The importance of “soft skills”

John Funk, in his blog at Topics in Early Childhood Education, reminds us that for a child to learn in the preschool classroom, we must first address certain fundamentals: “security, association, belonging, dignity, hope, power, enjoyment and competence”.

We can call these fundamentals “soft skills”. The evidence suggests that it is the development of such soft skills in early childhood programs that is the key to their long-term effects on adult earnings and state economies. Research by Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman supports the importance of soft skills development to long-term effects of early childhood programs.

Advocates of early childhood programs should remember that some of the estimated long-term effects of these programs appear, to anyone new to these issues, to be somewhat implausible. For example, we provide the child with 3 hours per day of preschool, for one school year at age 4. And these 500 hours of the child’s time are supposed to dramatically affect  skills and earnings in adulthood? Yet this is what evaluations find, for example for the Perry Preschool program or the Chicago Child-Parent Center program.

It is difficult to believe that knowing a few more letters or numbers upon entry to kindergarten, by itself, will dramatically affect adult outcomes. We would expect such achievement gains for hard skills, by themselves, to depreciate over time. Many studies of early childhood programs do find such depreciation of hard skills.

But well-run early childhood programs develop both hard skills and what we can call “soft skills”: how the child interacts with peers, with authority figures, and most of all, how the child views him or herself. A child entering kindergarten who is more self-confident, who believes that his or her plans can affect his or her surroundings, and who can get along with other students and teacher, will be more successful in kindergarten. This success in turn will encourage the child’s confidence and planning, and change how the child is viewed by peers, teachers, and even parents. All of this leads to further success in first grade and beyond.

In other words, soft skills, rather than decreasing over time, tend to grow over time. It is this soft skill growth that also allows hard skills to grow and develop. This long-term virtuous cycle of soft skill growth leading to further soft skill growth and hard skill growth is what allows relatively modest early childhood interventions to have long-term effects. It is the malleability of such soft skill development in early childhood that allows early childhood programs to have such powerful long-term effects.

About timbartik

Tim Bartik is a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a non-profit and non-partisan research organization in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His research specializes in state and local economic development policies and local labor markets.
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4 Responses to The importance of “soft skills”

  1. Pingback: Pre-k quality and teacher quality | investinginkids

  2. Annemarie Harris says:

    Dear Mr. Bartik, I am truly enjoying all of your blog posts and look forward to reading your book.
    I’m wondering if it would be possible to place an economic value on soft skills? When we have leaders such as Governor Snyder talking about the “era of innovation” and “entrepreneurial spirit” and Josh Linkner stating that “creativity” is the “only sustainable competitive edge in business,” I think that our business and civic leaders would be very interested in the economic value and return we would see if we focused on building the entrepreneurial/innovative foundation during birth to age five. If such leaders knew of the high rate of return they could achieve before kindergarten, then our Early Childhood Investment Corporation would be elevated to the level of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, in my opinion.

    • timbartik says:

      Thank you for your comment, Annemarie. In answer to your question, I think it is possible to place an economic value on “soft skills”, but very challenging to do so, in part because of the difficulties in measuring soft skills. I do think that business managers know of the value of soft skills. In most surveys of the persons in charge of business hiring and evaluation, “soft skills” consistently show up as very important. Obviously for specific jobs there are needs for various literacy and math skills, but across many jobs there is a need for employees who can get along with fellow employees and customers, who know how to work in teams, who can get along with supervisors, and who can where needed exercise leadership skills and creativity to solve problems. It is the lack of these soft skills that frequently lead to employee terminations, which are extremely costly for business.

      In the case of soft skills in early childhood, I would argue that these soft skills gain even more importance because soft skills frequently are the foundation for developing hard skills. If a student can’t get along well with his or her classmates or teacher, their learning of literacy and math skills is likely to be impaired. So, soft skills and hard skills are inter-connected. To some extent, my entire book is an attempt to establish an objective, research-based “business case” for the importance of the mix of “soft skills” and “hard skills” developed in early childhood programs to the long-term competitiveness of any state’s economy, or indeed the national economy. I think the power of this business case depends in part on how many business and government leaders understand this connection between early childhood programs and the economy, and in part on whether parents and the public understand this connection and make their voices known.

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