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New Federal Focus on Building Skills for Success

What enables a 4-year-old to keep working a puzzle even when it’s hard? What about a 6-year-old who can observe tadpoles for what seems like hours, taking careful notes as she waits for something to happen? Or, the 3-year-old who keeps rebuilding his tower in different ways after it falls down, again and again?

It is the ability to focus, curiosity, and perseverance: students need these and other habits, mindsets, and skills to be successful. They are not the academic areas of math, English, science, and social studies that are often mentioned when people discuss what children are learning. These “skills for success” help to foster learning -- life-long-learning -- regardless of the subject area of focus.

Increasingly policymakers, researchers, and schools are emphasizing the importance of developing certain skills for success in students. And there should be. Last fall, my colleague, Melissa Tooley and I released a paper, “Skills for Success: Supporting and Assessing Key Habits, Mindsets, and Skills in PreK-12.” that says K-12 education should take a page from high-quality pre-K’s more holistic approach to teaching and learning. There are several reasons why. Possessing certain skills has been shown to benefit academic achievement. Some skills for success are becoming more essential for postsecondary and career settings. Many skills can be developed over students’ schooling and even into young adulthood. Finally, researchers have found that schools can actually have an effect on students’ skill development.

Lots of researchers and organizations are talking about the important role that building certain habits, mindsets, and skills in students can have for their academic learning and life success. In fact, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis recently held a webinar series on cultivating “soft skills” in early childhood initiatives, K-12, and higher education. I had the opportunity to participate in the K-12 session. One issue I raised is the lack of consensus on what to call these habits, mindsets, and skills. This issue was further explored recently by Anya Kamenetz of NPR Education in her piece “Nonacademic Skills Are Key to Success. But What Should We Call Them?” She writes, “There are [sic] least seven major overlapping terms in play. New ones are being coined all of the time. This bagginess bugs me, as a member of the education media. It bugs researchers and policymakers too.”

Another point I made on the webinar, which Kamenetz opted not to delve into in her article, was that there is an additional layer of confusion. Many of the terms, are being used by different people to describe different skills. The Harvard Center on the Developing Child is looking into this, specifically at how executive function is being defined in research and policy. I had the opportunity to attend a session earlier this year at a conference of the Society for Research in Child Development that highlighted some of their findings. Some, for instance, may use the term executive function but really just mean “self-control.” Others may use the term more broadly, referring to a complex system of self-regulatory skills. Not knowing whether researchers mean the same thing  when throwing around the same term makes it even more confusing for policymakers and practitioners who are looking for ways to develop the specific skills in children that research points to as being important.

With all of the attention on skills, it’s not really that surprising that the U.S. Department of Education is following suit. Last week, the Department’s Office of Innovation and Improvement announced a new grant competition to focus on the development of “skills for success” primarily in middle school students. In the announcement, the Office says, “We’re asking the nation’s most innovative education organizations, schools and districts to apply so that they can learn even more about how to give students these important skills. In particular, we’re focusing on middle grades – that time when students begin developing the habits and mindsets that they will take with them through life.”

The Department points to adolescence as the period in children’s lives where they may be prime to develop these skills. But it’s not actually when students begin developing skills, habits, and mindsets for success. Very early in life, children can and do begin developing the habits and mindsets for life-long success. So, the earlier the foundation is set the better. That being said, programs, curricula, or strategies to help develop skills for success in middle schoolers is surely needed. Many programs serving children ages birth-to-five make building social, emotional, and cognitive skills a priority. A number of programs targeted for primary students also exist, although for too many children schools’ fostering of these habits, mindsets, and skills drops off in first grade and sometimes as early as kindergarten.

Supporting the development of skills for success along the full continuum, birth-to-12th grade, is likely to yield the best results."