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role of life skills

Professional Preparation – The Role of Life Skills

Written by Chris Litherland

What do you want for your child’s future? Happiness, security, a stable family life, a successful career? Whilst academic performance is still one of the key indicators of professional success, the reasons for this have less to do with what they reveal about a candidate’s knowledge of a topic, and more to do with what the grades reveal about a candidate’s personality traits, character, and life skills. In this article, we are going to look at the role of life skills as well as the benefits of life skills that are essential in primary school, secondary and beyond, and discuss some ways, life skill activities can develop and improve them.

What are Life Skills?

Essentially, “life skills” refer to our ability to adapt and make positive changes to our behavior to meet new challenges. In 1999 the WHO’s Department of Mental Health identified five basic areas of life skills that are relevant across cultures:

  • decision-making and problem-solving
  • creative thinking and critical thinking
  • communication and interpersonal skills
  • self-awareness and empathy
  • coping with emotions and coping with stress

Why are Life Skills important?

On a list of “things to teach your kids” Life skills would be at the top. To an ever-increasing extent, life skills are being actively sought out by employers. Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google, said in an interview with the New York Times:

“The №1 thing we look for [at Google] is general cognitive ability, and it’s not I.Q. It’s learning ability. It’s the ability to process on the fly. It’s the ability to pull together disparate bits of information.”

Next, he lists leadership, teamwork, problem-solving, self-awareness and adaptability, all very similar to the WHO’s list above. Notably absent from his list is any mention of academic achievement. Indeed, employers often worry that university graduates are actually less equipped to deal with the realities of the workplace than their less educated colleagues. The skills Bock and other employers are looking for are not skills that are explicitly taught or graded in school, although they are a key part of what goes in to getting good marks, rather it is life skills that are increasingly the key to career success. This is one reason why life skills are important.

Improving Life Skills with Life Skills Activities

Decision-making and Problem-solving — Don’t be afraid of making decisions, and tackle problems head-on. In fact, decision-making and problem solving are essential life skills for kids. Even if you’re wrong, you can only learn by trying.

In the 80s and 90s, Psychologist Carol Dweck conducted a series of studies into how self-perception affects learning. She showed that children who took a “mastery”-oriented approach to problems (that is not being upset by setbacks, having realistic goals, progressing consistently) were those students who believed that intelligence was something that could be change. They were therefore more like to take risks, to keep going when things got tough, and to learn from their mistakes.  The students who showed a “helpless” response to the problem were more often those who believed that intelligence was fixed, and because they felt like every problem was a test of something fixed and unchangeable about themselves (their intelligence), they were less likely to take risks and more likely to give up and condemn themselves for being “stupid”.

Critical Thinking

We have heard that “the brain is a muscle, you can train it like any other”. But it turns out the brain is not a muscle. However, you can change the way your brain works by the way you think. Carol Dweck’s study showed the power of positive thinking, but what is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is the ability to engage actively with the world around you, objectively and analytically to come to conclusions with a basis in reality. Critical Thinking is another essential life skills for kids as it is most important when engaging with media. When you read or watch anything, ask yourself “Who made this? Why? What are they trying to say? How are they trying to say it?” Also ask yourself “What am I getting out of this? How am I engaging with this? What biases have I brought to this?” Critical thinking is not thinking everything is wrong, but it is approaching things carefully and considerately. It is summed up in the words of Oliver Cromwell in his letter to the Presbyterian Ministers, “think it possible you may be mistaken!”

Creative Thinking 

In his seminal book on inspiration, The Act of Creation, Arthur Koestler describes the creative act as a meeting of two different patterns of thought which come together to create a “Eureka!” moment. Think of Archimedes trying to discover the purity of Hiero’s gold crown. He can measure the weight, but it is too ornate, and to find the volume he must melt it down. He takes a break, has a bath, watches the water rise as he gets in the tub and … “Eureka!” Two ideas come crashing together! A crown … in the bath!

This mixing of ideas is a habit of creative thinking. To increase your creativity, try mixing things up: play with things, fool around, tell jokes, tell lies, use things for the wrong purpose. Most importantly don’t think you can create something out of nothing. The intermingling of ideas has been behind every invention, work of art, story, and joke since the beginning of time. So don’t try to re-invent the wheel, try putting it in the bath instead!

Communication and Interpersonal Skills

Have you ever seen a group of children playing football? Often it just seems like a gaggle of geese chasing the ball around in a big cluster. That’s because they are only just learning how to work together as a team, rather than thinking about themselves. Sports are a great way to get kids to overcome their natural selfishness and work together. Understanding their role within a group on the sports field will help them to work more effectively with others when they enter the workplace.

Games are another great life skill activity to build and practice interpersonal skills. The world is a complex network of rivalries, camaraderie, friendships, and hierarchies, and games help us to negotiate these relationships in a simplified way. As well as games, role-play, and theatre can teach students how to express emotions effectively, and communicate these emotions to others, in a safe and fun way.

Self-awareness and Empathy

The most important thing to build empathy and a healthy self-image is to grow up in a loving environment, supported, nurtured, and challenged by your parents or loved ones, and one of the crucial components is mimicry. What makes mimicry a great life skill activity?

So much of early childhood learning comes from mimicry. Children mimic their parents’ language, their parent’s behavior, and even their parents’ attitudes. They learn to do this by imitating. Indeed, studies show that new parents soon begin to change their facial expressions and body language to mimic their children. By showing the child what she looks like to us, we give her a sense of self-awareness. From this develops a sense of empathy, when the child begins to realize that she is similar to others. A simple game of peek-a-boo teaches a child that she exists, that she too can hide and disappear as you do.


especially fiction is another great life skill activity to build empathy and understanding of others. When we read a story, we put ourselves in the protagonist’s place, we feel what he feels and think what he thinks. This can help children to transfer this practice to the real world, and they will be able to identify with and relate to people more easily.

Coping with Emotions and Stress

The kids in my classes often complain about too much homework. It stresses them out, they tell me. I tell them, “Wait ’til get a job! Your school days will look like an endless summer holiday in comparison!” According to the American Institute of Stress, 73% of Americans report having stress that impacts their mental health. How can we learn to cope with stress and teach our children to deal with the stress in their lives?

For younger kids who act out or become aggressive, pillow fights are one thing to teach your child to let off steam. This allows children to vent their emotions in a safe and fun way. For older kids and teens, sports and exercise are shown to reduce anxiety and release mood-enhancing endorphins.

Meditation is fast becoming something that everyone can practice and there are even mindfulness workshops aimed at children. Meditation is another thing to teach your child to cope with emotions and stress. By learning about stress and how to cope with it, children will be better equipped to handle stressful situations in the future, either at school, university or in the world or work.

Chris Litherland is a facilitator at Shiminly. He has been taught ESL in China, the UK, Hungary and Spain.

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Chris is from Devon, in the south of England. He has been teaching English as a foreign language for over six years and has taught in China, the UK, Hungary and Spain. He has a background in Music and studied Composition at the RSAMD in Glasgow, Trinity Laban in London and at the University of York. After finishing his master’s at York, he travelled to China to teach and fell in love with it. He has been teaching ever since.

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