Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

S.P.E.C.I.A.L. Introductions: Teaching Soft Skills to Our Students

June 17, 2015
Shaking Hands

Before you continue reading this article, and if you have not done so already, take a look at my photo below.

Do I look trustworthyKindAttractive?  (Potential Answers: Yes, maybe, and perhaps his wife thinks so).

Without having to think much about it, perhaps never having met me, and based solely on a small photograph, you made conclusions about me. 

You likely encounter dozens of unfamiliar faces on a daily basis and you are able to form first impressions “spontaneously and with minimal cognitive effort” (Ambady &Skowronski 2008). It is what humans do. In fact, Princeton psychologists Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov found it takes only but a tenth of a second to form an impression of a stranger (Wargo 2006).Humans are exchanging thousands of little bits of information with each other within moments, all unconsciously (Fast 1970). Advice: don’t try to fight it and start consciously thinking of these things, you’ll just look silly!

If we have such little time to form that first impression, how are we to convince someone of something they assumed we were not? If someone believes I am a blubbering idiot from the first impression, how can I convince them I am quite intellectual? How do I prove to a stranger that my wiry frame does not make me meek? (True struggle.)

If I care enough in a given situation to ensure that my new onlooker makes the most positive first impression possible, there are several things I can do that may aid in that process.  In fact, it has been shown that even a poor first impression can be overcome by a series of positive traits (Ambady & Skowronski 2008). 

To better understand this, it is first important to note that most of us are naïve interpreters of body-language. We ascertain most of our general assumptions of kinesics from media, what we are taught, and repetitive behaviors. Dr. Birdwhistell, professor of research in anthropology at Temple University, has stated that “‘no body position or movement, in of itself, has a precise meaning’” (Fast 1970). In other words, slouching does not necessarily signify boredom or apprehension, as we often associate it with. Nonetheless, it is worth exercising commonly accepted conventions in day to day interactions with people, especially when trying to make a positive first impression!

Over my time as a teacher and professional development presenter, I have been in the people business—both young and old. I have worked on developing the skill—as I will argue it is—of making positive first impressions, more specifically when meeting someone new. Taking my experiences - plus the research and thoughts of business, psychologist, and education publications (Pitts 2015; Clark 2011; Goman 2011) - I have derived an “action” list for the first seven seconds you meet someone, and designated it as S.P.E.C.I.A.L. 

SShake hands: Not too hard (you might break a hand), not too soft (no one wants a floppy fish), and certainly do not shake the fingers. Instead, interlock the webs between the thumb and index finger and clasp.

PPosture: Stand up straight, shoulders back, chest out. People believe that a person standing tall is more confident and aware (Fast 1970).

EEye contact: Look into the eyes of the person you are meeting the entire time you approach and shake hands (this takes practice).

C Charm: Smile, raise an eyebrow, use a head nod. These are small actions that express interest and charisma.

IIntroduce yourself: People like to know your name, a simple “Hi, I’m [your name]” is a great icebreaker.

AAsk a question: “How are you?”, “What brings you here?”, “Don’t you hate this snow?” are crucial to beginning a conversation and show interest in your unknown companion.

LLean in & Listen: Do not lean in too much. Personal space may be invaded and the first six things you did will wash away. A slight lean in from a couple feet away shows interest and helps you listen to the speaker and respond appropriately.

This mnemonic device is not meant to be a rigid sequence of events that occur, but rather a set of actions that when put together, smoothly and naturally come across as confident and professional. Many of these proficiencies require practice over time, which is why I feel it is vital to begin teaching them at an early age. 

As an educator, finding time to integrate S.P.E.C.I.A.L. into my teaching day was challenging since there was already so much to cover, but over time I found natural ways for the skills to be introduced and practiced.

Here are some practical approaches to incorporate S.P.E.C.I.A.L. into your day-to-day routines and curriculum:

Greeting the Students in the Morning – Stand at your door as the students enter so that your body is positioned to greet the students entering while still monitoring the students already inside. Set the expectation that before a student enters the room, they are to provide you with a proper greeting and handshake to start the day. If you are an administrator, position yourself by the school entrance and greet the students as they enter the building with a “S.P.E.C.I.A.L.” welcome each morning (and drench your hand in hand sanitizer promptly afterwards).

Welcoming Guests into the room – As either a rotating weekly job or permanent position in the classroom, establish a system that when a guest comes into the room (e.g. administrator, parent, visitors) the designated student leaves his or her seat and welcomes the visitor with a proper greeting. The assigned student does not have to ask for permission to do this and instruction continues all the while.

Stand When Responding – To practice making eye contact, posture, and charm, have your students stand up when they speak in class.  Encourage students as they are speaking to make eye contact with as many classmates as possible during their response. To gauge success, poll the class afterwards and ask “How many of you did the speaker make eye contact with?” This practice also increases students’ ability to be heard and seen while speaking, while building confidence in their comfort to stand up in front of others.

Group Discussions – For those teaching in Common Core states, you know that “Speaking and Listening” under the Language Arts standards is a vital strand to increasing students’ ability to communicate. Many teachers meet these key ideas by having students work in small groups during times such as guided reading or literature circles, or in a larger group setting such as Socratic seminars. To engage the students in the S.P.E.C.I.A.L. process during this, have students greet each other as the converge at a table with a proper handshake, and then have students evaluate each other’s ability to listen to classmates, respond accordingly to comments and questions, maintain eye contact, demonstrate engaging body posture, and exhibit signs of affirmation when someone speaks (such as a head nod). This can, of course, be implemented within any content area during an interactive discussion or group work.

The keys to proper and effective implementation of these skills are giving students opportunities to practicing them and providing immediate and constructive feedback. Do not offer false praise! If a handshake felt like a limp French fry, have the student firm up the grip.  If the students’ eyes were fixated on their blinking sneakers, have them reintroduce themselves with proper eye contact right away. Remember, practice makes permanent!        

In the text and technology-driven society we live in today, we must not forget the soft-skills that matter most when looking to get jobs, meet a future companion, and most importantly, make a strong first impression.

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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