I just read a fascinating new study published by the OECD: Skills for Social Progress: The Power of Social and Emotional Skills (2015). This study empirically substantiates much of what I have been writing about in past posts and provides considerable food for thought. This post summarizes some of its most interesting findings.
Skills beget skills, as the Nobel laureate James Heckman famously said. But not all skills are created equal. Different skills have different impacts on different outcomes.
From a cross-national perspective, three socio-emotional skills – those associated with capacities to achieve goals, work with others, and manage emotions – most consistently improve social and economic outcomes. These skills are closely related to cognitive skills. Success in school and life demands both. You can’t have one skill set without the other. Cognitive skills may get you into a good college or a good job, but it will be the socio-emotional skills that get you through college and help you improve life satisfaction.
Unraveling the association between cognitive and socio-emotional skills is tricky. And it is here where the Report makes some novel contributions. I find one to be really interesting: socio-emotional skills may activate cognitive skills. For example, in Korea, a child in the highest decile of socio-emotional skills is 7-8 percentage points more productive in producing future cognitive skills than her peer in the lowest decile. The higher a child’s level of socio-emotional skills at age 14, the greater the gains in her cognitive and socio-emotional skills by age 15. Current levels of socio-emotional skills (in this case, in 14-year-olds in Korea) matter more than current levels of cognitive skills in developing future cognitive skills (at age 15). “Children who are confident, responsible, and believe in their capacity to affect the future are more likely to achieve higher academic standards than those who are already smart (page 74).”
By shaping behavior and lifestyle, socio-emotional skills enhance outcomes along any number of dimensions – academic, social, economic. It makes sense. Take again the academic. Socio-emotional skills leverage cognitive capacities by allowing individuals to take fuller advantage of learning opportunities. Smart, but emotionally instable or socially detached kids, may not be able to make the cut where impressions are first made and learning trajectories are set: in school. Children that are calm, respectful, and emotionally stable are more able to sit, pay attention and be engaged in learning. These kids receive higher “learning investments” from parents and teachers. It’s kind of the squeaky wheel gets the grease phenomenon applied to education: kids that show interest, promise, and are motivated to learn get more investments – whether these investments include extra time from teachers or additional learning resources or opportunities from parents. The end result? More schooling and better grades.
There’s more. As I have mentioned in the past posts, socio-emotional skills are more malleable than cognitive skills. Although the evidence base remains shallow, early deficits in socio-emotional skills can be more readily compensated in later years than early deficits in cognitive skills. Socio-emotional skills are particularly malleable from early childhood through adolescence. And they can be taught – by schools, families, and communities. The most promising programs appear to share several characteristics: sequential, active and focused on real-life. In addition, as data from other projects like PRIDI make clear, a nurturing environment – that is, quality relationships between adults and children – also matters.
The evidence is compelling. It just needs to be more consistently put into practice.
The full report can be found here.