Kansas Commissioner of Education, Commissioner of Education, Dr. Randy Watson, Randy Watson, non-academics, non-academic skills, Kansas, special education, disabilities, functional skills, vocational skills, Kansans Can, independence, community-based instruction, transition, community, K-State


Nov, 2015

Are Non-Academic Skills Important to be Successful?

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I’m a co-organizer of an education meetup called #KCedu. https://www.facebook.com/kansascityedu At one of our meetings, I learned some surprising statistics. Dr. Randy Watson, Kansas Commissioner of Education, presented findings from a qualitative study based on over a thousand community and business persons across the state. Participants were asked to write about what makes a successful young adult and researchers at K-State analyzed results.

Kansans Say Non-Academic Skills Matter Most

Surprisingly, academic skills were not the most important items on anyone’s list. Over 70% of the community, and over 80% of business owners cited non-academics, such as being on time and showing perseverance. See Dr. Watson discuss these findings on the YouTube at the bottom of this post.

Because I work with young adults with disabilities, I reflected on this emphasis toward non-academic skills. As I work with students in post high transition services, my main priority is for them to increase in independence. Does it require intense instruction on academic skills or the more non-academic soft skills?

It is dependant on the individual. Many need to increase in self-confidence, which might be reflected in a student’s ability to speak up in a variety of situations, interact with unfamiliar people, or persevere when a task is difficult. Academic skills help, such as being able to read a menu and count out money, but if the person freezes up in a real life situation due to fear or lack of experience in the community, those skills don’t really matter. Apparently, the rest of Kansas thinks the same way.

How Should We Prepare Students With Disabilities?

How, then, do we approach the challenge of preparing post-high transition students for their adult life? These students are among the most disabled in the student population. They qualify for transition services when IEP goals have not been met by the time they finish high school. Goals generally relate to building functional academics and vocational skills. In math, they generally need to work on time, money, and measurement. In reading, they need to work on comprehending basic text, including menus, recipes, forms, and instructions. In written language, they need to complete online forms, update a calendar, use technology to communicate for social and business reasons, and maintain a resume. Vocational skills reflect a combination of work habits and quality of work. To stay organized, many learn to use an electronic calendar, reminders, and other applications. Vocational skills reflect a combination of work hbits and quality of work.

Independence includes handling unexpected situations. In contrast, most high school students have experienced a fairly consistent schedule. At the most basic level, their day starts and ends at the same time. Not only that, the entire school experience has become a comfort zone: hallways, classrooms, teachers, classmates, bus driver, and the cafeteria food are familiar and predictable. In fact, IEP teams often document and insist that consistency is an important part of the student’s day. The issue with this is that life is not consistent; to become more independent, exposure to variety and inconsistencies in time, location, and social contact is key.

Experiences in the Community

Exposing students to a variety of experiences is simple: get into the community, vary the daily or weekly schedule, and set up tasks that require talking to people and sharing spaces with them. Students may go to the grocery store, library, or out to eat with their families, but it’s a different experience to go with peers, staff, or on their own. First of all, they often have habits of leaning on family members. Many have not started carrying a wallet with money. Family members may order or pay each time.

Interacting with people in the community is challenging in different ways for individuals. I have found that most need practice in making purchases because it involves so many skills. Interacting with the cashier to place a food order is a juggling act; to apply functional academic skills, the person has to think about how much money they have to spend, read the menu, make choices based on personal health needs and preferences, add item amounts, and keep the amount within budget (including tax and tip if applicable). When paying, they need to manage a debit card or count out the correct amount of cash. Communication skills include asking questions and speaking clearly. Non-academic skills include managing one’s backpack, purchase, money, and receipt without leaving anything behind and moving away from the cash register in a timely manner. It’s hard, and it takes repetition to master. Even better is to vary the type of food and retail establishments visited. This challenges the individual to figure out the system by reading signage or watching other customers. It also gives the individual confidence when they return there with their friends or family. Community-based instruction provides the most valuable educational experiences we can offer.

Variety in Scheduling

Variety in the schedule helps the student reduce their reliance on routine. Work and college schedules often vary from day to day, so having a varied schedule pushes the individual to use a calendar and develop organizational skills. “What time will I come home tomorrow? Do I need money today? What should I wear today?” Having a varied and interesting schedule means that students are highly motivated to be prepared, and using a calendar becomes a necessary part of daily life.

How Will Kansas Respond?

Kansas is on the right track in thinking about non-academic skills as an indicator of success. How will educators address this? Dr. Watson suggests that it will require partnerships with business and the community, beginning by addressing the needs of one student at a time. Strategies commonly used in special education, such as personalization and real life experiences targeted toward career goals, will increase for all learners. It will take time for each community to develop suitable solutions. I can personally attest to the motivation and personal growth that I observe in students from getting out of the classroom and into the community. Building non-academic skills will enable students to gain independence that will lead to success in adulthood.

(C)2015 Smart Steps, LLC

View Kansas Commissioner of Education Dr. Randy Watson’s “Kansans Can” Speech by clicking the link below:


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