Ending the “Soft” vs. “Hard” Skills Debate


Last month, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released a report Skills for Social Progress synthesizing previous research on the importance of socio-emotional skills, as well as the most effective strategies for building those skills. The report pulls together data from previous OECD reports on the role of socio-emotional skills in helping individuals achieve personal well-being and social progress (as measured by education, labor market outcomes, family life, health, civic engagement, and overall life satisfaction). It also highlights the specific strategies empirically proven to improve socio-emotional skills – both on-the-ground strategies for parents, families, and teachers, as well as larger-scale strategies for education administrators and policy-makers.


Last week, 4-5 year olds in TYO’s Core Program built a volcano and observed basic chemical reactions as part of the week’s theme “Communication: Logic and Reasoning”.


The report’s claim that social and emotional skills are critical to individual success is almost universally accepted. In that regard, OECD adds to an already existing and vast pool of research supporting the importance of socio-emotional skills in personal growth and achievement. Additionally, the report adds to growing research that such skills are cumulative – i.e. that those with higher socio-emotional skills have a greater capacity to grow their socio-emotional skills in the future (the same holds true for traditional ‘cognitive’ skills).

However, the report’s spin on existing research – and what caught our attention at TYO – is that socio-emotional skills directly drive improvement in cognitive skills.

Throughout education literature, we often hear about “soft” versus “hard” skills, or “cognitive” versus “non-cognitive” skills, as a way to distinguish between traditional academic subjects such as literacy and math on one hand, and traditionally non-academic skills such as teamwork, resilience, and self-esteem on the other. However, the OECD’s findings challenge us to question whether we can really treat the two as separate skill sets.

The integration of so-called “soft” and “hard” skills is at the core of TYO’s early childhood education approach. TYO’s Core Child Program curriculum is grounded in the fact that children need a balanced set of cognitive, social, physical, and emotional skills in order to succeed as healthy, active, and responsible members of their communities. For example, last week our 4-5 year olds learned basic logic and reasoning alongside the self-regulation and coping-with-frustration skills they needed to complete the week’s activities. The week integrated simple science experiments (observing how plants grow and learning about chemical reactions through building a volcano) with a tower-building game that provides children with practice in coping with frustration. Similarly, during our 6-8 year old program’s “Logic and Problem-Solving” week, children drew a connection between problem-solving in the classroom (designing a protective vessel for a water balloon drop) and problem solving at home (through a child-parent role-play activity that emphasized verbalizing problems and potential solutions).

At TYO, we also know that social and emotional skills are best taught in early childhood and adolescence, which is why our Core Program targets children 4-8 years old and our International Internship education program targets adolescents ages 9-15. By starting early, we can help children build the strong sense of self-efficacy, responsibility, and agency necessary to become active life-long learners and contributors to their communities.

We were thrilled to see OECD challenge the “cognitive” vs. “non-cognitive” debate, and we are excited to see growing support for a more holistic approach to ECE.

Related posts:

TYO and Google One Today


Have you heard of the One Today app by Google? One Today lets users easily give $1 each day to causes and nonprofits that inspire them. It’s a way to make an easy, affordable, one-time donation to causes that you want to support. Each organization presents a compelling statistic that explain why the work they do is so crucial, and you’ll learn how just $1 truly can make a difference.

We’re excited to announce that TYO is now on One Today! Here’s our story:

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 93% of children in Palestine have faced domestic violence. At TYO, we implement holistic, therapy-based educational programs for more than 1,000 children per year, offering nearly 800 hours of art, sports, drama, music and storytelling classes. Our programs give refugees and other disadvantaged children in Palestine an educational environment that fosters safety and security, while providing them with key outlets to express their feelings, anxieties and emotions.

$1 = 1 hour of art therapy classes for children. By making a simple $1 donation to TYO, you can help bring education and a smile to the most disadvantaged children in Nablus, Palestine.

OneTodayDownload the app today for Android or iPhone, iPad and iPod to get started!

Related posts:

Time to Break a Sweat and Bust a Move


You know that feeling too well, when you step off the treadmill, wipe the last bead of sweat off your brow after a hot yoga class, or finish a long hike. You get that rush of energy, your mood is uplifted  and you feel confident to take on whatever the day may bring your way. The physical and mental benefits of regular physical activity are hard to ignore and are yours for the taking – regardless of your age, sex, or socioeconomic status.

While your goal may be just to shake off a ‘case of the Mondays,’ exercise offers countless additional health benefits throughout a lifetime. According to a publication by the Institute of Medicine released this month, physical activity is strongly linked to maintaining physical and cognitive function. This in turn has been associated with older adults maintaining independence and developing fewer cognitive conditions later in life.

At Tomorrow’s Youth Organization (TYO), we recognize that the women of Nablus are especially prone to deprioritizing their own needs in order to take care of others. Given the negative impact lack of exercise can have on a woman’s cognitive and physical function as they age, The Women’s Group (TWG) provides women in Nablus with a few hours every week dedicated to their own health and well-being. This week, TWG launched the summer 2015 program for women residing in refugee camps and disadvantaged neighborhoods in Nablus, with a priority for mothers of children in TYO’s Core Child Program. This summer’s TWG program will offer IT seminars as well as health and nutrition classes alongside seminars related to women’s empowerment in the community. This session boasts over 60 women who are eager to break a sweat, bust a move, and learn the basics of healthy living and nutrition.

Zahi Khouri fellow, Vanessa leading a nutrition session

Zahi Khouri fellow, Vanessa leading a nutrition session

On the first day of class, TYO evaluated the women’s baseline understanding of health and their fitness levels based on international standards. This was accomplished by a brief written assessment of general knowledge regarding fitness and a physical test of cardiovascular health, flexibility, and muscular strength. Trepidatious at first, the group now enthusiastically competes to be the first to complete their exercises amidst fits of laughter. The next two months will be filled with critical health and wellness education, fun exercises the women can perform at home and a little friendly competition to boot.

We are thrilled to bring these women together. By breaking isolation and focusing on health and wellness as we build confidence, skills, and relationships that we hope will last a lifetime.

-Zahi Khouri Fellow, Vanessa

Related posts:

Youth in Focus: An Interview with Somaya M.


Somayya M. is from Sarra, a village outside of Nablus. In 2014, she graduated from An Najah National University with a bachelor’s degree in Medical Laboratory Sciences.


Sadeel, Mohammad, and Zein in TYO’s Core early childhood education program.

How did you hear about TYO, and what sparked your interest in TYO’s Youth Service Learning Program?

While in university, I took an English language course with Denise, one of the interns in TYO’s international internship program. Through the experience, I became very interested in volunteering at TYO and specifically working with the international interns in order to improve my English. I applied and was accepted as a volunteer in the early childhood education program this spring. I was excited to learn that TYO offers various trainings for volunteers to improve their employability skills.

What are your career goals, and how do you believe TYO’s YSL program will help you achieve those?

My goal is to work as a technician in a medical lab. Some might say that working in early childhood education has nothing to do with my medical laboratory studies; however, from my experience at TYO thus far, I know that I am building skills that will help me wherever I go in my career or personal life – for example, English language skills, problem solving, teamwork, and time management. Additionally, in the lab I will need to work with children who are nervous or scared, and at TYO I am learning many valuable skills on how to communicate with kids. Personally, I am much more confident in my ability to make good decisions as a future parent and to deal appropriately with my children’s behavior and needs.

What is the greatest challenge for youth like you in the current labor market?

Work opportunities in the north are very limited, much more so than opportunities in cities like Ramallah or Bethlehem. Additionally, family restrictions and a gender discrimination in our society limit our ability as women to travel and/or live in other cities for work; we are either forbidden from working in other cities, or even if we are allowed, we have to pay much more to cover the daily transportation to and from those cities. It is particularly challenging for me since lab and hospital work often involves working night shifts, which is not accepted by my family or community.

Another major issue is that there are many legal protections for those who have held their position in a company for many years (for example, 30-35 years) regardless of their skills, and that seriously limits opportunities for fresh graduates who may have better or more modern skills.

What do you think your generation can do to overcome that challenge?

The most important thing is for us to continue learning and developing our skills to prove to employers that we  – as women, as fresh graduates, and as applicants from the north – can compete with our counterparts. We need to put in much more work than others to prove our motivation and commitment.

If there was one skill you wish you had (English, IT, etc) what would it be and why?

My English is stronger than most but not nearly as good as a native speaker. I want to be fluent, and I hope that working at TYO and interacting with the international staff will help me to improve. I also want to improve my written communication and management skills.

Related posts:

Intern Alumni Guest Post: Amanda


This blog post features former intern Amanda as she reflects on her time as a TYO intern last summer in Nablus.


I had been studying Kathleen Hanna directly prior to my arrival in Nablus. Kathleen Hanna was the original Punk Rock girl in the 80s. She started a feminist movement because she used her fame to preach about the necessity for equality for women. She would often be heard at her shows screaming “GIRLS IN THE FRONT, GIRLS IN THE FRONT” to make men move away from the front of the stage and create a safe environment for women to dance at her concerts. She did this because both men and women would go to her shows to enjoy her music and start these mosh pits where people would really get hurt. Kathleen Hanna was a protector of women and TYO is the Kathleen Hanna of Nablus.

I had literally no idea what I was going to step foot into. The only people I knew who had heard of Nablus were found on my laptop – random strangers I’d find while looking Nablus up on Google and YouTube. After my flight and my eventful cab ride, I arrived to TYO around 1 or 2 in the morning. Two women greeted me – I’m pretty sure they were each wearing different matching pajama sets and I immediately thought, “These women are classy.” One helped me lug my giant suitcase up 6 flights of stairs – enough stuff for a month and a half and some change. These classy women had also been strangers from Google and YouTube – they had both been the ones to interview me for an international intern position at TYO on Skype. They showed me to my room and I remember immediately being taken aback at the realization I hadn’t fully appreciated the fact that I would be working with so many educated women up until that point. It was liberating for me, the girl with the family full of men.

Some of my most empowering moments came from the classes I taught for The Women’s Group. I had the disarming pleasure of teaching women ranging from 20-60+ about nutrition and fitness – these were women who got to leave behind their cramped houses, hungry children, husbands with varying personalities, cleaning duties, cooking duties, and coping mechanisms for a few hours. In exchange they received psychosocial programming provided by TYO like IT classes, group therapy, and my fitness and nutrition classes. They were initially skeptical of me, the ajnabeeya [foreigner], but once they learned I spoke a little bit of Arabic and wasn’t afraid to speak my mind they lightened up. They came to class excited, counting loudly, proclaiming their pants fit so much better now. They screamed, shocked that ice cream wasn’t a healthy snack option – “But it has milk!” – and then concurred among themselves that each woman had secretly known all along it was unhealthy, of course. I got to play soccer with women who thought sports weren’t for women. I’ve grown up around lots of boys and men because I come from a big Assyrian family – the only woman in my life has always been my mother. My strong, genius, great chef, beautiful single mother. It’s always been us: two strong women in a sea of big, loud, Mr. Fix-it’s.  Suddenly, at TYO, I was in a sea of mothers. For two hours everyday – before I was surrounded by college students and later, 6 year olds – it was all mothers. It was difficult to contain my enthusiasm and genuine love for them. They sat on their yoga mats and told me stories of their homes they wish to see again – if I went to their old neighborhoods, could I visit their house? Would I come over for dinner? Would I be a guest at their daughter’s wedding? Would I marry their son? I made them close their eyes and meditate on the floor for 2 minutes. I would always chastise my women jokingly when they began to fidget – in reality it was extremely difficult to get them to be still for 2 minutes because they simply were not accustomed to the concept of relaxation – they could not do it. “Give yourself two minutes of silence, ladies. Otherwise, you will go crazy.” I could see their facial expressions in somber agreement and I wondered whether or not they’d heed my advice in the future. I hope Hayah or Obaida or Falasteen is out there meditating somewhere.

Now I am finishing up my student teaching experience at a Chicago Public School (I’m teaching History to Juniors and Seniors) and in many ways it is TYO who prepared me best for this. Although a generally outspoken person, I had extreme anxieties about whether or not I would be able engage classrooms full of students eager to learn. I had anxiety about my teaching efficiency – could I actually get through to anyone, could I give access to anything important to my students? I know now that I was able to engage my students and, although in hindsight we can always be more efficient, I felt I communicated key concepts across to the beneficiaries at TYO after being trained in best practices by the staff before full immersion in the program. Working in Nablus has made me a more empowered activist for human rights and a firm believer in the transformative powers of psychosocial educational programming. These two lessons translate themselves into tangible parts of my life today – I work with a group of young professionals who organize voter drives and meet with local congressman to ensure the dialogue on human rights in the Middle East continues and is productive. I implement psychosocial learning in my Chicago Public School classroom as frequently as possible because I know it works. TYO taught me that – not a classroom, not a book. TYO released in me an empathy I did not know I had – it brought out my inner Kathleen Hanna and she’s here to stay.

– Amanda, TYO Intern Alumna, Summer 2014

Related posts:

Communication: the key to getting ahead in today’s world


Last week, TYO attended an event at Brookings entitled: Ready to be counted? Incorporating noncognitive skills into education policy. Several great speakers and policy makers spoke about the value of non cognitive skills and how they should best be incorporated into the formal education system. Although the speakers had various opinions about how bed to successfully incorporate non cognitive-based learning in the classroom, everyone agreed: non cognitive skills are critical for healthy life development. Sometimes, extracurricular or after school programming is left filling the gaps.

Non cognitive skills, as defined by Brookings, can otherwise be “referred to as social-emotional skills, soft skills, or even character.” A recent survey from the Pew Research Center asked a sample of adults to select from a list of 10 skills (including reading, science, math, logic, communication, etc.), and determine which “are most important for children to get ahead in the world today.” Most respondents cited that communication skills were the most important. At TYO, we most definitely agree that soft skills – like communications, teamwork or collaboration – are just as important as hard skills (like math and science).

In Palestine, schools put little-to-no emphasis on learning soft skills. Youth in Palestine may graduate from university and never be presented with an opportunity to learn how to communicate effectively with their peers – especially with those of the opposite sex. They graduate without ever having worked on projects as a team and are denied opportunities to build their leadership skills.

At TYO, we create a learning environment that is designed to promote these social-emotional skills like determination, collaboration, communication, self-efficacy, leadership and perseverance. TYO’s Youth Service Learning program gives university students and graduates the opportunity to volunteer and experience on-the-job training and increase critical employability skills that aren’t taught in Palestine’s classrooms. Similarly, TYO’s Core Child Program teaches non cognitive skills through play for children ages 4-8 years old, and children ages 9-15 work to build life skills through the International Internship Program.

Mustafa, Ahlam, Salam, Ibrahim, Shaima, and Shahd work on a team building activity during sports class

In intern Eleanor’s class, eight and ninth graders work on a team building activity during sports class

By promoting these skills among university students and graduates through YSL, we aim to fill the gaps where the formal education system has failed. But through the Core Child Program and the Internship Program, we’re ensuring that children and adolescents in Palestine are getting the best possible start towards living happy, successful lives.

Related posts:

Welcoming Zahi Khouri Fellow Vanessa!


TYO is thrilled to introduce our newest Zahi Khouri Fellow, Vanessa.

Vanessa Faraj_ZKF

Vanessa received her Master’s Degree in Social Work from Georgia State University and before joining TYO, she was a Lead Designer at the Racial Justice Action Center in Atlanta, GA. While in the US, she was very active in women’s rights and empowerment. During her fellowship at TYO, Vanessa will lead incubation courses for women entrepreneurs from the Northern West Bank as a part of the WISE II Program and lead fitness and health seminars in The Women’s Group. In addition, she will support TYO’s youngest beneficiaries through the Core Child Program. Vanessa is a Palestinian-Iraqi American and although she was born and raised in the US, she has very strong connections with her Middle Eastern heritage and is excited to be joining the TYO team!

Related posts:

Doing Early Childhood Education Right: From Boston to Nablus


Earlier in February, Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo announced that he would make access to high quality early childhood education (ECE) among his top three priorities in the current legislative session. He stated, “Not only is a renewed commitment to early education and care vital to the current economy by helping working parents– it’s vital to our children’s future.”


A TYO volunteer helps children with a puzzle activity during our 4-5 year old early childhood education program.

DeLeo’s words should invite little controversy; however, his address falls at a time of growing resistance throughout the US to allocating more resources toward ECE. The reason? Critics claim that there is little evidence supporting the impact of ECE on later school performance; that the benefits of ECE only resound with children coming from lower-income households; and most surprisingly, that whatever benefits gained from ECE are short-lived.

In response to DeLeo’s statement and the responses of critics, Dr. Donna Housman – founder of Beginnings School, an early childhood school combining academics with social and emotional development – reflected on what we define as “high quality” ECE. Housman identifies three key components of quality early childhood development:

1) High quality learning experiences start very young, before age 4.

2) Learning the fundamentals of emotional and social intelligence is equally important as the development of cognitive skills.

3) Cognitive skills, such as math and literacy, cannot be taught as isolated subjects; rather, they must be taught via ‘creative play’ in order to not only get the concepts across, but also to teach children about positive learning processes.

These same three lessons are at the core of TYO’s programs. Though our early childhood education program starts at 4 years old, our Women’s Group targets and empowers mothers in our community to provide the positive, supportive, and responsive home environment essential for the education and development of their youngest children. Building the family characteristics of nurture, connection, respect, limit-setting, and responsiveness – through our work with mothers, young children, and the youth to become tomorrow’s parents – are at the core of TYO’s multigenerational approach.

Additionally, our ECE curriculum puts the development of social, emotional, and physical skills at the same level of importance as cognitive skills. In the first week of our 4-5 year old program, children learn not only how to recognize and describe their individual attributes, but through those topics, they also learn about caring for themselves and the qualities of self-efficacy and self-worth. Similarly, our older children ages 6-8 learn about public health issues that they witness at home and in their communities, and through those discussions learn about social connectedness (awareness, and value, of themselves within a larger community).

Along the same line, core cognitive skills (e.g. Arabic and English literacy) are taught with a focus on preparing children to be life-long engaged and active learners. For example, the same week that children learn logic and reasoning skills (through learning how plants grow and learning about basic chemical reactions through building a volcano), they also play a tower-building game to practice dealing appropriately with frustration. The class teacher and volunteers help children to build towers using various blocks and recycled materials; when the towers fall, the teacher and volunteers exhibit a healthy and positive response and then encourage children to try building again. The children observe a healthy response to setbacks and then have a chance themselves to build towers and practice their own skills in coping with frustration.

Perhaps the best lesson to take from Housman’s article is about who can benefit from quality ECE. Housman makes an important counterargument to the misconception that income alone is to blame for achievement gaps between children. She states, “Positive, responsive relationships, rich in quality time and communication, are what influence and shape a child’s growing brain and development… those are family characteristics that are not necessarily linked to income.” We absolutely agree – and not only are the basic factors that constitute quality ECD applicable across income levels, but they are also applicable across borders and should be the standard of all ECE programs. The basic principles of holistic education, teaching social and emotional development alongside cognitive skills, and most importantly starting early, are universal – from Boston MA to Nablus Palestine.

Related posts:

Poverty Affects a Child’s Brain Development


Children who come from affluent families tend to academically outperform children living in poverty. While this may not come as much of a surprise, new research from Nature Neuroscience reveals a correlation between affluence and brain size. According to the Huffington Post and Dr. Elizabeth Sowell, director of the Developmental Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, the study reveals that the brain of “the kid whose family makes less than $25,000 is about 6 percent smaller in surface area than the kid whose family made $150,000.”

They saw that this disparity in brain size widens more drastically towards the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum. Researchers controlled for genetic factors and were able to conclude that children who come from higher-income families have healthier brain development likely due to “their exposure to better nutrition, health care, schools, play areas, air quality and other environmental factors known to play a role in brain development.” And the best way to try and close the gap is to engaged children living in poverty through “after-school programs, healthier school lunches and other initiatives.”15266492725_9384a4ccb6_k

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, 27.2% of children in Palestine are living in poverty. This rate is even higher among refugee camps where 38.6% of refugee camp households suffer from poverty. To best address these needs of these households living below the poverty line, TYO implements high-quality early childhood programming to children ages 4-8 years old – which are some of the most critical years for a child’s brain development – by creating a structured environment for active learning and self-discovery, and by providing healthy meals.

Related posts:

Youth in Focus: An Interview with Eman S.


Eman S. is from Balata refugee camp in Nablus. She graduated from university in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology. Eman describes herself as a person who loves to keep growing and challenging herself and says that is what led her to volunteer with TYO.


Eman engages children in a classroom activity on self-care and hygiene as part of the week’s theme “I am Valuable.”

What sparked your interest in TYO’s Youth Service Learning Program? Have you volunteered elsewhere before?

My friend is the mother of a kid in TYO’s Core Child Program, and she has told me many times how happy she is about what TYO is doing for kids and families in the refugee camps around Nablus. Since I am from Balata (the largest refugee camp in Palestine), I feel that it is my responsibility to help the children in my community realize their potential and find healthy ways to express the difficulties and trauma they have faced. Additionally, volunteering for an organization that provides psychosocial support to children is a great way to apply what I learned as a psychology major in university and prepare me for full time work in the field of psychology.

What are your career goals, and how do you think TYO’s Youth Service Learning Program will help you reach those?

I would love to work as a full-time psychologist with a Palestinian organization. I’ve discovered that I would enjoy working with an organization like TYO that helps employees and volunteers grow through regular observation and feedback in addition to pushing staff to take initiative and be creative. Volunteering here with a group of other graduates from different backgrounds has also been a great way to develop my teamwork and leadership skills.

What is the greatest challenge that youth like you face in the current labor market?

I would say discrimination between those from Nablus city neighborhoods and those from the refugee camps. In my own experience, I have seen many from the refugee camps marginalized by those from the city – in school, when applying for jobs, and in day-to-day life. Additionally, restrictions on women in our society – due to tradition and conservatism – significantly hold us back professionally. For example, my family originally did not approve of me studying psychology, and I worked extremely hard to push back against their conservatism and study what I was passionate about and what I knew I would succeed in. They had the same attitude towards volunteering, but I knew I had to do it to gain work experience. Every college student and recent graduate should volunteer.

What do you think your generation can do to overcome those challenges?

We need to defend our right to pursue our education and careers against those who want to stand in our way. We also need to believe in ourselves and our skills entering the labor market; part of that is continuing to develop our skills during and after college to prove to employers our determination and capabilities – as women and as individuals living in the refugee camps. We need to prove that we deserve a chance.

If there was one skill you wish you had (English, IT, etc.), what would it be and why?

English, since it is the skill in greatest demand in the labor market. Our education system, particularly English language instruction, is very weak. In addition, most of my university classes were taught at least in part in Arabic (although they were supposed to be taught in English), so I have not had the exposure to English necessary to become fluent. I would love to learn from a native speaker, because it is both more enjoyable and more effective than learning from a textbook.

Related posts: