By Mike McDowell, Assistant Principal, Hutchinson Middle School
The middle school years of young adolescence are a time of great change as students strive for more independence and responsibility. For incoming 6th graders, many things are new; the school, teachers, and social groups are all part of this new experience. Returning 7th-8th graders are familiar with the setting, but are confronted with new challenges as academic content becomes more challenging. In addition, they encounter a new set of teachers, and at times their peer groups change. Middle school students are required to continually develop and refine skills with their own time management, work ethic, self-advocacy and problem solving. Within all school settings, schools specifically define an outline of skills practice, refinement and development as it relates to student development. This practice can be defined as hard and soft skills development.
Hard skills are often referred to as the competencies and abilities that are foundational for job or career success. Hard skills are intentionally practiced and developed within the classroom or course a student is enrolled in. Schools in Minnesota are guided by the Minnesota K-12 Academic Standards which are used as an outline for what should be practiced and mastered by all students in a grade level. Practice often takes place within the classroom or content specific setting, is assessed and a teacher will then provide feedback as to how a student is progressing on a standard.
Soft skill development also occurs while students are obtaining hard skills. As students work in peer groups, think critically, problem solve and communicate with others, they are refining their soft skills. These are practiced as students overcome challenges by building grit and grow in their own social-emotional development. Soft skills increase through practice in spontaneous, real-time situations and scenarios that require students to make choices and decisions based on prior experiences and their own skill level. Developing the soft skills of conflict management, active listening, empathy, creativity and integrity are all part of the concept of “skills practice” that is pivotal for developing individuals who will have positive outcomes in the future and will be ready for a diverse and ever-changing working environment.
In addition to many of the school specific changes and demands, students also take on responsibilities outside of the school setting. Family specific obligations and an assortment of activity schedules require effort and energy. Parents and guardians are an important part of the development process with these skills as students spend a majority of their hours during a year outside of the school setting. Parents help to support the development of hard and soft skills by encouraging regular attendance at school, creating space for open dialogue at home, and by modeling these skills in real time. Students who attend regularly often have better outcomes with their academics and gain more intentional exposure to hard and soft skills while in their classes. Parents can support skills acquisition by guiding the development of time management, work ethic, problem solving and creativity through a variety of opportunities within the community. Opportunities to be involved with extracurriculars outside of school, leadership opportunities and service projects can all help students with their exposure and growth of hard and soft skills.
Healthy adult guidance is imperative as we walk alongside young adolescents through this changing, and at times, challenging period of life. Helping to manage a middle schooler’s schedule and other personal needs can be difficult, but as parents and guardians, you are a necessary part of the skill development process. We know from our own experience that these years are exciting, adventurous, and pass by extremely fast. We as adults can reflect on an adult that helped us through this period of life and can model this support to those in our care now. We also can rely on each other for support when needed. We can find some peace knowing that these experiences are often necessary for our kids’ personal skill growth and development.
As adults, we all have a great responsibility to our students. School personnel, parents, guardians and mentors can all help assist with the development of the skills that will help our kids achieve the best possible outcomes for their future.