Give kids skills employers want, starting early

Originally published in The Press Times – July 31, 2020

With much of the focus turning to how to safely reopen the economy and getting people back to work, there is still uncertainty about what the economy will look like after the pandemic. In many industries it’s likely jobs that were once in abundance will have disappeared forcing many to learn new skills and start new careers to adapt to the new “normal.”

But this phenomenon isn’t new. For years we’ve heard about the skills gap. Manufacturing jobs are disappearing, people are being replaced by machines, employers can’t find enough qualified workers to fill in the gaps. And all of this is hurting businesses’ bottom lines.

But the biggest skills gap isn’t a technical one. Hiring managers want job candidates with “soft” skills like work ethic, communication, and teamwork. Lacking these skills is the main reason why new hires don’t work out. These professional skills are applicable to any career, and it is important students start building them before entering the workforce, even as early as kindergarten. Teaching these three social emotional learning (SEL) skills to our youngest learners will give them time to develop into strong, socially adjusted life-long learners who are ready to take on any career path they pursue.

Emotional Intelligence

Children who develop emotional intelligence are more likely to experience academic success, health benefits, and positive social behaviors. It’s also a highly valued skill in the workplace because it contributes to better job performance and higher job satisfaction. Employees with high emotional intelligence will often make better decisions, be better communicators and listeners, have greater empathy, and be able to resolve conflicts.

For young students, developing emotional intelligence starts by learning how to identify and name their emotions and the emotions of others using simple and engaging activities. At Wisconsin Virtual Academy (WIVA), where I teach, we incorporate these skills in lessons across different subjects. For example, during a math lesson a teacher may ask, “how did you feel when you got the problem wrong?” Students can answer using an emotions chart. During reading lessons, students can learn how to make connections to characters in stories by answering questions such as “what would you change to make this character feel better,” or “how do you think the character felt when this happened.”


Effective communication in the workplace helps with teamwork, increases innovation, and improves productivity. On average poor communication costs organizations $62.4 million per year in lost productivity.

Children can be taught to communicate in any environment by giving them opportunities to practice! At WIVA students have opportunities to write to each other in chat boxes or breakoff into breakout rooms to work on a project as a group. Students as young as six or seven years old can practice speaking in front of an audience by becoming the teacher and demonstrating to the class how to solve a problem. These activities teach students important communication skills at an early age that will stay with them as they transition to high school, college, and the workforce. 

Teamwork and Empathy

Employers are looking for more than someone who can do their job well, they want employees who can work effectively as part of a team. High functioning teams boost productivity, encourage innovation, and improve morale. Despite this, there seems to be a lack of civility in school and in the workplace. Nearly two-thirds of workers report being treated rudely in the workplace. Twenty percent of students report being bullied in school.

To better connect with others, children need to develop empathy. We can help early learners develop this skill by encouraging them to fill each other’s buckets by being kind, thoughtful, and helpful. A teacher may publicly praise students when they use kind words or show bravery and then encourage students to do the same for each other. As students get older, they can expand on these skills by learning to make real world connections across different content areas. At WIVA, our middle school social studies teachers use powerful primary sources like photographs showing child labor conditions during the early 1900s and ask, how do you think these children felt? How would you feel? Could this happen again?

As educators it is our responsibility to prepare students not only for college, but for success in the workplace. By incorporating SEL into the classroom every day at an early age, we can help students develop the skills they’ll need to land their dream job!

Shawna Stueck, from De Pere, is the K-5 literacy interventionist, team lead and teacher ambassador at Wisconsin Virtual Academy

To learn more about Wisconsin Virtual Academy visit

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