Soft Skills are Important to Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Students’ Success in Academics and Future Career Growth

The issue

The new U. S. Every Student Succeeds Act includes a non-traditional measure along with academic scores. Increasingly, educational reformers are focusing on soft skills (e.g., responsibility, perseverance, self-management, social interaction skills, and attitudes/approaches toward learning) as the non-traditional area to measure. Soft skills are productive personal traits that enable individuals to perform effectively in academic settings, as well as future workplaces. The long-term goal of raising and educating children to be responsible and successful adults points toward nuanced soft skills such as:

  1. Understanding other’s points of view
  2. Confirming one’s understanding of what was conveyed in class or meetings and one-on-one interactions
  3. Clear communication, especially in writing
  4. Self-monitoring one’s own learning and behavior
  5. Developing positive extroverted behaviors such as engaging others, establishing rapport, focusing on the positive, and being enthusiastic
  6. Comportment — how one presents one’s self to others

Along with academic skills, these critically important “soft skills” that apply to everyone can increase the probability for success in education.

What we know and what we don’t know

Findings from parent interviews and surveys suggest that significant percentages of deaf and hard-of-hearing (DHH) secondary school students have trouble conversing because of misunderstandings and lack of certain social skills. When miscommunication occurs, research shows that DHH students tend to avoid asking for clarification and often are not aware any further information is needed. DHH individuals who do not develop clear communication skills, especially writing, are limited in their educational development and employment opportunities. Regarding self-monitoring, DHH students have a 3.5 to 5-fold increase in their rate of dysfunctions because of lack of self-monitoring behavior. Inadequate self-monitoring of learning affects DHH students’ mathematical, numerical, and language learning, as well as knowledge comprehension (i.e., monitoring one’s own responses and understanding, considering appropriateness, and adjusting accordingly, applying inappropriate strategies, failing to apply known strategies, etc.). Self-monitoring also involves self-analyzing how you are perceived by others and identifying what you are doing right or wrong, what you need to change and improve, followed by taking positive steps to modify your behavior.

To help younger students develop soft skills, the Brookings Center for Children and Families recommends that parents and teachers give attention primarily to behaviors that are specific, contextual and observable. The Brookings Soft Skills Report Card describes four categories of observable soft skill behaviors: 1. Social Skills (e.g., initiates interactions with others, offers positive help to peers, participates in discussions, etc.), 2. Self-Management (e.g., cooperates with others, follows rules, controls temper, respectful to others, etc.), 3. Academic Soft Skills (e.g., pays careful attention, understands and follows directions, uses appropriate study skills, produces acceptable quality of work for ability level, etc.), and 4. Approaches to Learning (e.g., enjoys school/learning, takes on challenging tasks, gives good effort/works hard, has confidence in abilities, etc.). Parents’ and teachers’ ratings of these behaviors should help to point out areas needing improvement in and out of the classroom.

Academic soft skills continue to be problematic for DHH students throughout K-12 and post-secondary education. Substantial percentages of DHH individuals entering college rank in the lower half of all students entering college for study habits (38%), intellectual interests (53%), verbal confidence (67%), mathematics and science confidence (55%), desire to finish college (84%), attitude toward teachers (70%), sociability (65%), and opinion tolerance toward others (81%). Research shows these personal factors influence DHH students’ academic performance in addition to their reading and mathematical skills.

What is not known and is less clear is how, when, or where to teach the more abstract soft skills such as conscientiousness, motivation, tenacity, grit, empathy, attitudes, and so forth. While these are equally important, they are less observable, generally not measurable, and difficult to explain or provide examples that young developing DHH children can understand and emulate.


The implications for not developing the soft skills needed to make progress at school and work are considerable. Approximately 30% of all DHH students leave high school functionally illiterate. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 40% of DHH adults ages 25-59 are not in the labor force. Employed DHH individuals ages 25-59 experience limited career growth compared to their hearing peers who were promoted to middle and senior management positions at 70 times the percentage of DHH employees. The availability of tools such as the Soft Skills Report Card, however, make it possible for parents, teachers, and students to work together to change behaviors.

Posted on July 6, 2018 by
Ronald R. Kelly
ronald.kelly {at}


John A. Albertini
jaancr {at}
National Technical Institute for the Deaf
Rochester Institute of Technology


Further reading

Albertini, J. A., Kelly, R. R., & Matchett, M. K. (2012). Personal factors that influence deaf college students’ academic success. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 17, 85-101. view details

Hintermair, M. (2013). Executive functions and behavioral problems in deaf and hard-of-hearing students in general and special schools. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 18, 344-359. view details

Kelly, R. R., Quagliata, A. B., DeMartino, R., & Perotti, V. (2016). 21st century deaf workers: Going beyond just employed to career growth and entrepreneurship. In M. Marschark, V. Lampropoulou, & E. K. Skordilis (Eds.) Diversity in deaf education (pp. 473–505). New York, NY: Oxford University Pressview details

Shaver, D. M., Marschark, M., Newman, L., & Marder, C. (2014). Who is where? Characteristics of deaf and hard-of-hearing students in regular and special schools. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 19, 203-219. view details