Soft Skills for Youth: Insights from YouthPower Action's Research on Soft Skills Development, Measurement, and Outcomes Across Sectors

By Daniel Plaut and Radhika Mitter, Results for Development Institute (R4D)

Posted: January 31, 2017

While the importance of soft skills have been previously acknowledged by both researchers and practitioners, many questions remain unanswered:

  • Which soft skills have the most impact in improving outcomes for youth across sectors?
  • Which measurement tools are most effective at assessing these skills?
  • Are there guiding principles for developing these skill sets among youth? 

Luckily, the YouthPower Action consortium led a half-day event, co-hosted by the YouthPower Learning consortium, on December 5th. The event brought together leaders from the international youth development field, including members of the YouthPower Learning Cross-Sectoral Skills for Youth Community of Practice (CoP), to explore new research in this field that begins to tackle some of these themes. The day opened with reflections from two youth leaders on their perceptions of soft skills followed by a series of presentations led by YouthPower Action, which highlighted key findings from three upcoming reports on soft skills, each addressing one of the questions mentioned above. After the informative and compelling paper presentations in the morning, members of the YouthPower Learning Cross-Sectoral Skills for Youth CoP facilitated a lively discussion seeking to identify ways to incorporate research findings into participants’ daily work and develop areas for further research. Here’s what we learned.
What are soft skills and why are they important?
YouthPowerSoft skills refer to a broad set of skills, behaviors, and personal qualities that enable people to effectively navigate their environment, work collaboratively with others, perform well, and achieve their goals. These skills complement technical, vocational, and academic skills, and are increasingly being recognized as crucial to long-term youth development. Despite growing evidence on the benefits of soft skills for youth development, evidence gaps remain regarding which soft skills are considered the most important for youth, and whether the effectiveness of these skills on improving youth development outcomes varies across sectors.  Gaps also persist on identifying best practices and guiding principles for assessing and building these skills among youth.
Three new reports were presented at the event: Key Soft Skills for Cross Sectoral Youth Outcomes, Measuring Soft Skills in International Youth Development Programs: A Review and Inventory of Tools; and Guiding Principles for Soft Skill Development, of which the latter two are presently in draft form. These reports address the evidence gaps and offer practical recommendations for funders and implementers. Specifically, the reports identify key soft skills for cross-sectoral youth outcomes, examine current methods of measuring soft skills, and offer guiding principles for implementing soft skills in international youth development programs.

Key findings from the research

1. Positive self-concept, self-control, and higher-order thinking skills identified as key soft skills for cross sectoral youth outcomes An extensive review of literature was carried out to determine which soft skills contribute to the following three outcomes: workforce success, sexual and reproductive health (SRH), and violence prevention. Three skills were identified as having a strong impact across all three outcomes:  

  • Positive self-concept, which includes self-confidence, self-efficacy, self-awareness and beliefs, self-esteem, and sense of well-being, and is defined as: “a realistic awareness of oneself and one’s abilities that reflects an understanding of his/her strengths and potential.” (Lippman et al. 2015)
  • Self-control, which includes the ability to control impulses, delay gratification, direct and focus attention, and manage and regulate emotions and behaviors.
  • Higher order thinking skills, which include problem solving, critical thinking, and decision making.

Based on their cross sectoral impact, practitioners may be wise to prioritize these skills in their programing. The research also identified social skills and communication as important cross-sectoral skills, and goal orientation, and empathy as commonly cited soft skills for specific outcome areas. For example, empathy was strongly supported in the violence prevention literature, while goal orientation emerged as a critical skill in fostering positive sexual and reproductive health outcomes.

2. The field of soft skills measurement faces many methodological challenges regarding validity and comparability across contexts. Even among the soft skill measures that scored highly according to the YouthPower Action review criteria, most tools rely exclusively on self-report methods, which suffer from reference and social desirability biases, and are particularly limiting when attempting to track individual changes over time.
Only 44 percent of tools examined met researchers’ recommended threshold for validity. A key challenge lies in the lack of common terminology and skills definitions across measurement instruments, which hampers the ability of program implementers and evaluators to compare results across programs and cultural contexts.

3. Creating a positive environment for youth plays an important role in soft skills development. The specific approaches taken by practitioners to foster soft skills can strongly influence young people’s ability to develop these skills. The research proposes the following six guiding principles for soft skill development for youth, each highlighting positive practices for practitioners in out-of-school and formal education settings:

  • Promote experiential learning that allows youth to practice and reflect on using soft skills in different contexts
  • Address skills in combination rather than in isolation, recognizing how they interconnect and reinforce each other
  • Promote strong, supportive relationships between youth program staff and other adults and among youth peers
  • Promote positive staff practices, such as modeling soft skills; providing consistent, strong reinforcement of positive attitudes and behaviors; and offering constructive feedback on youth’s efforts to use soft skills
  • Create a safe, caring, supportive, and enriching program environment that allows youth to feel comfortable expressing themselves and engaging with soft skills
  • Promote integration of learning contexts by adopting approaches that involve families, the local community, education institutions, and the workplace

 A key theme that emerges from these guiding principles is the importance of creating a positive environment where youth are encouraged to practice and apply a range of soft skills in everyday situations and meaningful contexts. Positive staff practices and supportive relationships between youth and adults that are characterized by a respect for youth’s contributions, and are based on shared power, play a key role in creating such an environment and fostering soft-skill development for youth.
Discussion insights and areas for further research
The breakout discussions in the afternoon yielded interesting thoughts on the practical implications of the research findings as well as future areas for research. In regards to measuring soft skills, some participants noted that we know little about how well measurement tools are being used by implementers, regardless of their design. A clearer understanding of the daily challenges associated with skills measurement by practitioners is crucial to improving the quality of these measurement tools.
Sector-specific outcomes not included in YouthPower Action’s study of soft skill’s impact across sectors, such as civic engagement and governance, were highlighted as potential avenues for future research. Given that the research presented covers only three outcome areas - workforce success, SRH, and violence prevention – many wondered if the core soft skills identified as contributing to these domains apply to other outcome areas.
Finally, practitioners stressed the need for consensus on a set of universal minimum adaptation guidelines for soft skills measurement tools that programs should use as they are contextualizing tools for use in different countries and cultural contexts. The challenge lies in determining what requirements can realistically be included in these guidelines and whether or not programs will be able to enact them.
The questions and comments raised in the breakout discussions highlight the complexity of the field of soft skills measurement and implementation, and the numerous evidence gaps concerning these areas that have yet to be filled. With that said, the findings from each of YouthPower Action’s three reports provide us with a wealth of new knowledge on soft skills development, measurement, and outcomes across sectors that is sure to generate much discussion, action, and further research.
In the months ahead, YouthPower Learning’s Cross-Sectoral Skills for Youth CoP will host a number of other similar events and webinars to continue exploring lingering evidence gaps and best practices related to soft skills development for youth. If you would like to receive updates about such events, please join the CoP listserv here.

About the Authors

Daniel Plaut is a Senior Program Associate within the global education team at Results for Development (R4D). His recent work includes co-authoring a report documenting the path to scale for promising education innovations. Daniel also co-leads a global meta-review of positive youth development literature under the YouthPower initiative. Additionally, he has contributed to a number of R4D­-led initiatives, including managing the Center for Education Innovation’s country hub network, conducting an evaluation of citizen-­led assessments of learning, and authoring a study on skills training programs for ICT­-enabled employment opportunities. His key areas of interest include and expertise include, positive youth development and skills, learning and evaluation, and early childhood development.

Radhika MitterPrior to joining Results for Development, Radhika Mitter interned at education-focused NGOs in India, Bangladesh, and the U.S. Most recently, she interned at the ASER Center in New Delhi, India, where she helped develop and pilot an enhanced version of ASER’s existing Hindi language reading assessment tool. Radhika holds a BA and MA in international development from Clark University. While at Clark, Radhika’s research focused on multicultural education integration in Worcester Public Schools and global education policy analysis. 



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