Ending the “Soft” vs. “Hard” Skills Debate

Last month, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released a report Skills for Social Progress synthesizing previous research on the importance of socio-emotional skills, as well as the most effective strategies for building those skills. The report pulls together data from previous OECD reports on the role of socio-emotional skills in helping individuals achieve personal well-being and social progress (as measured by education, labor market outcomes, family life, health, civic engagement, and overall life satisfaction). It also highlights the specific strategies empirically proven to improve socio-emotional skills – both on-the-ground strategies for parents, families, and teachers, as well as larger-scale strategies for education administrators and policy-makers. Volcano2


The report’s claim that social and emotional skills are critical to individual success is almost universally accepted. In that regard, OECD adds to an already existing and vast pool of research supporting the importance of socio-emotional skills in personal growth and achievement. Additionally, the report adds to growing research that such skills are cumulative – i.e. that those with higher socio-emotional skills have a greater capacity to grow their socio-emotional skills in the future (the same holds true for traditional ‘cognitive’ skills).

However, the report’s spin on existing research – and what caught our attention at TYO – is that socio-emotional skills directly drive improvement in cognitive skills.

Throughout education literature, we often hear about “soft” versus “hard” skills, or “cognitive” versus “non-cognitive” skills, as a way to distinguish between traditional academic subjects such as literacy and math on one hand, and traditionally non-academic skills such as teamwork, resilience, and self-esteem on the other. However, the OECD’s findings challenge us to question whether we can really treat the two as separate skill sets.

The integration of so-called “soft” and “hard” skills is at the core of TYO’s early childhood education approach. TYO’s Core Child Program curriculum is grounded in the fact that children need a balanced set of cognitive, social, physical, and emotional skills in order to succeed as healthy, active, and responsible members of their communities. For example, last week our 4-5 year olds learned basic logic and reasoning alongside the self-regulation and coping-with-frustration skills they needed to complete the week's activities. The week integrated simple science experiments (observing how plants grow and learning about chemical reactions through building a volcano) with a tower-building game that provides children with practice in coping with frustration. Similarly, during our 6-8 year old program’s “Logic and Problem-Solving” week, children drew a connection between problem-solving in the classroom (designing a protective vessel for a water balloon drop) and problem solving at home (through a child-parent role-play activity that emphasized verbalizing problems and potential solutions).

At TYO, we also know that social and emotional skills are best taught in early childhood and adolescence, which is why our Core Program targets children 4-8 years old and our International Internship education program targets adolescents ages 9-15. By starting early, we can help children build the strong sense of self-efficacy, responsibility, and agency necessary to become active life-long learners and contributors to their communities.

We were thrilled to see OECD challenge the “cognitive” vs. “non-cognitive” debate, and we are excited to see growing support for a more holistic approach to ECE.

- Niralee, TYO Core Child Program Manager