5 Core Student Success Skills 

By Laura Driscoll
Read Time:  min
The skills every student needs.

A big part of being a school counselor is helping students develop the skills they need to succeed in school and life. You can be academically capable, but miss so many opportunities for growth if you struggle to listen or stay organized. While these student success skills aren't core content, they make all the difference. This blog post will cover five must-have student success skills, plus ways to reinforce them.

Foundational Classroom Skills

In almost every classroom, it's expected that students can sustain attention, follow directions, listen, and participate. As a school counselor, you can help students develop these skills and be more successful.

The key is to be explicit. I've mentioned this simple three-step process before.

  1. Set the purpose.
  2. Do the activity.
  3. Reflect on how it went.

For example, say you want students to practice active listening in your class lessons.

  1. Tell them about active listening - what it is and isn't, and why it helps. Tell them how they will use active listening during the activity.
  2. Complete the activity.
  3. Spend about 5 minutes reflecting. How did they use active listening? When else could they see active listening being helpful?

Almost any activity will require students to focus, listen, follow directions, and participate. You can use exercises that target these directly and pair it with the Purpose-Do-Reflect approach.

Activity Ideas

  1. Play a Game of Telephone: This classic game can help students understand the importance of active listening by emphasizing how easily messages can be misinterpreted.
  2. Create a Scavenger Hunt: Make a list of items for students to find around the room or school, encouraging them to pay close attention to their surroundings.
  3. Interviews: Have students interview each other and then give a summary about the person they interviewed.
  4. Try out different ways to participate during lessons. Give students a few options that accommodate different styles, such as raising hands, talking with group members, and writing answers on mini whiteboards.
  5. Simon Says or an activity where they have to follow directions step by step to get to a result.

Helpful Resources

School Success Lesson

School Success Lessons

Five no prep 15-minute SEL lessons you can use to teach classroom expectations and self awareness skills like listening, paying attention, respect, participating, and asking for help.

Listening to others lessons

Listening Lessons

These print-and-go worksheets cover active listening, asking questions, and waiting your turn to speak.

Communication Skills

School counselors can play an essential role in helping elementary students develop their communication skills. Through various activities and exercises, counselors can help students express their thinking, ask for help, and work with others. By teaching these essential skills early on, school counselors can help students lay the foundation for successful communication.

To bring this to life in your sessions, embed these skills with simple routines. Students can share their thinking at the beginning and end of sessions. How was their week? What went well? What did they learn today?

Throughout your sessions, have opportunities to work with other students and provide feedback about their communication.

You can give them a consistent way they can ask for help. Perhaps, they use a nonverbal signal, such as a sign for help. Or try practicing how to ask for help using a simple sentence stem. "I'm confused and need some help." "I don't understand ________. Can you help me?"

Activity Ideas

  1. Give students multiple ways to communicate during activities.
  2. Practice and reinforce clear communication skills. You can give students sentence stems to help them get started.
  3. When students have a group activity, write down and display ways they can cooperate with others.

Helpful Resources

SEL Lessons on Cooperation

Cooperation Lessons

These print-and-go worksheets will have students thinking about ways they can be more cooperative with their peers through listening, encouraging, and sharing.

Communication Lessons

Communication Lessons

These print-and-go worksheets will social skills like assertive communication, speaking up, disagreeing respectfully, sharing how you feel, and not sharing everything you think.

Self Direction

So much of what makes a student successful is being goal-directed and self-sufficient. While this comes naturally to some people, students can learn these skills.

Specific lessons on setting SMART goals are a great way to engage upper elementary and middle school students. Taking it step by step, they can transform a wish into an achievable goal. In addition, when they learn a straight forward goal-setting process, they will be more likely to use it again.

Being disorganized can completely derail a student who is capable of achieving every benchmark. School counselors can support students by showing them explicit organization strategies. This makes for great lessons or techniques to share with teachers. For example, try giving students things like desk cleaning or a backpack packing checklist.

For younger students, it can be helpful to represent the tasks visually and broken down. For example, they have to get their backpack, put their folder in, and put up their chair. You would use three fingers and edit it down to Backpack - Folder - Chair. They can repeat this to themselves as they go through the tasks.

Activity Ideas

  1. Give students organization tools like checklists or visual steps so they can complete tasks more independently.
  2. Create a goal board where students can add their goals and the mini-goals they need to achieve.
  3. Practice turning a wish into a SMART Goal.
  4. Each week celebrate effort and accomplishments.

Helpful Resources

Goal Setting Lessons

These print-and-go worksheets will help students learn to choose motivating goals, break them down, and turn them into SMART goals.


Setting SMART Goals Lessons and Activities

The 15-minute lessons are broken into 3 parts: mini-lessons, group/guided activity, and independent 

Self Regulation

Self-regulation is a big one. Students who struggle to understand and manage their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors have very little chance of succeeding independently. Luckily, this is school counselors' bread and butter. You can work with students to learn and use simple calming strategies, make plans to handle stressful situations, and build their positive mindset.

Activity Ideas

  1. Have students try out different strategies and decide which ones work best for them. Then have them think about when they would use them. 
  2. Have students try out goal achieving strategies to break through plateaus.
  3. Expand student's feelings vocabulary to so they can name how they are feeling.

Helpful Activities

Calming Strategies Lesson

Calming Strategies Lesson

A small group calming strategies lesson where students will explore 24 different coping skills that will help improve their self-regulation. 

Resilience Lessons

Resilience Lessons

These print-and-go worksheets will help students learn how to reframe challenges, identify their support systems, and use positive thinking.


Building problem-solving skills is another area where school counselors are uniquely suited. Elementary students need the ability to brainstorm solutions, accept setbacks, and compromise to succeed both inside and outside the classroom.

School counselors can use a range of activities to help develop student problem-solving skills. A fun way to introduce the idea is through games that involve making decisions. These can include board games, card games, or movement games. By playing, students become familiar with brainstorming, decision-making, collaboration, and compromise - all critical elements of successful problem-solving.

Activity Ideas

  1. Any activity that involves decision making is great practice. Make sure to follow the purpose - do - reflect format and student's will be more aware.
  2. Create a peace corner in your classroom or office with visuals for conflict resolution. 
  3. Add a problem solving time to morning meeting. Give students a scenario that happened over the past week or so and have them brainstorm solutions.

Helpful Resources

Making Decisions Lesson

These print-and-go worksheets will help students learn a simple step by step process to make easy and hard decisions.

Problem Solving Lesson

These print-and-go worksheets will help students take social problem scenarios and apply a step by step process to solve common problems they face.

School counselors are uniquely positioned to help students succeed inside and outside the classroom. Teaching students how to set goals, focus their attention, communicate clearly, problem solve, and manage their feelings has a place in any elementary school. Get started helping students develop the skills to let them thrive!

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I’m a school psychologist who left her office (closet?) and got busy turning a decade of experience into ready to use counseling and SEL resources.

I live in New York City with my adventurous husband and relaxed to the max daughter who’ve grown to appreciate my love of a good checklist.

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