In Defense of Nonacademic Skills

Experts, teachers and students have said that including non-academic factors into grades and not giving students second chances to learn or make progress can contribute to unfair disparities in grades.  SDUSD


The pressure was on.  If things worked out, I would be the first child in our family’s history headed on the road to a college degree.  The trip did not begin well. 

I hit a speed bump in my first year in school—kindergarten, no less.  I flunked it.  But the school district had a “second chance” policy so they let me repeat it.  Two years in kindergarten—can you imagine what that did to me, psychologically speaking?

In grades 2 and 3, I was in, what my teacher called, a “pull-out” program.   It had something to do with my reading skills.  Three times a week I left my class for an hour, walked down the hallway to another classroom greeted by another smiling teacher.  I knew I was in trouble because there were no girls in the class, just five guys.

Next, junior high school (grades 6-7-8).  My teachers didn’t appreciate students who didn’t pay attention, looked bored, never said much in class, had an attitude of “why are we studying this stuff,” and claimed no “responsibility” for these attitudes.  They “gave” me grades between C- and D-.  A quote from my 8th grade English teacher: “This is the third paper I have corrected.  I am running out of red ink.  You still have trouble with grammar, spelling, and punctuation.”

My teachers, following school policy, failed to include in my grades the nonacademic side of my life, where I know I was getting A’s and B’s (okay, at least C+s).

I worked.  To help out at home, my father got me a paper route.  I delivered the local newspaper to 110 customers, six days a week, two-hours a day, and extra-time on Saturdays collecting weekly payments in rain, sleet, snow, and the summer heat.  I also played basketball and softball in two city leagues.  I was learning non-academic stuff—how to budget, how to manage my time, how to communicate, how to be responsible (except for schoolwork), how to be patient, and how to accept the consequences for the choices I was making. 

In high school, I didn’t do much better.  I gave up the paper route in my sophomore year and took a job in a shoe-store as a “stock-boy” and, when it was really busy, I sold shoes.  (Stop here and reflect on the numerous “nonacademic skills” I was learning there.)  I learned four things—patience, perseverance, the value of discounts, and that I had no future in the retail business. 

My teachers “gave” me low grades because they were under a mandate not to consider “nonacademic factors” (my strength) when assigning grades.   Learning the subject matter was all that counted.

My grades didn’t change much, but I did get into a local college on probationary status.  (It is not what you know, it is who you know.)  To no one’s surprise, I flunk out of my freshman year.  I had eight professors—four each in my first two semesters, who gave me failing grades and no “second chances.”  (I have their names.)

On my way home to give my parents the bad news, I visited the military recruiting depot.  Then things changed—nonacademic skills paid-off. 

I want to share with you what the experts say about the relationship between learning academic content and learning nonacademic skills (character traits and social-emotional learning, for example.) 

The Aspen Institute in this report presents these “Fast Facts”:

  • Nine out of ten teachers believe social and emotional skills can be taught and that it benefits students.
  • Four in five teachers want more support to address students’ social and emotional development.
  • Seventy five percent of the words students use to describe how they feel at school are negative.  Students most commonly report they are bored, stressed, and tired.
  • Integrating social and emotional development improves students’ attitudes and engagement.
  • Supporting students’ social and emotional development produces an 11%-point gain in grades and test scores.
  • Social and emotional; skills help to build cognitive skills.
  • SEL instruction helps students learn academic content and apply their knowledge.

In Education Week, K. Brooke Stafford-Brizard, writes:

“A growing body of research, drawn from the science of child development, demonstrates the extent of the impact that nonacademic and social-emotional skills—such as self-regulation, problem-solving, social awareness, and growth mindset—have on academic outcomes and success in the workforce and in life.  If academic standards are what students must learn, certain social-emotional skills support how they learn.  Recognize that a focus on foundational nonacademic skills, such as self-regulation and relationship-building, will help to support the development of other skills, such as resiliency and agency.” 

Regarding the long-term success of SEL programs, an article in Education Next, reports that “…some schools are better at supporting students’ social-emotional development than others.  But these effects are not all the same.  Schools effects cluster in two domains, social well-being and work habits, and some schools are better at one than at the other.  Schools that promote social well-being have larger effects on students’ attendance and behavioral infractions, while those that improve work habits have larger effects on academic performance….

We find that some high schools are better than others at helping students develop healthy social lives, community connections, and the skills and habits that promote hard work and grit.  We also find that students who attend such a school are more likely to experience positive outcomes in school and after graduation, from being more likely to attend a four-year college to having less interaction with the criminal-justice system.

In a Kappan Online article, three authors report two major SEL findings:

  1. Compared to control students, students participating in SEL programs showed significantly more positive outcomes with respect to enhanced SEL skills, attitudes, positive social behavior, and academic performance, and significantly lower levels of conduct problems and emotional distress.   
  1. The higher academic performance of SEL program participants translated into an 11 percentile-point gain in achievement, suggesting that SEL programs tend to bolster, rather than detract from, students’ academic success….SEL programs managed by teachers and other school staff consistently yielded positive results, and it highlighted the role of careful program implementation in ensuring positive student outcomes.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with having knowledge about history, math, or science.  Please remember: “Knowledge keeps no better than fish.  You have to use it or lose it.”  What “keeps better than fish” are the non-academic skills that are taught, learned, and practiced in and out of school (mostly out).

I end this blog with a list of skills and dispositions that experts say people will need to function successful in personal life and in their careers.  All of items on this list should be taught in P-16 schools.

  1. Critical and analytical thinking.
  2. Inquiry Skills and design thinking methods.
  3. Problem solving skills and responsible decision making.
  4. Communication, relationship skills, and collaboration skills.
  5. Personal management, self-direction and self- awareness.
  6. Technology skills, entrepreneurship and organizational skills.
  7. Civic literacy and citizenship with a global and cultural awareness.
  8. Leadership skills with empathy, perspective, persistence and courage.

The defense rests!

Ed DeRoche, Director, Character Education Resource Center, Department of Learning & Teaching, School of Leadership & Education Sciences, University of San Diego


Also see The Other Side of the Report Card, Blog Post on January 22, 2013

And News You Can Use, December Issue, It’s About Relationships (six articles on student–teacher relationships)

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