The first 5 years of a child’s life are critical for their success as adults in the labor market. Within these first few years of life (and even before birth), children develop most of their cognitive and noncognitive skills that determine the rate at which they learn and the size of the positive impact that schooling has on their lives. Cognitive skills are the “smarts” of a child. Being able to do math problems immediately and solve equations and puzzles. The non-cognitive skills, also termed their social and emotional skills, are their “soft skills,” their ability to motivate themselves, to be patient, to persevere, and to sit down to study for long periods of time.
Heckman (2008) explains that children with higher levels of non-cognitive skills are less likely to go to prison, less likely to become teenage mothers (if the child is a female), less likely to become high school dropouts, and less likely become smokers. Children with higher levels of non-cognitive skills are more likely to graduate from college within 4 years and are more likely to earn higher wages. Heckman even shows that among individuals with the lowest amounts of non-cognitive skills, any increase in their soft skills is associated with a large reduction in the probability of incarceration--a reduction greater than the decrease associated with an increase in the individuals’ cognitive skills. He finds that these non-cognitive skills are just as important--if not more important--to the later successes of children than their cognitive skills.
Of course, a child must develop both of these skills because of the relationship between the two. According to Heckman (2006)’s model of human development and skill acquisition over time, children with larger amounts of non-cognitive skills develop their cognitive skills faster. They learn faster. When they realize this, they in turn invest more in their non-cognitive skills too because they realize the complementary benefits of investing in both skills. This is dynamic complementarity: it is a virtuous cycle. And the more a child already knows, the easier it is to learn new skills! This is self-productivity.
Simply put, a child that can study for long periods of time and remain motivated to learn is going to learn faster than another child that does not. And the more the child continues to learn, the more the child will be willing to study longer, making learn even easier over time.
And there is a critical window in time in a child’s life where these skills first develop and are easiest to develop. These are the years from birth to age 8.
So how do we ensure a child develops and invests in these social emotional skills we recognize are so important for a child’s ability to learn and be successful, productive individuals--not just their cognitive skills? We provide them with nurturing, loving, and encouraging home and classroom environments. This means children are not pit against each other in competition, but they are taught to work together in teams, to share with one another, to love and care for one another, and to to be patient and working at problems step by step until they are resolved. This means we hug them, talk to them, ask them questions--if they get an answer wrong, we avoid bringing them down but guide them to the correct answer and let them understand their thoughts matter and that they should participate in discussions and conversations without the fear of feeling dumb or inadequate.
If they get into disputes with their fellow classmates, we teach them to resolve their issues not through violence but through listening, understanding, and apology.