Seven Essential Skills for Children (and how you’re already teaching them)

Seven Essential Skills for Children
(and how you’re already teaching them)

Hello everybody!

I’ve been looking back over my recent blog posts and they’ve been a little… preoccupied of late! Anyway, during one of my recent 3am stints, I was scrolling through the articles in my ‘education: to read’ folder (yes, I have one; I’m /that/ type of person) and I came across an interesting piece from CNBC's make it website[1].

It’s an article about how an educational psychologist, Michele Borba, discovered seven key skills that successful children tended to display. Through her work with at-risk children, she decided to see if explicitly teaching these skills would help those who were struggling. She seems to know what she’s talking about, given that she and her husband, Craig, literally wrote the book on Self Esteem in children, way back in 1978[2]!

The book, by the way, is filled with information and activities to help children understand themselves, their feeling and those of others. After a very quick scan through (you can borrow a digital copy from the Internet Archive - it’s free to sign up), it appears to be the basis of the old English PSE curriculum from the early 2000s. Lots of talk of emotional barometers and friendship circles. There is one lovely idea about creating a Happiness Tree, which involves planting a very twiggy stick into a bowl and having children write and tie friendly messages to it. You’ve probably seen it done in various places; I’ve heard them called ‘Wishing Trees’ before, but what a great idea to promote a sense of belonging! And, if your school has a certificate for a special child each week, what a great way to randomise who gets it as well as giving the children some agency in the decision. If you think someone deserves the certificate this week, you say, write who they are and why they deserve it then put it on the tree.

Anyway, I’m already digressing, I was supposed to be talking about the far more up-to-date article and not the 42-year-old book…

… although the similarities are striking.

So, the seven skills children need in order to be successful.

Number one is self-confidence. If you’re a regular reader of the blog, you might remember back in March this year, I wrote about praising children and was surprised to discover that there is such a thing as /the wrong kind of praise/.  That’s been backed up in this article.

Borba is quick to establish that self-esteem (you’re so special, you can be anything you want, look at how handsome you are…) is not the same as self-confidence. Self-esteem, she argues (as do Brummelman, Crocker and Bushman[3]), does very little to encourage success or even mental wellbeing. Too much pandering to self-esteem can result in children placing value on luck or inherent skill or value. In short, they can end up believing that they have no influence on the eventual outcome, so why try in the first place?

Self-confidence, on the other hand, is all about recognising weaknesses and strengths. It’s about spotting an obstacle and working out ways around it. Self-confident children may well fail at things more than children with promoted self-esteem… but that is likely because they will be the ones attempting those things in the first place.

Children with self-confidence, as Michele puts it:

“Know they can fail but also know they can rebound.”

And here’s the great thing: if you’re encouraging exploration; if you celebrate mistakes as part of a learning journey; if you create an environment where risk-taking is exciting, then you’re already teaching self-confidence.

That’s right! Just by teaching the way you have (probably) been taught to teach, you are one-seventh the way to creating wonderfully successful children! Go you!

The next lesson is empathy.

Famously confused with sympathy, empathy is the ability to put yourself into the situation of others; to understand how they might be feeling based on your own, sympathetic experiences.

Borba identifies three different types of empathy in the article (this was news to me; see, I learn along with you guys!):

  • Affective empathy is when you can share the feelings and emotions of someone else.
  • Behavioural empathy is when your recognition of someone else’s feelings leads you to act with compassion.
  • Cognitive empathy is when you begin to imagine someone else’s situation as your own; to walk a mile in their shoes.

If all of this sounds like a mixture of restorative justice and circle time, just you wait until what she recommends to teach these skills…

Labelling emotions is a key component in teaching empathy. Actively pointing out you’re very happy today or something tells me you’re upset gives children the vocabulary to address their feelings. The aforementioned emotional barometers are very good for this (I always used to include tired with my classes. Is it an emotion? I think it is). Also, upon my amazing wife’s recommendation (this time, not from her science background but her acting one - she’s done everything, has my wife), I used to begin with the very simple: mad, sad or glad approach. Once you’ve established which of these overarching emotions you’re feeling, you can begin to explore a little further.

But wait! I hear you cry, I thought this was empathy? Exploring your own emotions is sympathy, no? Well yes, clever clogs, but you can’t begin to understand someone else’s emotions until you've understood your own.

The next step is to ask questions. This shows children that the emotions they feel are normal and acceptable. Are you happy?, Has something upset you?, You seem angry, are you? These are all incredibly useful for a child who is not sure if they are allowed to feel those things. If you’re wondering why a child might be confused about feeling happy, I had an 11-year-old who went to sleep one night and when she woke up, her father had died. No warning. Incredibly sudden. Her mother, obviously distraught, had no choice but to send the children to school (how could she possibly have dealt with them that day?). 

Now, the girl was, understandably, very upset for most of the day; however, at lunchtime, she was running around with her friends just playing and smiling. Then all of a sudden she burst into tears and ran inside. When I spoke with her to calm her down, she told me that she felt really guilty for being happy when her dad had just died.

So yeah, sometimes children need to be reassured that feeling happy is okay.

Having said that, I get very frustrated when I hear teachers telling children to ‘put a smile' on their faces when the child is clearly angry. Let them be angry! So long as they’re not hurting themselves or anyone else, let them explore how that anger feels and, more importantly, how to work themselves out of it. The first step along this journey is to ask questions.

The logical follow-up to this is to share how they feel. This needs to be modelled to be effective. Again, if you’re a regular reader, you will have heard me say on many occasions that I would freely tell the children when I was in a bad mood. I did this not just to reassure them that they were still in a safe place (grumpy adults can be frightening sometimes) but also to show how to explain feelings. And not just to the children, the other adults in the room needed to know and understand that emotions were okay and explaining them was sometimes necessary.

On top of that, there are some emotions that children might not have experiences, or may not have the vocabulary for. I remember the sense of revelation for one boy when I explained that I was frustrated with him but that didn’t mean I was angry with him. We had a wonderful conversation about nuanced emotions (there’s a great activity you can use in an English lesson that involves this grading of emotions - it’s called ‘Shades of Meaning’ and it involves line graphs and thesauruses. It’s really fun and can lead to some fantastic writing. Let me know if you would like a blog post about it).

Once you have the appropriate vocabulary for the emotional spectrum, and you have recognised how they make you feel and behave, you can start to notice them in other people. How is the man feeling? you might ask as you look at a photograph of someone winning a sports cup, or a veteran staring into a mirror. Again, not just great for personal, social and emotional learning, but a fantastic segway into some brilliant poetry as well!

The next tip is to teach self-control.

Borba cites this skill as the most important step to success (why it isn’t number one in the list is anyone’s guess). She suggests that teaching self-control begins with using attention signals. Not sure what they are? Don’t worry, you’re already using them. 

Have you ever said, one, two, three… eyes on me? Or used a clapping rhythm that is echoed back (please don’t do this - they are children, not seals)? Or simply said, I need your attention in three… two… one? Then you’re teaching self-control.

By giving children the independence to stop what they’re doing themselves and pay attention to someone or something else, you are laying the groundwork for them to use stressed pauses in their own life. This is where they take a mental break (counting to ten if they’re angry, for example) before saying or doing something.

I find that asking a very angry child to write down what they want to say before saying it is an effective way to force this pause. It might not alleviate their anger, but that’s not the point. The point is to focus on what’s made them angry in the first place. Remember (my wife again), anger is the result of injustice. Personal injustice. So it might not be immediately obvious nor may it necessarily seem rational to you but to the person who is angry, who feels violated in some way, it is serious. Let them explore exactly what it is that has made them so mad, sad or glad.

Now, what if the child is too young to write it down? Well, this is where I have used my stage hypnosis and NLP experience to great effect (I’ve been around a bit, too!).

I once worked in a school where all the badly behaved children were sent to me. Whether it was because I was the Year 6 teacher, and therefore was used to the oldest children, or because I was the only male teacher and the ‘naughty’ children were often boys (this isn’t my sexism; I didn’t agree with it, and ultimately offered to lead a staff training session explaining how I dealt with the kids),  I don’t know. What I do know is that I would often get children who were too young to write (or who were sent to me with nothing to write with, nor did I have anywhere particularly for them to write anyway), so I had to think of a different way to stress that pause.

I didn’t know that was what I was doing at the time, like I said, I’m learning along with you this week! But it just goes to show that quality teaching /is/ effective - you are doing all of these psychology tricks without even realising!

Anyway, these kids. They would come to me all angry and I would not let them talk… at first. No, the first thing I would do is tell them to stand in a certain place. It doesn’t matter where you tell them to stand, so long as it is not where they are currently standing. It could be a little as one step away. The key thing here is that you are establishing that you are in control of the situation; not in a jailer way, in a very peaceful ‘you don’t have to worry right now; I’ve got everything under control' kind of way.

When they’re standing where you want them (this might take more than one attempt; be patient, it will happen), have them face you. Then do the following:

Tell them: Give me your arms

Take both their arms, gently, and raise them up to their eye level, extended fully (no elbow bending), with the palms open and about 6cm (3 inches) apart, like they’re about to clap.

Gently tell them: Look at the gap between your hands and keep staring at it. 

Your hands are going to move together; you won’t have to force them; this isn’t a trick, it’s just how your muscles work. 

Don’t try to stop them. 

All you have to do is stare at the space between your hands. 

When your hands touch each other, drop your arms by your sides,                                 close your eyes and breathe slowly. 

That’s all you have to do. 

 Nod if you understand.

Don’t ask them to say if they understand - you don’t want them talking at all right now.

They will do this and by the time their eyes are closed, they have already had that interruption to their angered mental state. Your soothing, calm voice has reassured them that they are not in danger (this is not the same as not in trouble), and the gentle induction technique (the hands and the staring) has given them the permission and the freedom they need to let go.

Trust me, it works like a charm. And afterwards, you can remind them how they calmed themselves down and reassure them that they can use that technique whenever they feel overwhelmed (you can use it, too. It works a treat if you can’t get to sleep!).

Right, this is already over 2,000 words and we’re only just past step three. I tell you what, I’ll cover steps 4 to 7 in the podcast. That’ll be good for a bit of synergy, won’t it! 

If you haven’t yet listened to the podcast, you can find every episode in the very same place you found this blog. There is a tab for podcasts at the top. You can also subscribe via Spotify, Apple Podcasts, iTunes and Google Podcasts. I publish new episodes every week so be sure to check them out! And if you haven't got the time to listen to podcasts and would much rather read the remaining skills, you can head over to the Show Notes page of Mr M's Musings and open up the transcript of Episode 12.

Thanks for reading this far and let me know if anything I’ve said has struck a chord! In the meantime, remember: You can do this; you're awesome!

Carl Headley-Morris

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"References" for this post:


[2] Borba, M., & Borba, C. (1978). Self-esteem, a Classroom Affair: 101 ways to help children like themselves (Vol. 1). Harper San Francisco.

[3] Brummelman, E., Crocker, J., & Bushman, B. J. (2016). The praise paradox: When and why praise backfires in children with low self-esteem. Child Development Perspectives, 10(2), 111-115.