, to the extent that they’ll get involved in extra curricular activities on campus,” he says. “And then, obviously, the school is looking to the future and their placement rates — they’re looking for people who will successfully get a job on the other end. Soft skills play in all of those considerations. They’re not a substitute for intelligence and one’s performance and GPA, but in a tie-breaker situation, somebody with soft skills would probably get the edge.”
Rollag has been researching and writing about “the newcomer experience” — people joining companies as new employees — for over 20 years. He’s interviewed and surveyed hundreds of professionals about their experiences, even asking some to keep a diary of their first few weeks.
“The stuff that caused people the most stress, the most reluctance, the things they regretted not doing afterward, was the [lack of] soft skills,” he says.
In response to this, Rollag wrote the recently published What To Do When You’re New: How To Be Comfortable, Confident, and Successful in New Situations, designed to help adults and young adults improve at five key skills: introducing yourself to strangers, remembering names, asking questions of people you don’t know (anyone from a co-worker to a retail clerk), taking relationships to the next level, and how to get comfortable performing new things in front of other people.
He echoes Kingsley and de Muyshondt in asserting the key to improving soft skills is simple: “Confidence comes through practice. Sheer repetition builds not only the skills, but also the confidence. All of those are learned skills and they just occur through practice.”