Home > Uncategorized > Difficult to Measure NON-COGNITIVE Capacities FAR More Important Than Easy to Measure Academic Skills

Difficult to Measure NON-COGNITIVE Capacities FAR More Important Than Easy to Measure Academic Skills

May 22, 2016

Paul Tough’s column in today’s NYTimes, “To Help Kids Thrive, Coach Their Parents” describes research that demonstrates the importance of non-cognitive capacities developed in the first two years in life and implies that our scarce resources might be spent more wisely if we invested in coaching parents instead of teaching “academic skills” to Prekindergarten students.

Mr. Tough defines non-cognitive capacities as:

…a set of emotional and psychological habits and mind-sets that enable children to negotiate life effectively inside and outside of school: the ability to understand and follow directions; to focus on a single activity for an extended period; to interact calmly with other students; to cope with disappointment and persevere through frustration.

He then writes:

These capacities may be harder to measure on tests of kindergarten readiness than skills like number and letter recognition, but they are inordinately valuable in school, beginning on the first day of kindergarten. Unlike reading and math skills, though, they aren’t primarily developed through deliberate practice and explicit training. Instead, researchers have found, they are mostly shaped by children’s daily experience of their environment. And they have their roots in the first few years of life. When children spend their early years in communities and homes where life is unstable and chaotic — which is true of a disproportionate number of children growing up in poverty — the intense and chronic stress they often experience as a result can seriously disrupt, on a neurobiological level, their development of these important capacities.

Mr. Tough doesn’t say so, but this paragraph summarizes why the effects of poverty are clearly NOT “an excuse” for teachers who deal with the challenges these youngsters bring with them when they begin school and throughout their years in school. If a child does no know where they will be sleeping, does not know whether they will have a meal at home, does not know one or more of their parents, is unsure if their parent will be sober, is fearful of what might happen to them on the walk to and from school, there life is, by any definition, “unstable and chaotic”. How can a teacher pretend this is not the case and insist that the child experiencing this outside of school “focus” on “deliberate practice and explicit training” in cognitive skills like reading and mathematics?

Near the end of his essay, Mr. Tough describes a pre-school in Chicago that has created a “virtuous circle” in the classroom where teachers create “…a calm, consistent classroom experience for children: setting clear routines, redirecting negative behavior, helping students manage strong emotions.” But such a classroom requires more than a teacher. Mr. Tough notes that:

Mental-health professionals are also assigned to work in each classroom, but they are concerned as much with the mental health of the teacher as with that of the students… (and) the support and counsel of the mental-health professional assigned to the class helps teachers stay calm and balanced in the face of the inevitable frustrations of teaching a group of high-energy 4-year-olds.

Mr. Tough doesn’t say so explicitly, but the facts he presents makes it clear that intervention at age four is far more complicated and costly than intervention with parents during the first two years of a child’s life. And the facts he presents also make it clear that to help children raised in poverty succeed in school more that “good teaching” is required. His essay concludes with this description of the vicious circle often created when understaffed schools try to cope with the effects of poverty:

Nurturing the healthy development of infants and children, whether in the home or in the classroom, is hard and often stressful work. What we now understand is that the stress that parents and teachers feel can in turn elevate the stress levels of the children in their care, in ways that can undermine the children’s mental health and intellectual development. The good news is that the process can be reversed, often with relatively simple and low-cost interventions. To help children living in poverty succeed, our best strategy may be to first help the adults in their lives.

What we also understand is that this problem cannot be fixed by measuring cognitive skills and using direct instruction to improve those skills. It requires wraparound services for the parents and teachers— the adults in the lives of the children… and that, in turn, will require a larger investment in social services as well as schools.


%d bloggers like this: