Opinion: Non-cognitive skills make a big difference

by Dr Lisa O’Brien06 Jul 2016

I was reflecting recently on how as children we learn many of the non-cognitive skills that are needed for learning and for life.
 
I then remembered how it was that I first learnt about the importance of perseverance. I have such a clear memory of my mother helping me to learn something new, and I was struggling. So she encouraged me to keep trying by telling me the Scottish legend of Robert the Bruce and the spider. 
 
Defeated and driven into exile by the English, King Bruce took refuge in a cave where he sat and watched a little spider repeatedly try and fail to build its web on the roof of the cave. Finally the spider succeeded after multiple attempts. The spider’s persistence inspired Robert the Bruce to defeat the English and inspired me: if at first you don’t succeed – try, try again.
 
Developing skills such as persistence, motivation and confidence is important for all children in the quest to improve academic results.
 
These non-cognitive skills can make an enormous difference to a child’s attitudes towards learning and their levels of attainment at school.
 
Research shows that non-cognitive skills can influence later-life outcomes with the same or greater strength as measures of cognitive skills. A child who develops confidence in their own abilities, is motivated, able to set goals, monitor their progress and problem solve, is more likely to have greater success in their academic learning.
 
This is where the value of the role of parent as their child’s first teacher comes into play. How a parent influences a child’s beliefs about the importance of education, their confidence levels and their learning capabilities can significantly influence their educational outcomes.
 
But some children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, need some extra support from outside their inner family environment, to acquire the range of both cognitive and non-cognitive skills they need to succeed at school and throughout their lives.
 
The good news is that the skills of young people can be shaped and enhanced over time, so targeting interventions at the appropriate stage of a person’s life is important.
 
Non-cognitive skills are more able to be influenced in adolescence than cognitive skills. This explains why an effective strategy for their development is putting strong and positive mentors in a child’s path at this stage of their life.
 
This is one approach we take at The Smith Family for the disadvantaged students we support. These young people have had to overcome many barriers in their lives, including having fewer opportunities to develop non-cognitive skills compared to their more advantaged peers.
 
Many don’t have access to role models in their immediate circle that they can turn to for guidance. Through our educational support program we introduce them to mentors who can guide and encourage their development.
 
I know I was fortunate to have a strong role model in my mother. Her lessons on perseverance are still with me even though sadly she died many years ago. That simple, yet powerful tale of a King inspired by a spider continues to resonate.
 
I see this determination in so many of the students The Smith Family supports in their education. They are surmounting so many obstacles to achieve at school and are realising their ambitions through the motivation of a better future.
 
So as we weigh up our options and make decisions about which strategies to develop to improve educational performance, let’s not discount the value that can be derived from shoring up an individual’s non-cognitive skills. They are just as important as improving their abilities in literacy and numeracy.
 
 
Dr Lisa O’Brien is the CEO of The Smith Family

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