The Role of Social Emotional Learning and Soft Skills in USAID Policy
Children and youth with strong social and emotional skills have demonstrated that they do better in schools, in life, and at work because they have the skills needed to lead productive lives and contribute to society. They can analyze situations, solve problems, communicate with their peers, and understand others’ emotions. They have empathy and enough self-confidence to step out of their comfort zones. They can thrive and adapt in many different environments, including schools and the workplace.
Both the 2018 U.S. Government Strategy on International Basic Education and the 2018 Education Policy recognize the important role these skills play in predicting the long-term success of children and youth. The brand new “USAID Education Policy Brief: Social and Emotional Learning and Soft Skills” aims to support USAID staff and implementing partners in this work.
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Defining Social-Emotional Learning and Soft Skills
Several sectors, including education, use the umbrella terms “social and emotional skills” and “soft skills” to refer to a broad set of cognitive, social, and emotional competencies that affect how children and youth interact with each other, solve problems, make decisions, and feel about themselves.
The USAID Education Policy defines “social and emotional skills” as a “set of cognitive, social, and emotional competencies that children, youth, and adults learn through explicit, active, focused, sequenced instruction that allows them to understand and manage their emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”
“Soft skills” are defined as a “broad set of skills, behaviors, and personal qualities that enable people to effectively navigate their environment, relate well with others, perform well, and achieve their goals.”
USAID will continue to use the term “social and emotional skills” for basic education programming and the term “soft skills” for youth workforce and higher education programming. Yet, USAID staff and implementing partners should recognize that when programming toward improved social and emotional or soft skills, the terminology will be fluid based on the cultural context, developmental age and stage of the population we aim to serve, and the overall theory of change.
Find out how a USAID-supported program that focused on soft-skills training in Rwanda increased young people’s ability to gain employment.
Four USAID Education Priorities
USAID seeks to strengthen the education systems of partner countries so that all children and youth get the academic, social, and emotional skills necessary to be productive members of society. In doing so, the Agency has identified four educational priorities:
- Children and youth, particularly the most marginalized and vulnerable, have increased access to quality education that is safe, relevant, and promotes social well-being.
- Children and youth gain literacy, numeracy, and social-emotional skills that are foundational to future learning and success.
- Youth gain the skills they need to lead productive lives, gain employment, and positively contribute to society.
- Higher education institutions have the capacity to be central actors in development by conducting and applying research, delivering quality education, and engaging with communities.
Social and Emotional Learning Supports USAID’s Education Priorities
Skills development plays a role in achieving all four education priorities in a variety of ways. Learners with strong social and emotional skills often perform better academically. When children learn social and emotional skills in countries in conflict, they are better equipped to deal with stress and trauma. Soft skills can also help youth be successful in a variety of careers. They develop social skills, self-control, and the ability to adapt to changing conditions. Higher education institutions also play an important role, especially for teachers. They can equip educators with social and emotional skills that create supportive classrooms.
Integrating Social and Emotional Learning in Education Programs
When designing education programs, practitioners should make their theory of change explicit by identifying the needed skills and their role in achieving their desired outcomes. All skills instruction must be relevant, appropriately sequenced, active, focused, and explicit. Instruction must be provided in a safe learning environment.
Additionally, it is important to tailor the way teachers articulate, teach, and measure social and emotional skills or soft skills to the local context, norms, age, developmental stage, and sex of the learners. While social and emotional skills have been shown to increase the agency and resilience of youth at the individual level, breaking down barriers to opportunities for all learners requires analysis and understanding of the structural inequalities present at other levels of the system.