By Michelle Pratt
Often the term character is called personality traits, non-cognitive or soft skills by psychologists. The main argument is that these positive character traits make up the necessary ingredients for children’s success.
These can be described as persistence, self-control, curiosity, conscientiousness, grit, and self-confidence. Paul Tough states, “we have been focusing on the wrong skills and abilities in our children, and we have been using the wrong strategies to help nurture and teach those skills” (p.xv). He goes on to write that we live in a society that emphasizes cognitive skills—i.e., intelligence measured on IQ tests—as the primary path to success for children, with the belief that these skills need to be practised as much as and as early as possible.
Many politicians and theorists argue that this starts in children’s homes. But, while the vocabulary gap between the rich and the poor children does tend to predict lower-income children’s later-stage failure in schools and life, a group of scholars in recent years have called into question the assumptions of this thinking. This makes us reconsider the importance of non-cognitive skills from a child development perspective.
Heckman’s thinking on psychological character traits made me delve deeper into this topic. As I did this, I discovered some exciting things—particularly around curiosity, self-control, and social fluidity—as being responsible for at least two-thirds of the positive long-term outcomes resulting from the preschool intervention.
Strong parental attachment, responsiveness, and care help manage children’s stress. For developing young children who can set goals and gravitate towards them, we find next to them some marvellous parents, families, teachers and friends, or other trustworthy individuals who are committed to helping them succeed.
The virtuous character strengths in this process are self-control and willpower, motivation, grit, real-life attempt and failure, and social intelligence.
Tough says that “showing alternative solutions to problems, to think outside the box, to negotiate unfamiliar situations,” and the latter is “the ability to inhibit an instinctive or habitual response and substitute a more effective, less obvious one.”
Success for children is often used in the context of school test scores, ultimately entering university and landing an excellent job later in their lives. I would maintain the thinking that these immediate and long-shot “outcomes” are reached through the development of non-cognitive skills and character strengths. Unfortunately, the educational systems need a mechanism to help children acquire these skills. So, as parents, it matters how we help our children develop these skills.
It matters whether we remain hopeful and believe in the possibility of continuously growing through smaller-scale failures and successes. Resilience, resourcefulness, grit, and the ability to delay gratification are highly predictive of success. These qualities enable children to devote themselves to the uphill battles in life fully, and they say that it doesn’t matter how overwhelming or exhausting it is, I’m not going to give up.
Growing up in a well-resourced educational environment may provide the opportunity to develop good cognitive intelligence. Still, success may only be guaranteed or sustained when it’s matched with appropriate social intelligence.
In this regard, character or cognitive skills development is vital for all children. And they are essential ingredients even for working-age adults.
To nurture some of these non-cognitive skills, even later in life for an adult who may not have had the kind of childhood that provided for this, we could focus more on the soft skills that would maintain to contribute significantly to various success outcomes—i.e., openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism/emotional stability. But, again, universal investment in these qualities in the early years of childhood will make a difference.
Heckman J (2012/2013) Hard evidence on soft skills. Focus 29(2): 3–8
Tough P (2012) How Children Succeed