Leveraging Soft Skills to Improve College and Career Readiness

Student in graduation gown.
“As a college instructor, I see the thing that gets in the way for kids, aside from the academics, is their time management and their ability to advocate for their needs,” says Jennifer Freeman. (Dickson Donatus/Pixabay)

Editor’s Note: The following piece, featuring a new grant in support of research on college and career readiness for students with emotional and behavioral disorders, originally appeared on UConn Today

The transition from high school to college or the workforce is a major one for all students. While high schools work to ensure their graduates are prepared, students with emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD) often find themselves lacking the non-academic skills they need to succeed.

Through a collaboration with Lehigh University, Neag School of Education associate professor Jennifer Freeman will develop an intervention to improve college and career readiness for students with emotional and behavioral disorders. This $500,000 grant is sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Freeman is a Co-PI with Lee Kern and Chris Liang at Lehigh University.

The team will develop a Supported College and Career Readiness intervention that builds on existing programs in schools.

“Our hope is to work with schools to develop the capacity to support kids with EBD, keep them in school and make sure they have the skills they need to be successful after high school,” Freeman says.

Students with or at risk for emotional and behavioral disorders are five times more likely to drop out of high school and almost 20% less likely to enroll in higher education than their peers. Emotional and behavioral disorders are characterized by problems such as impulsiveness, short attention spans, difficulty handling frustration, and refusing to follow rules. These kinds of behaviors pose significant challenges in and beyond high school.

“Our hope is to work with schools to develop the capacity to support kids with EBD, keep them in school and make sure they have the skills they need to be successful after high school.”

— Associate Professor Jennifer Freeman

The intervention will focus on soft skills. While many high school college or career preparation programs focus on academic preparation, many students enter college or the workforce without the social skills necessary to navigate interactions with professors and peers or supervisors and coworkers.

“Academics are a given,” Freeman says. “But schools tend to overemphasize academic skills in terms of college and career readiness. We’re really trying to articulate and emphasize the social skills kids need to navigate those environments.”

Freeman says without these skills, students struggle, especially if they are experiencing academic problems on top of it.

Jennifer Freeman, co-PI on new College Career Readiness research project.
“Schools tend to overemphasize academic skills in terms of college and career readiness,” says Freeman. “We’re really trying to articulate and emphasize the social skills kids need to navigate those environments.”

“As a college instructor, I see the thing that gets in the way for kids, aside from the academics, is their time management and their ability to advocate for their needs,” Freeman says.

This work will build on another IES funded project lead by Allison Lombardi and supported by Freeman to develop a measure of college and career readiness that goes beyond academic preparedness. This extensive measurement tool asks students to assess how they feel about their own abilities in areas like interpersonal engagement and transitioning to college or career. This new project will put that measure into practice.

The Supported College and Career Readiness (SCCR) intervention will include features such as direct instruction for soft skills, mentoring, and support for navigating course selection. Additionally, the intervention will focus on making career placement opportunities accessible to students with emotional and behavioral disorders.

“Our hope would be to develop an intervention that can be layered on top of what high schools are doing already that doesn’t require a ton of resources on their part but can help support this population more effectively,” Freeman says.

The group will launch a pilot study next year in a handful of schools in New England and Pennsylvania. After that initial study, the researchers will gather feedback from teachers and students and modify the program testing it in 12-15 schools for the second stage of the study.

The researchers hope this work will someday be successfully implemented on a wide scale to support the specific needs of this population setting them up for success immediately beyond high school and for the rest of their lives.

Freeman holds a Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education. She is a partner with the National Center on Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports and a research scientist for the Center for Behavioral Education and Research. Her research focuses on positive behavioral interventions and supports, and classroom and behavior management.