Mentoring Provides Needed Soft Skills to Low-Income Youth

Tenacity, goal setting, self-control, and grit are what researchers call non-cognitive skills in the world of mentorship. As I finish day one at the National Mentoring Summit in Washington DC, I am left thinking more about these soft skills rather than tangible outcomes, like growth in math or attendance. Our summer program, Practice Makes Perfect, will be solely evaluated on the hard skills our academically struggling scholars walk away with. Hard skills that produce high test scores, attendance rates, and grades. What about those soft-skills? You know, the ones that transcend far beyond the learning of predicates or Pythagorean’s Theorem.

After today, I realized that if we didn’t teach soft skills, like how to negate self-doubt and develop a growth-mindset, we would be doing our students a disservice. Based only on socioeconomic status and the color of their skin, our students are at an immediate disadvantage. During my morning session, an organization named Summer Search showed us that only 1 in 10 low-income students would earn a Bachelor’s degree this year. That leaves me to think about the students that last left our 5-week summer academic program and returned back to school. How long will it be before they look to their left, and then to their right, and feel that they don’t belong?

It will be those soft skills that give our students the strength to prevail. It’s strange that we label those skills as soft. Does tenacity or grit make one soft? These are the skills one relies on to survive on the streets of the Bronx. These are the skills it takes to get up after one is bullied. These are the skills that give one the courage to stand up for what is right. And as I think about our mentorship model, where mentors are only four years older than the scholars—and thus truly able to make an impact—we are given an opportunity to create praxis.

As I begin my first summer as Practice Makes Perfect’s Program Director, these non-cognitive skills will not be far from my mind. With our students feeling out of place in the world of academic success, it is so crucial that we teach our youth, plagued by an opportunity gap, to focus on skills like adaptability, teamwork, and communication. Although our scholars can be found leaning on our mentors, they do not entirely rely on them. Our mentors are rich in soft skills and fortunately they know how to relay those skills on to our scholars. So when the day comes, our mentees will know not to look left or right, but to simply look ahead.