Academic Success More Than ABCs

February 15th, 2011

By Dr. Jim Taylor

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 common-sensical, 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 ever 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.

(This article was also posted at Dr. Jim Taylor’s Blog.)

(Visit Dr. Jim Taylor’s YouTube channel to see some of his television interviews.)

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3 Responses to “Academic Success More Than ABCs”

  1. Tom Carter |

    No doubt learning appropriate life skills in addition to, but not at the expense of, the ABCs (or the 3Rs) is essential to success in life. However, I have to wonder where the primary instruction in life skills should occur — in schools or within families. If schools teach academic subjects and students work hard and do well, things like persistence and self-esteem will be learned and reinforced naturally within children; then, if they are further reinforced at home, we’ll get the educated, well-rounded children everyone can agree that we want.

    It’s obvious that this won’t occur within some communities (an unfortunate use of the word) for a variety of reasons, so what’s the answer? Having schools replace families and stress life skills for otherwise barely educable children, to the detriment of the majority, doesn’t seem wise.

  2. Paul |

    I tend to agree with Taylor. Life skills provide the foundation that makes acquisition of a strong knowledge base more accessible and provides the children the tools for making effective use of the facts and figures [ABC’s] that they can learn in school.

    I also think that Carter misses a vital reality. Children who come to school with “social capital” -which generally correlates with higher socio-economic status- will be more likely to get attention and support in the typical educational environment. Thus carter presents a formulation for reinforcing and reproducing stratification. Programs like Head Start, which are being exerminated by the positivistic and corporatized education agenda attempted to provide some of this introduction to life skills for children who did not have the training available at home. Privileged and socio-economic elite critics argue that parents of children [usually of color] who lack such social capital do not care about education of academic success for their children. That is a disingenuous, cynical and even cruel argument that is unsupported.

    If every child grew up in a middle class economically stable home environment and was from a WASP background upon which standards, typical pedagogy and inter-social norms are based, then Carter’s formulation might suffice. But the reality is otherwise. Parents of poor children of all backgrounds lack the resources in time, money and often educational background to provide the same foundational preparation in non-academic skills that a child from a middle and upper middle socio-economic home brings to school.

    If we are serious about education, we will begin to recognize that being “school-ready” is more important that being “college-ready” as education policy in terms of both predictive outcomes and contingent “global competitiveness.”

  3. Anonymous |

    Well said, Paul!

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