Steve Heisler

Teacher Author Speaker


"Every single child wants to be successful. The problem is, if they can't be successful at being successful, they'll be successful at screwing up. Our job as educators is to change the latter to the former."    

- from the The Missing Link by Steve Heisler

Critical Success Skills: Easy to Teach, Hard to Learn

I am an advocate for teaching what I call ‘critical success skills.’ These skills are: persistence, self-regulation, organization, time management, decision making and appropriate ‘work-place’ social skills.

Why are they critical?  Simply because, as my experience and research has shown me, possession and use of these critical success skills is, by and large, the difference between those children who succeed and those who struggle.

It often comes down to this: children who are successful see the locus of control for their lives as being within themselves; those who are less successful see the locus of control as being outside themselves.

This is the essential aim of teaching success skills: empowering students to be able to take control of their lives and futures. 

For clarity’s sake, let me state unequivocally that I am neither advocating nor advising that parents and teachers give up their authority. Empowering children while maintaining clear authority over their lives is critical for children to be able learn how to manage themselves. Persons who have abdicated their authority (sometimes under the boneheaded idea that children left to their own devices will learn to manage themselves) effectually rob their children of the necessary structure within which context all good decisions are made.

No less an authority on child development than Dr. Benjamin Spock bewailed this misinterpretation of his prescription for powerful parenting. He noted that he had never advocated permissiveness in anything and in fact only advocated treating a child as a person, with his or her own feelings, hopes and dreams. The child supplies the power,” said Dr. Spock, “but the parents have to do the steering.

Parents and teachers who engage with and empower their children in limited forms of decision making are, in fact, teaching decision making.

Critical success skills are actually easy to teach; most kids know exactly what they need to do to be successful in school. However, being successful requires more than knowledge. It requires a meaningful and habitual application of these critical success skills. And habits, especially good habits, like the willingness to set aside a fun opportunity today for a deeper accomplishment tomorrow, take time to acquire. Frankly these skills are rarely learned without extensive facilitated practice.

Is this kind of deep, habitual learning best done at home, by parents, over the lifetime of their child rearing? You bet.

However, critical success skills are necessary for student achievement. Hell, all successful people everywhere exhibit the use of these skills! But, if critical success skills are not taught at home and they are necessary for student success, where, pray tell, will the children learn them if not in school?

Fortunately facilitating critical success skills learning can be easily infused right into existing curriculum and does not need to be cumbersome. Teachers (and parents) just do what they normally do but with a slightly more intentional, more facilitative approach, and sure enough, after a few (ok…sometimes a few hundred) repetitions it becomes a good habit.

Most importantly, and this is what makes it worth the investment, these are the kinds of skills and habits that once they are yours, they are yours forever.