Making sure children have the academic knowledge and skills necessary for educational and career success is a hot topic these days all along the education and child development food chains. At the bottom, reform efforts have included overhauling school curricula, increasing teacher quality, reducing class size, and providing laptop computers to all students. At the top, we find parents, like the Tiger Mom Amy Chua, who are maniacally focused on straight A’s in school and virtuosity in the performing arts.
Certainly, most young people need a solid foundation of the ABCs to “make it” in the big, cruel world in which we live. Yet, as anyone who has navigated the road to a successful career knows, there’s more to success than just facts and figures. A growing body of research and my own experience are demonstrating that other competencies, namely, psychological, emotional, and social skills, may be equally important to children’s future prospects in school and jobs.
This emerging research has shown several fascinating, yet entirely commonsensical, factors that predict academic and work success. The top predictor was conscientiousness, which included dependability, perseverance, and hard work. Other contributors that were found included the ability to work with others and emotional maturity. Finally, extroversion (typically associated with social awareness and communication skills) and receptivity to new experiences were also predictors of success (one thing I love about psychology research is that it often tells us what we already know to be true).
My own work with young people in school, sports, and the performing arts suggests a number of other non-academic factors that influence achievement. They include confidence in one’s capabilities, the ability to manage stress effectively, and the capacity to focus and block out distractions. Throw in critical thinking, decision making, and conflict resolution, and you’ve got a veritable toolbox of skills that are essential for success in any walk of life (I’m sure many readers are thinking, “Duh, how obvious is that?”). If you look at exceptional performers in any field, you will find these attributes in spades. Some are born with these qualities. Others had them instilled by their parents. Still others learned them from teachers, coaches, or other mentors or role models. But in all cases, these non-academic skills were learned and ingrained early and informed and shaped successful people’s approach to all aspects of their lives.
Of course, given the specialization required for many jobs these days, young people who are entering the job market do need a substantial base of knowledge and, in many cases, specialized skill sets. At the same time, what often differentiates those who get and succeed at the jobs from those who don’t is who possesses those “life” skills. In fact, research has also shown that IQ and education become less important to career success and the psychological, emotional, and social skills gain prominence the more years people are on the job.
I can envision some readers rolling their eyes and thinking that this is another one of those classically American, and as usual misguided, attempts at building children’s self-esteem (read: make them feel good about themselves). Just hammer them with drills and tests like they do in China and they’ll do fine. To the contrary, giving children a toolbox of practical life skills is what will make them feel and actually be tough and competent, and prepared to take on the world (and that is what true self-esteem, not the feel-good variety, is really about).
A skeptic might also ask whether these skills can even be taught. Yes, certain psychological, emotional, and social qualities have been found to be inborn, for example, emotionality and extroversion. At the same time, genetics is not destiny, meaning emotional control and social skills can be learned even for those not born with the ideal predilections. And there is no evidence that other psychological attributes, such as motivation, confidence, or focus, are inborn. Instead, they all appear to be learned through modeling or some form of direct instruction.
In fact, I might argue quite convincingly that these life skills are necessary precursors to learning the ABCs. Has any person who has every achieved academic or career success on their own not had a well-stocked toolbox of life skills? Without them, children will lack the determination, persistence, and other essential tools to overcome what is for many an already challenging and unsupportive environment. This toolbox is, in fact, the foundation on which all efforts – and success — are based, whether for a business executive, surgeon, professional athlete, or eight-year-old trying to break the cycle of poor education, limited opportunities, and poverty.