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Super soft skill training

All the attention on this training is even more important for students with disabilities

We’ve known for some time that students with emotional or developmental challenges often need to have training in “soft skills”, but new research from Michigan State University has shown how such efforts pay off, especially to help these students enter and stay in the work force.

Connie Sung, an associate professor in the Office of Rehabilitation and Disability Studies in MSU’s Department of Counseling, Educational Psychology and Special Education, who has studied the issue, says that while schools are aware of this need the effort has to be well structured and deliberate.

“Teaching these students appropriate soft skills and ways to navigate the social demands in the workplace and school are crucial and actually an important key to success,” Sung says.

She notes that her research has shown that 90% of job losses, for instance, by students on the autism spectrum (ASD) occur because they lack fundamental social and emotional learning skills, such as collaboration or communications. Often she says, schools focus on getting these students to relate to classmates or teachers, but not generally function in the broader world.

She says her research has shown that young people fail in jobs – or even in some school settings – because of “the lack of soft skills rather than hard skills”.

Amanda Bennett, a developmental behavior pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, described it this way.

“All children need to be able to understand facial expressions and recognize social cues in other people, look them in the eye, and be able to follow classroom rules. For kids with special needs, however, these lessons may not come easily,” she told MetroKids.

"When interacting socially comes naturally for people, we don’t pay much attention to it,” she says. “But your ability to regulate an interaction with another person — having that back and forth conversation in a successful way; reading someone’s social cues and recognizing whether they agree with what you’re saying or doing; being able to recognize when someone is being friendly or a bully — these are all really important in childhood and in life.”

Sung and her colleagues at MSU have developed a program called The Assistive Soft Skills and Employment Training program, or ASSET which has been used primarily by students in college and high school and entering the work force, but increasingly is gaining interest among K-12 schools.

Sung’s research proves the training helps considerably. Her research shows that with eight weeks of ASSET training, young adults with ASD showed significant improvements in social cognition, social function and social confidence.

 Sung also found that the participants’ confidence increased significantly while levels of anxiety and depression decreased. 

 “ASSET gives students a toolbox that boosts their confidence and significantly increases their chances of success,” Sung said. “They learn to focus on what they are good at, which helps their overall psychological wellness. These people have been underserved and neglected when it comes to training and support so I’m glad we’re finally working to help them.”

She says a number of school districts have shown an interest in the ASSET program and believes it is part of a broader effort to consider the needs for new kinds of social skill development among special ed students.

Robert Brooks, who speaks on resilience and motivation among students is concerned that they too often struggle because they don’t have various social skills, but particularly the ability to push through difficulty. He described the problem in detail in the publication LD-online

“In essence, they have developed "learned helplessness" and they entertain little, if any, hope for future success. Students with this mindset hear exhortations to ‘try harder’ as accusatory and judgmental remarks, hardening them from accepting any assistance we may offer. I would contend that if we are to succeed with these students, we must first consider techniques for changing their self-defeating negative mindset.”

Others have supported Sung’s conclusion about social skills. there is an increasing number of reports on how to address the issue, including, recently, these seven strategies from author and researcher and author Rick Lavoie. Research last year showed that these students do better if they are grouped by their abilities rather than by their disability type.


Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (

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