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A few months ago, The New York Times Magazine (NYT) published an interesting article that discussed different educational programs that are trying to incorporate into the curriculum activities aimed at improving children’s social-emotional skills. On the IDB’s blog Quality Education Is Possible, Aimee Verdisco wrote a post in reaction to this article, reflecting on the impact of these skills on children’s learning experiences.

The argument of The NYT Magazine article is that there is compelling evidence to suggest that emotional intelligence (or non-cognitive skills) is crucial for children to reach their learning potential. But exactly what kind of skills are we talking about?

There are several different non-cognitive skills, including self-control, persistence, and self-awareness. Why do these skills matter? These skills help people to better manage their emotions and, as a result, take greater advantage of the opportunities, and experiences that occur in life. We’ve all been in situations where stress or concerns that we didn’t know how to deal with caused us to give less than 100%. Although these statements seem fairly obvious, we know very little about the subtleties behind them.

For instance, are all non-cognitive skills equally important for success in life? Some recent evidence indicates that the answer is no. One study, for example, suggests that the display of some behaviors that the authors categorized as anti-social—cheating, lying, teasing other children, etc.—matter more than inattention as predictors of academic achievement and other dimensions of success. Another publication identifies self-control during childhood as a key skill, associated with multiple dimensions of success in adulthood (from health to financial well-being and involvement in crime).

A second question is whether there are socioeconomic gradients in these non-cognitive dimensions of development. It has been documented that at a very early age, children with low socioeconomic status are at a disadvantage in cognitive dimensions such as language development. Does the same hold true for non-cognitive dimensions of development?

A third question, for which The NYT Magazine article offers less insight, relates to what type of social-emotional curriculum and learning activities prove most effective in promoting the learning of non-cognitive skills during the preschool and grade school years. Experts agree that social-emotional skills are not innate, and indeed, children benefit from intentional learning opportunities both at home and at school. But what are the best circumstances for teaching these skills? Although there are multiple curricula and programs that try to do just that—Paths, Second Step, Tools of the Mind, to name a few—there is little systematic evidence showing which of these works best.

In the region, there is a rather interesting program currently underway in Jamaica. Helen Henningham at the University of the West Indies is piloting one of these curricula and evaluating the impact of an intervention that promotes teacher training and work with children in order to improve social-emotional skills, prevent aggressive behavior and improve social behaviors. Do you know of other initiatives being implemented in Latin America and the Caribbean that focus on learning how to build non-cognitive skills at an early age? Tell us about them in Twitter or in the comments below.

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