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News from EPI Education policy and practice should focus on the whole child: EPI paper looks at translating research on noncognitive skills into policy action

Traits and skills such as critical thinking, creativity, problem solving, persistence, and self-control—which are often called noncognitive skills or social and emotional skills—are vitally important to children’s development. In a new paper, Making whole-child education the norm, economist Emma García and Broader Bolder Approach to Education campaign National Coordinator Elaine Weiss outline why and how nurturing these skills should be incorporated into the goals and components of public education.

“There’s growing interest in moving towards formal teaching and assessment of the development of noncognitive skills, which is reflected, among other places, in the new Every Student Succeeds Act,” said Weiss. “This is an important opportunity for educators, but we must use caution, pay close attention to research, and not repeat the mistakes of the past when crafting policies that could affect children for years to come.”

There is extensive evidence linking non-cognitive skills to academic achievement, as well as benefits like productivity and collegiality at work, improved health, and civic participation. García and Weiss argue that, given the evidence that these skills can indeed be taught and nurtured by educators, developing them should be an explicit goal of public education. In practice, however, mainstream education policy has not generally prioritized developing these skills in the classroom, and neither education policies nor the organization of resources tend to be shaped to support or incentivize schools to do so.

“We are now more aware of the important role noncognitive skills play in the education, development, and lives of our children, which is a first step towards achieving the broad civic and societal ambitions we should have for public education,” said García. “This new focus has also generated many questions about how noncognitive skills can be nurtured in schools and how we can assess their development.”

The authors provide examples of how to incorporate thinking around noncognitive skills into practice—outlining research and policy initiatives needed to make these skills a core component of education. They cite ways that education researchers and policymakers can help explicitly and formally include  noncognitive skills in mainstream education, such as better definitions and measurement of these skills, broader curriculums, better teacher preparation and training, revisited school disciplinary policies, broadened assessment and accountability, and learning from early childhood education, afterschool and summer enrichment, special education, and from pilot efforts across school districts.