Building the Case for a Focus on Emotional Skills Development 

By Dr. Christy Olenik, Vice President, Technical Services, Making Cents International

High school students attend a DramAidE forum theater performance at a high school in Kwazulu Natal, a province in South Africa with the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence. © 2000 Patrick Coleman, Courtesy of Photoshare

When discussing skills development programs for youth, most people understand the importance of including components that build soft skills like problem solving, critical thinking, communication, and teamwork.[1] Recent research has made it clear that these skills lay the foundation for youth to achieve positive outcomes in employment, relationship building, and social and community connections.[2] As a result, many youth skills development programs now include soft-skills training.[3] While some of these programs also include a focus on how to deal with conflict as well as activities designed to promote a positive self-concept, it is not clear how many programs take a serious look at building another important set of skills.

What are emotional skills and why are they important?

Often discussed hand-in-hand with social skills, emotional skills help young people “recognize and manage emotions, appreciate the perspectives of others, establish and maintain positive relationships, make responsible decisions, and handle interpersonal situations constructively.”[4] A recent publication by USAID YouthPower Action (2017) titled, “Guiding Principles for Building Soft Skills Among Adolescents and Young Adults,” discusses seven key soft skills for youth: higher-order thinking (critical thinking, problem solving, decision making), social skills, communication, self-control, positive self-concept, empathy, and goal orientation. Of these, self-control, positive self-concept, and empathy can be associated with emotional skills development. In their ‘Framework for Systemic Social and Emotional Learning’ (2017), CASEL names five main competencies for youth: self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness.[5] A number of emotional skills run throughout these five competencies, including: identifying and communicating emotions, recognizing strengths, self-confidence, feeling and expressing empathy, respecting self and others, regulating strong emotions, ethical responsibility, and perspective taking.

Building emotional skills helps prepare youth “to deal with the inevitable challenges of everyday life.”[6] Puberty in adolescence influences hormone activity and brain development, creating a perfect storm for intense emotions.[7] Other psychological developments are also occurring during this stage of life, including the need to develop an identity, create a system of values, fit in with peers, and set and achieve goals.[8] Youth who experience victimization, bullying, environmental stress like poverty and crime, and other forms of trauma are especially in need of emotional skills development.[9] If skills are not cultivated to deal with these stressors, various problems can develop – including aggression, anxiety, and depression – that can lead to a propensity toward violence, suicide, and other health and mental health issues.[10]

How can we build emotional skills in youth?

There are a number of ways to help young people develop emotional skills that make them more resilient.[11] Youth programs can include specific activities and training on relevant topics, or they can link participants to other appropriate services. Here are some examples:

  1. Help youth name and express their feelings. In their recent toolkit on social and emotional learning, the University of Minnesota Extension (2017) suggests incorporating simple activities such as asking youth to describe how they are feeling in one word or to pick a color that represents their feeling and explain it. Trainers can also use a facial expressions chart that shows happy, sad, anxious, and angry expressions, asking youth to choose one that links to how they are feeling and explain. Another fun way to learn about feelings is to have youth wear a ‘weather’ report that includes a picture of the sun, clouds, rain, or storm to help them express their current emotional state. These are quick activities that can be integrated into icebreakers, welcome sessions, or debrief sessions.
  2. Teach youth about stress and its signs and symptoms. Explaining what stress is and how it manifests is important for young people. They may not recognize that sleeplessness, sadness, loss of appetite, chronic headaches, or low energy can be a result of stress.[12] Helping youth understand the causes and physical, emotional, and behavioral effects of stress can build their awareness, so that they are clear about what is happening to them. This enables them to use strategies to control stress or ask for help when they need it. Since stress is a part of everyday life, these concepts can be woven into different discussions, such as those related to the stress one feels when an assignment is due at school, when one goes to a job interview, or when one is starting a business and talking to customers for the first time.
  3. Show youth how to incorporate various strategies into their life that contribute to emotional regulation. There are strategies youth can learn to manage their emotions, including regular exercise, deep breathing techniques, yoga, mindfulness, and meditation.[13] Many youth development programs include recreational activities as part of their offerings. Making the link between regular exercise and stress management can be beneficial, along with encouraging youth to integrate physical activity as part of their ongoing lifestyle. Deep breathing techniques are easy to teach and help give the mind a ‘time-out’, so that a person has a chance to calm their emotions and get a better perspective on how to handle them. Counting to four while taking a deep belly breath could be the difference between reacting in anger or calmness. Many schools in the United States and elsewhere are integrating yoga, mindfulness, and meditation into the curriculum. Mindfulness is the ability to, “focus on thoughts, feelings, or perceptions that arise moment to moment…in an emotionally nonreactive way.”[14] Yoga and meditation help to develop mindfulness. In recent studies, these activities have been shown to reduce students’ level of anxiety and increase their tolerance to stress, well-being, self-esteem, and prosocial behavior.[15] Other benefits include increases in attention, empathy, and self-awareness. Programs aimed at children and youth that include yoga, mindfulness, or meditation include MindUp, Mindful Youth, and Mind Body Awareness Project. There are also a number of related apps like Breathr; Stop, Breath, and Think; and Smiling Mind that focus on youth as the target group. [16]
  4. Connect youth to an adult mentor or teach them how to find their own positive mentors. Having a positive adult to talk to is important to a young person’s emotional skills development. The relationship allows them to have a safe space to share their feelings, problems, and concerns. Meeting regularly with a mentor allows youth to explore their emotions and get ideas on how to handle them in their daily interactions. Mentors trained in deep breathing techniques, mindfulness, or meditation can also support youth in applying these positive behaviors.[17]
  5. Provide or link youth to professional mental health counseling. Some youth may be experiencing more complex or chronic emotional issues that require ongoing professional support.[18] In these cases, programs should have psychologists, social workers, or counselors on staff or links to these types of professionals in the community. Any program serving the youth population would be wise to have a list of local community health and mental health resources available for participants.   


In conclusion, while it is now fairly commonplace to incorporate soft-skills training into youth programming, it is also important to consider ways for developing emotional skills. We want to nurture young people who have the wherewithal to deal with a variety of life challenges. For those youth who may have already experienced traumatic circumstances, emotional skills development could be crucial to building their resilience and increasing their hope for the future.  In the end we want youth to be able to make good decisions, respect themselves and others, have healthy relationships, and adapt to life’s sometimes crazy ride. Emotional skills development goes a long way in helping youth get there.


[1] Youth defined as those aged 10-29 using USAID Youth in Development Policy definition.

[2] Alvarado, Skinner, Plaut, Moss, Kapungu, & Reavley, 2017; Gates, Lippman, Shadowen, Burke, Diener & Malkin, 2016; Lippman, Ryberg, Carney, & Moore, 2015; Soares, Babb, Diener, Gates & Ignatowski, 2017

[3] Soares, et. al., 2017

[4] Durlak, Weissberg, Dymniki, Taylor & Schellinger, 2011

[5] CASEL, 2018

[6] Greenberg, Domitrovich, Weissberg & Durlak, 2017

[7] Yeager, 2017

[8] Yeager, 2017

[9] Yeager, 2017

[10] Yeager 2017

[11] Turner, 2015

[12] Terzian, Moore & Nguyen, 2010; Turner, 2015

[13] Bostic, Nevarez, Potter, Prince, Benningfield & Aguirre, 2015; Ferreira-Vorkapic, Feitoza, Marchioro, Simões, Kozasa & Telles, 2015; Terzian, et. al., 2010; Schonert-Reichl, Oberle, Lawlor, Abbott, Thomson, Oberlander & Diamond, 2015; Turner, 2015

[14] Schonert-Reichl, et. al., 2015

[15] Bostic, et. al., 2015; Ferreira-Vorkapic, et. al., 2015; Schonert-Reichl, et. al., 2015;  Walton, 2016

[16] Rudell Beach, 2014

[17] Preston, 2016

[18] Terzian, et. al., 2010; Turner, 2015


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