As Matthew Heller was nearing the time of his Bar Mitzvah at Congregation Or Ami in Lafayette Hill, his father, Rob, was concerned that his son was a little shy. He sought to somehow boost his oldest son's social skills as the young man prepared for the most momentous day in his life thus far.
But as he searched for a way to do this, Heller came up short. "I couldn't find any program out there that fit what I was looking for," he said.
As he talked to other parents and friends, he found that they had concerns about their own children, and were looking for a similar tool. Because no such thing seemed to exist, the parents did what parents often do: They fashioned their own system.
So with a team of teachers, principals, and mothers and fathers, Heller — an Upper Dublin native and a graduate of Boston University — helped to create Boost Kids, a set of educational materials designed to assist children in becoming more self-assured and congenial.
The idea developed quietly, as a presentation that Heller and his associates gave at schools and nonprofits. Soon, its popularity grew, and those involved wondered how they could get this curriculum issued for home use.
Boost Kids combines flashcards, workbooks and an interactive CD-ROM to teach the same skills at home that Heller and his colleagues had taken to schools. The lessons include "Greeting People," "Eye Contact" and "Being a Good Listener."
Heller appears in video clips throughout the CD, and explains each chapter to the user. The numerous examples showcase actors demonstrating the correct and incorrect ways to handle a situation, such as saying "thank you." The assignments end with a review quiz to help the students practice what they've learned.
The 28 lessons stress two main skill sets: social interaction and strengthening character.
Heller knows from firsthand experience the importance of being socially savvy.
As president of Alpha Benefits Group, he works with the human-resources departments of many companies.
On a recent survey given to clients, Heller's company asked what percentage of an employee's career success is based on "people skills."
The answer came back as 70 percent, proving the importance of building such confidence early on.
"To me, this is the key to life, these skills," he stated simply.
Problems With Education
He spoke about the deficiencies in today's national educational system, and its emphasis on academics and not character. With the "No Child Left Behind Act," schools need to focus on instruction in order to keep their funding, he said.
Subjects such as art and music — not to mention physical education — are falling by the wayside, let alone spending classroom time to teach lessons on character and confidence.
"[Academics] only serve as the foundation," he said. "Kids, particularly today, need more than that to succeed and be happy in life."
"A key today is technology," he noted, adding that using modern devices provides a means to communicate with kids via a medium that feels comfortable. A kid is "just spending so much time communicating that way, therefore not developing the people skills the way that they used to."
Though he agreed that academics are certainly important, the lack of strong interpersonal development is quite problematic: "Parents are spending so much time pushing their kids academically and athletically. But, at the same time, you've got to provide the other skills and help them build their character."