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Soft skills before ABCs: Education shifts to benefit the whole child


Photo: Shambhala Sun Camp

We see it everywhere: aggressive drivers who can’t stand to wait, internet “Karens” berating teenage employees at restaurants. Some may say our society could use a bit more social emotional intelligence.

For generations education and parenting styles prioritized academic learning and social norm compliance over social emotional intelligence. Categorized as “soft skills,” social emotional learning teaches successful communication, conflict resolution, interaction with others, managing emotional responses, empathy, and emotional literacy.

“Those are skills we need our whole life,” said early childhood specialist LJ Werner. “We have adults who are still working on these skills, right? Maybe when we were younger we weren’t taught them. You’re not born with the skills; you’re taught them. It should be embedded in all curriculums.” 

Werner is a trainer, coach, and support advisor of the Pyramid Plus Model, a professional development system supporting the social emotional development and inclusion of all children through evidence-based practices.

Even before Werner’s involvement with Pyramid Plus and her research supporting the importance of social emotional learning during her graduate studies, Werner was sensitive to the way that most adults treated children. Often older styles of parenting and caretaking of children came from a discipline or shame-based approach, Werner said.

“There’s so much healing that needs to happen around that. I feel like my whole life for as long as I can remember, I worked with kids, and I was always really sensitive to how adults support them. That just turned into my life work.” 

In her training sessions, she explains to educators and caregivers that children have a proverbial piggy bank. Kind words, hugs, compliments and attention all fill their banks. Every time a caregiver makes a withdrawal, which can be in the form of yelling, saying no or shushing them, it damages their development and five positive “deposits” to their piggy banks must be made to make up for it, Werner said.

“Shifting how we talk to our kids can impact their self-esteem so much. Start telling children what to do versus what not to do. Remember that they’re just children. We have to be really realistic on our expectations. We really have to be mindful of our own triggers.” 

The shift to positive and emotionally intelligent teaching will not only benefit the students but also educators.  

“It’s the most important work,” Werner said. “Teachers actually get to feel successful. They stop feeling like police officers. When the parents learn our approaches, the parents start feeling more successful.”  

From Werner’s experience running a social emotional-based preschool program at CU for over eight years, Werners sees the strategies work. She has only had to create two specialized behavior plans, a last-step resort to support students, Werner said. 

Research shows that implementation of social emotional curriculum in education can combat youth suicide, hopelessness, anxiety, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, and crime.

Inclusive social emotional practices also combat discrimination against children for their race or for disabilities. Black preschoolers are more likely to get suspended or expelled from schools. Inclusive social emotional practices include all children, accommodating for any needs and teaching all students empathy for peers instead of separating them or removing them for perceived behavioral problems that can be influenced by racial and ableist biases by administrators and schools.

Other local programs in Colorado offer education with an emphasis on teaching social emotional skills. 

The Shambhala Sun Camp is in its 38th year. Its mission has stayed the same: sharing the wisdom of meditation and mindfulness practices with children. The camp is rooted in Buddhist tradition, but is open to children from all traditions.

“The fundamental view of Sun camp, which we try to transmit to campers, is there’s nothing wrong with you just the way you are right now,” said Camp Director Sol Halpern. “You don’t need any gadgets or clothes or even external confirmation to lead a dignified and fulfilled life.”

The philosophy of Shambhala Sun Camp is that everyone is inherently good. Photo courtesy of Ashoka Mukpo.

The camp’s philosophy is more subversive than ever with technology and consumerism dominating our culture.

Kids who attend the camp report feeling like they can really be themselves and convene with true friends. Parents sometimes question if their kids really did anything, wondering if all their children did was meditate, but are grateful to see small differences when their children come home, Halpern said.  

“Schools confirm a certain set of skills,” Halpern said. “Camp environment here is the philosophy that there’s nothing wrong with you now. That’s pretty profound actually in a way. It’s hard to believe. You have to unpack it for your whole life. It’s not like you’ve learned it at camp and then you’re good. It doesn’t work that way. Even being told it at all is kind of unusual. I think the purpose of camp, at least on our side, is to support that idea that the experience of your own life and familiarity with your own mind and how it works is just as valuable as any other education.”  

The entirely volunteer-run camp, staffed by mostly returning campers, teaches tools to develop personal gentleness and fearlessness, or having a “strong back and soft front,” Halpern said. 

“The younger ones come and learn to take care of themselves, and the older ones come and learn to take care of others. That mirrors the kind of path of, in the Buddhist tradition called bodhisattva, of taking care of others. First you take care of yourself and then others.”

The Shambhala Sun Camp is an outdoor sleep-away camp for children ages 10 to 16. Photo courtesy of Ashoka Mukpo.

As much of education has revolved around academics and maintaining the status quo, what will happen to a new generation taught social emotional skills?

“Social emotional development is the foundation to everything,” Werner said. “If you ask any kindergarten teacher what they want the kiddos to show up with, it’s not the ABCs, it’s not reading and writing, it’s being able to be a friend, following routines, problem solving, self-regulating, talking about feelings and being able to enter into a group of peers. That’s what kindergarten teachers want. If they don’t get that down, they’re not going to learn their ABCs.”

Boulder County summer programs and resources with a social emotional focus:  



Zoe Jennings
She really knows how to pick those high earning careers. As both a journalist and a preschool teacher, selling out is a worse fate than being broke for Zoe Jennings. Author of ‘The Word on the Yard: Stories from D.O.C. #166054,’ a humanizing look at life in prison, she hopes to become a writing instructor for students earning their degrees while incarcerated. Zoe enjoys music and the outdoors in her limited free time.

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